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Programs helping schools keep experienced teachers
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An apple doesn't cut it anymore. Overflowing classrooms, smaller mandated class sizes and teachers fleeing a tough profession left Texas 40,000 teachers short in 2003, according to the State Board of Educator Certification (SBEC).

The biggest problem isn't recruiting new teachers to the profession, it's keeping the ones who've seen how tough the job can be, said Jeri Stone, executive director of the Texas Classroom Teachers Association (TCTA).

Passing the torch
Of the 420,000 people certified to teach in Texas, only 290,000, fewer than 70 percent, are employed as teachers, Stone said.

The "established" reasons for the teacher shortage are low salaries and poor benefits and working conditions, said Holly Eaton, TCTA's director of Professional Development and Advocacy in a statement to the Texas Senate Committee on Education.

"Breaking down working conditions, we know they include things like lack of administrator support, too much paperwork, student discipline problems, large class sizes and limited input into decision-making," Eaton said.

Teachers certainly aren't in it for the money, but stagnating salaries for experienced teachers are still pushing many out of the profession, Stone said.

"We've made gains for beginning teachers, but teaching as a long-term career offers little salary potential," Stone said. "In other careers, you are just reaching your peak earning years, but in teaching, that's where you flatline."

For example, in the 2002-03 school year, the average salary for a teacher with one to five years of experience was $31,876, while teachers with 11 to 20 years of experience made an average of $42,774. Mentoring programs like SBEC's Texas Beginning Educator Support System (TxBESS) help stem the tide, said Karen Herbert, a research specialist with SBEC.

Under TxBESS, mentor teachers receive training, "release time" from certain teaching duties and an average stipend of $400 a year to mentor a new teacher, Herbert said.

Not only does the program boost experienced teachers' salaries slightly, it also offers them a chance to try something new while continuing to teach, Stone said.

Rebecca Minor, a sixth-year French teacher at Taft High School in San Antonio's Northside ISD, became a TxBESS mentor after having her own mentor in the TxBESS pilot program during her first two years as a teacher.

Minor said experienced teachers are often rejuvenated after mentoring a new teacher.

"[Mentors] say 'I remember what it's like to be excited about this class or that section,'" Minor said. "They'll say they took as many ideas from the new teacher as they gave them."

As a mentor, Minor received a $200 stipend and release time during teacher in-service training to meet with her new teacher. The district also provided a substitute teacher for Minor so she could visit the classroom of the new teacher she mentored.

"I think [the mentoring program] shows that the district values the new teacher because there was a stipend involved and there was that time set aside," Minor said.

Better than one
Pairing rookies with veterans for two years improved the staying power of new teachers, according to an evaluation of the TxBESS program by the State Board of Educator Certification. The evaluation showed that 84 percent of teachers who participated in the program came back after their second year.

Seventy-five percent of the teachers who did not participate in the program returned, Herbert said. When Minor began teaching in 1999 at East Central High School in San Antonio's East Central ISD, she was mentored for two years by French teacher Katy Hurley.

"I just had a great experience with my mentor," Minor said. "She just did everything. I don't think I experienced a lot of the trauma of the first year because I had such a good experience with my mentor." Minor said Hurley helped her feel more at ease at the school.

"My high school is huge," Minor said. "There are at least 120 faculty members, so it is easy to get lost. Katy made sure I never got lost. She would sit with me at faculty meetings. She made sure I knew the rules, even the unspoken rules, because there are a lot of those."

Remembering what new teachers go through in their first year of teaching, Minor questions whether she would still be teaching if it were not for her mentorship experience.

"It's tough," Minor said. "I think that it would have been so tough that I might have reconsidered teaching. I don't like to take people's time. I feel like my problems are my problems, but Katy would make it a point to make me feel like that time was set aside for me."

Minor also said having another French teacher as a mentor was especially helpful because the two were able to share teaching strategies specific to the curriculum.

With Hurley's encouragement, Minor said she began to attend in-depth professional development conferences, became the campus facilitator for the mentoring program and eventually earned a master's degree in educational leadership.

TCTA officials appealed to the Texas Legislature for funds to continue the program, which was funded from 1999 to 2003, Stone said.

State Sen. Florence Shapiro, chair of the Senate Committee on Education, said the committee is looking at TxBESS and other ways to retain teachers already in the classroom.

"We also hope to change the trend of teachers leaving in their first five years by implementing quality mentoring programs," Shapiro said. "The success of TxBESS is hard to ignore, and the Senate Committee on Education will be looking at ways to ensure its continuance or emulate and expand the program within local school districts."

School districts may balk at the amount of money needed to provide mentoring programs, but the cost of teacher turnover is much higher, Herbert said. She estimates it takes $6,000 to replace a teacher. Stone agreed that turnover is costly, but added that the cost is not entirely financial--a lot of wisdom can walk out the door as well.

"You bring these people in, you train them and invest in them, but beyond that, institutional knowledge and teaching skill are lost when experienced teachers decline to continue in that profession," Stone said.

Experience exits
The state lost about 15 percent of its teachers in fiscal 2002, according to the Texas Education Agency. Herbert said it's not due to retirements alone.

"A lot of these teachers leave within the first five years of teaching," Herbert said. "Every year about half of the teachers in the state have 10 or fewer years of experience. As this trend continues, we will have fewer and fewer experienced teachers in the work force pool."

John Cole, president of the Texas Federation of Teachers, said that a 15 percent loss of teachers each year means that 15 percent of Texas students are in a class with at teacher who is learning to teach on the job.

"For some students, that's not a problem," Cole said. "For those students who are from a lower socio-economic status, who don't have the resources at home, such as a computer, it is the teachers who provide the difference. If the teacher is still learning on the job, the student is less likely to get that help."

Angela Freeman