Teachers in Schenectady and Amsterdam city school districts will be looking for ways over the next three years to help make their new teachers more sensitive to the needs of their students.
They will be eyeing changes to mentorship program for new teachers and look for ways to better prepare young teachers for issues of race and social justice they will face in their classrooms.
The changes will be supported by a three-year, $322,000 grant from the National Education Association and will operate as a pilot that could be replicated in districts across the state. Kingston school districts are also part of the grant progam, with funding split among the three districts.
“We are trying to empower early-career educators and transform the mentoring experiences for our teachers, which will in turn transform the experience for their students,” said Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, which is helping facilitate the grant.
Union leaders and other teachers will work with district administrators to build on existing new teacher programs. The district team will spend the rest of the school year asking new and experienced teachers what does and doesn’t work in the existing mentor program. The second year will be focused on implementing those changes, and the third year will look to disseminate what was learned from the project.
“We are trying to get our new members acclimated to these are our students, these are their needs,” said Juliet Benaquisto, president of the Schenectady teachers union.
Benaquisto said new teacher training programs focus largely on the logistics of operating as a teacher in a new place — how to operate student information systems, enter grades, find the cafeteria. Those programs don’t spend as much time on the “meaty stuff” like helping new teachers better understand the background of their students and consider how that manifests in classroom behavior.
“We have kids who live in poverty and who have experienced significant trauma and how that impacts the kids,” Benaquisto said. “It’s a lot for our new members, especially folks who haven’t taught before there is a whole lot you have to digest in that first year.”
A team of researchers from the University at Albany will help develop the improved mentor programs, while also analyzing and evaluating whether the programs are effective.
Kathryn Schiller, a UAlbany researcher, said there isn’t a lot known about how new teachers and their mentors communicate about race and social issues that undergird much of what goes on in a classroom.
“How do they talk to each other, especially about the difficult things they encounter in the classroom?” Schiller said.
Schiller said many teachers come from middle-class backgrounds that might be far different from the backgrounds of their students, so it’s important for any new teacher program to help teachers understand the realities of their students’ lives.
The program is also seeking to address a major challenge in education: how to retain teachers early in their careers in districts across the state. That challenge will become ever more pressing as a teacher shortage continues to worsen.
“When teachers are supported early on in their careers — truly, really supported — they will stay,” DiBrango said.