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Do Teachers Make the Grade?


(page 6 of 6)

Mentoring Our Teachers

If  we’re going to expect a lot out of our teachers, we need to give them the training, the tools and the support to do their job well.

Every school in Hawaii has some kind of mentoring program in place, but Lisa Johnson, a researcher with the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz who spent all of last year in Hawaii studying the situation, discovered that having a program is not the same as having an effective program. “There are a lot of teachers who are not getting the quality mentors that they need,” she says.

Johnson reached that conclusion after she went into 30 schools across the state last year, interviewing 135 new teachers, 35 principals, all of the complex area superintendents and about 15 more state-level officials. She found that while 80 percent of schools had a mentoring program, just half of them provide any kind of training for the mentors themselves. Less than a quarter of the schools evaluated their induction programs, to see whether or not they were effective.

“People at the higher levels tend to say, oh, we have a law that says there should be mentoring, and so we’re mentoring all our new teachers,” she says. “But when you talk to the teachers, you see that it’s a really complex issue, and not all of them are being reached in the ways we would like. In general, there wasn’t a lot of consistency in the training.”

Encouragingly, Johnson’s studies also show that, properly administered, mentorship programs can have a positive influence not only on teacher retention but on student performance.

She, along with the New Teacher Center (NTC), have been working with the Farrington/Kaiser/Kalani area on a pilot program that aims to do mentorship right.

At the heart of the program is a concept called “full release mentorship,” in which experienced, exemplary teachers are pulled out of their own classrooms and made full-time mentors for three years. Their new jobs are to work with 12 to 15 teachers on a weekly basis, observing, giving feedback, co-teaching, doing demonstration lessons, assessing students with them—helping each of the teachers become better faster.

The mentors themselves receive 12 days a year of intensive training to maximize their abilities.

Ellen Moir, the director of NTC, says this kind of intensive, focused mentorship is essential to making a difference in the day-to-day effectiveness of Hawaii teachers. “You can’t just bring everyone together in a room and give them some new training and then send them off and think they’re going to use it. That’s called spray-and-pray professional development, and it doesn’t stick,” she says. “You have to get into people’s classrooms, see what their needs are and really push them.”

Johnson says the numbers bear this idea out. In a recent NTC study, new teachers trained by a full-release mentor showed a measurable increase in the levels of in-class student engagement.

Ron Nozoe, superintendent of the Farrington/Kaiser/Kalani complex area, says the full-release mentorship has also significantly improved his schools’ retention rates. “Both Kaiser and Farrington used to have a pretty bad retention rate, but since we’ve put in the induction and mentoring program, our numbers have come up pretty close to 90 percent that we’re able to keep,” he says. “In just two years, we’ve really ramped up our ability to support and keep teachers.”

The biggest roadblock to expanding this program to other schools? Funding. The cost of a full-release mentor runs between $6,000 and $7,000 per teacher, a much larger expense (in the short term, at least) than asking one teacher to look out for another teacher on a more informal basis.

The Big Picture

Of course, no one believes that the gap between where our schools are, and where they need to be, will be closed by a few $6,000 mentors. In the big picture, we have a serious problem with teacher quality—defining it, retaining it, rewarding it.

It doesn’t help that the system makes it so easy to dodge responsibility. Student test scores not so good? Why not point to some other measure? Asked to evaluate the state of Hawaii’s schools, HSTA president Takabayashi says, “The media keeps saying the schools are failing because the test scores aren’t as high as some of the rest in the nation. Obviously it’s true because the numbers state so, but is the test the only way you measure student success? I think you look at attendance. It doesn’t sound like much, but students attending school shows they want to learn; they’re there.”

And if teachers aren’t hitting their marks, there are innumerable explanations for that, most centering on the multitude of things they don’t have control over: the curriculum, the quality of the students entering their classroom, the bell schedule, the teacher/student ratio, the percentage of special needs students, the engagement of parents.

Says D’Olier: “The real hard thing about that litany is, what’s whining and what’s real? That’s the sorting you have to do. Teachers by and large, and unions certainly, resist accountability. The teaching profession hasn’t accepted that we’re in a world of accountability, that it’s not going to go away. But there’s a huge amount of pushback.”

There’s also, as mentioned earlier, a model for success operating right here in Hawaii: Teach for America. How are they attracting and developing highly effective teachers? Through an ethos of responsibility.

As director Baldemor explains, “We’re big on data and accountability, and part of this is because we tell the DOE that we take responsibility to make sure our teachers will move the needle on student achievement and make academic growth with their students. We look at data; we look at results, what’s going on in the classroom, and use that to drive instruction and we hold our teachers accountable to that, so we as an organization can be held accountable to that.”

Just as TFA is accountable to the Hawaii Department of Education, so, too, is the DOE accountable to its students, to the parents of its students, and to us, the taxpayers who foot the bill for the entire enterprise.

“I’m not saying all our teachers come in as the greatest,” Baldemor says. “But the ones who rise to become the best are the ones who have the ability to continually improve their own effectiveness. They hold themselves accountable and don’t use the kids or the parents as excuses.”

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