Updated August 2 at 3:11pm

Coaches help new teachers settle in

By Rebecca Keister
PBN Staff Writer

When Buddy Comet, a Rhode Island teacher, finally got into his first classroom after earning his master’s degree in education at Rhode Island College, he found that all the learning and training he had didn’t quite prepare him for the reality of classroom life.

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Coaches help new teachers settle in

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When Buddy Comet, a Rhode Island teacher, finally got into his first classroom after earning his master’s degree in education at Rhode Island College, he found that all the learning and training he had didn’t quite prepare him for the reality of classroom life.

“What do you do all day with 23 7-year-olds? Part of it was just having that full experience of that whole responsibility,” said Comet, who went on to teach sixth-grade math and science at the John F. Deering Middle School in West Warwick for eight years.

“You don’t have that as a teacher until you’re in your class by yourself. You don’t have the weight of that responsibility until you’re completely alone and it is a lot, frankly.”

Comet now is one of 27 state educators working as an induction coach within the R.I. Department of Education’s Rhode Island Beginning Teacher Induction Program.

The program, now in its second of four defined years, is part of the Race to the Top Initiative, the $4.3 billion education-reform plan funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Rhode Island received a $75 million Race to the Top grant in August 2010 and is using the funds statewide, including for the beginning-teacher program.

“We have never had induction in our state. We want to make sure that our … teachers begin their career as a professional educator in a positive, high-quality way,” said Deborah Gist, R.I. Department of Education commissioner. “Our [teachers] graduate from preparation programs typically into isolation. They’re in a classroom, the door is closed, and they’re left to figure things out themselves. … A coach is someone who can be with them and provide ongoing feedback and support.”

The department said the expected expenditure for the induction program from the Race to the Top grant will be $7.26 million over four years, which works out, Gist said, to about $6,500 per beginning teacher.

In its first year, the program cost $1.7 million with 262 beginning teachers and 17 induction coaches, all Rhode Island educators who are taking a leave of absence from their regular teaching post.

For the 2012-2013 academic year, there are 412 beginning teachers.

Beginning teachers, who are in the induction program for two years, are those who have never opened or closed a school year with their own class, those who are a part of the New Teacher Project or Teach For America, those who are a second-two teacher within one of the state’s core urban districts, including Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket, or those who were hired past the deadline for identifying as a beginning teacher in the previous year.

All of the state’s traditional school districts are participating. The only nonparticipants, the Department of Education said, are the Learning Community in Central Falls and Compass School in South Kinsgtown, both charter schools, and the Rhode Island Training School within the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Each veteran teacher has about 16 beginning teachers they are coaching.

The coaches, or veteran teachers, who are subject to year-by-year appointment, go through an application and training process and then commit to spending 90 minutes with each beginning teacher per week in support time. They also provide ongoing assessments, classroom observations and other data-driven progress measurements.

“Sometimes people do confuse it with mentoring because that is something our districts do but this is a really different program because it’s intensive support,” Gist said. “[Coaches] are providing them with much more in-depth support for their instruction, their classroom management, and how to engage students and understand the curriculum.”

Part of the goal is teacher retention, though, according to the Department of Education, the state has a good track record in keeping new teachers. The department, however, has no official data to back up the claim.

Lillian Turnispeed has 39 years of teaching experience. Before she was selected in 2011 as an induction coach, she taught English at the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex.

She wanted to take part in the program because, she said, she believes that collaboration between teachers is essential for continued learning and strategic development.

“My personal goal is to see teachers grow, to become very independent in their lesson-plan development, in their student engagement and in their understanding of the teaching process,” Turnispeed said. “The major surprise is how much I’ve learned about teaching. When we collaborate, we learn from each other. I feel I will be an even better teacher when I go back to the classroom.”

Gist said surveys and collected data from the program’s first year indicated school principals feel beginning teachers have improved performance.

Comet said he has had very positive responses from his charges. His teachers, he said, are especially satisfied with lesson-planning assistance.

“What I’m hearing a lot of lately is that it’s really nice to have someone who can listen and then ask questions. It helps break this overwhelming big thing into manageable pieces,” Comet said.

Comet said he also is benefiting from the program, specifically through improved presentation skills from speaking to district school committees and superintendents.

“I’m meeting so many teachers and educators I may never have met otherwise. And everyone brings something to the table,” he said.

The program will extend into the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years.

Gist said the department realized early on that they would need to find a way to sustain the program. She and her staff are exploring “a lot of different things” to make that happen, including funding sources and how the state “currently invests in our schools.

“You’re making an investment that not only secures that the teacher is getting started more successfully but that students who have beginning teachers are having a positive experience,” Gist said. •

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