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Greenville Business Magazine

A strong mentoring program is key to addressing low teacher retention rates

By Erikah Haavie

As a first-year educator assigned to a fifth grade classroom, Audrey Neumann worried about classroom management and finding a balance with structure and discipline. She had to learn how to refer her students for extra academic help.  At times, she found it daunting to communicate with parents effectively.

"There was a lot of behind the scenes work that was unexpected and challenged me during my first year,"said Neumann, who teaches at Roebuck Elementary School in Spartanburg District 6. "I was nervous about what parents would think about their children having a first year teacher."

Neumann wasn't alone in her feelings as a rookie teacher. For some, the combination of teaching responsibilities coupled with low pay proves to be overwhelming.

According to a 2018-2019 report by the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement, 25 percent of new teachers left their positions during or at the end of their first school year in 2017-2018 and are no longer teaching in a South Carolina public school. Thirty-five percent of teachers who left had five years of experience or less. 

Furman University continues to work to provide present and future educators at the undergraduate and graduate levels with strong foundations as new teachers by combining classroom learning with real world experience through the Furman Advantage. The goal is to help students find short- and long-term success in their chosen career paths.

The university is launching a one-year Master of Arts in Teaching program in the spring of 2020, designed for students who've previously earned bachelor's degrees in fields including math, science, English and foreign languages and want to certify to teach.

Furman's Education Department continues to build on the success of its nearly 20-year-old Teacher to Teacher Residency Program, the first residency program in South Carolina, to provide 18-month-long experiences in public schools for teacher candidates during their senior year and continuing into a fifth year. During that time, teacher candidates work closely with both classroom teachers and Furman faculty in partnering with school districts. 

Furman mentors teach alongside students and model best practices. They help students set up their classroom libraries and plan lessons with effective teaching strategies to meet the needs of a wide variety of learners. Depending on where they are in Furman's program, first-year teachers receive at least 15 hours of direct mentoring each month in their new classrooms.

Furman teacher-mentors also play crucial roles as sounding boards for new teachers. "They may call us to discuss a situation that happened during the day and ask, ‘How do I approach that?'"said Shameera Virani, a Furman alumna who now coordinates the Teacher to Teacher program. "Our goal is to provide new and future teachers the hands-on support they need to navigate the waters."

The additional time spent in the classroom with multiple mentors has paid off for Furman alumni and their partner schools. Of graduates who completed Furman's program five years ago, 91 percent are still teaching, with 60 percent teaching in South Carolina classrooms and the rest in other states. Principals in residency partner schools report that 93 percent of residency graduates who have taught three to five years scored at the proficient to exemplary level on rubric-based evaluations of their teaching, according to Furman's Michalann Evatt and Scott Henderson.

The support from Furman faculty and her colleagues made a huge difference for Neumann, who is now in her fifth year of teaching fifth grade at Roebuck Elementary, the same school where she also student taught as part of the residency program.

"Having the support of the Furman mentors allowed me to learn that all teachers are still learning, and no teacher is perfect,"said Neumann, who is now mentoring Furman students herself. "I work on a team with five other amazing teachers who support me and push me to be my best. They are a source of strength and support for me, and I couldn't imagine working with anyone else."

As part of her role with the Furman University Education Department, Erikah Haavie plans professional development workshops for local educators as part of the Upstate Schools Consortium. The Education Department is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this school year.