Marie Costanza will never forget one particular colleague from her early days as a teacher mentor. The first-year teacher was trying his utmost, but he could not handle the kids, and his classroom was becoming increasingly chaotic. In fact, the young teacher's career was in jeopardy. "I could see that he truly had the heart for teaching, but he just didn't have the technical skills," Costanza says.
So she got to work, passing along suggestions. Costanza established a trusting relationship with him, becoming a font of wisdom, rather than an antagonist. "I am just here to serve as a mirror to you. I am going to watch, and reflect what I see," she told him.
By the end of the year, the young teacher, who was on the brink of having his career in education slip away, was getting positive reviews from administrators. There are teaching success stories like this every year in Rochester, thanks to its peer review program, which Costanza now directs.
A Collaborative Approach
A lot of teachers have horror stories about their first year on the job. Overwhelmed by the triple threat of demanding administrators, children in need and interested parents, many teachers don't survive the initial baptism of fire. Rochester has taken tangible steps to remedy that.
A collaborative approach that motivates teachers to take charge of their profession is key to their success, says Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.
Urbanski developed Rochester's peer review program back in 1986, well aware of the controversy a similar effort had endured a decade earlier. When Dal Lawrence, president of Ohio's Toledo Federation of Teachers, came up with the first such program, it sent rumbles through the profession. "It was a huge, unheard of heresy. There was absolutely no precedent for teachers being involved in teacher evaluations," Urbanski says. "Dal Lawrence was country when country wasn't cool."
Yet, administrators hadn't always been up to the task of helping new teachers blossom. "Supervisors' evaluations were so perfunctory that you would have to commit a heinous crime in a large crowd to be let go," Urbanski says.
Rochester's program works in two ways. Its most extensive application concerns new teachers. Each rookie is assigned a mentor to help in lesson design and classroom management--as well as to be an overall sage. Veteran teachers who may have lost their way can also get help. "Nobody knows the difference between good teaching and bad teaching better than good teachers themselves," Urbanski says.
The mentors are like doctors, using a surgical approach to correct any deficiencies in a teacher's body of work. "They take a thoughtful, analytical approach, rather than a sledgehammer approach," he says.
If a first-year teacher, called an intern, doesn't develop the right skills, he could potentially be fired, Urbanski says. On the flip side, these teachers have a level of support and encouragement that they might not ordinarily have under a regular teacher career path.
Mentors are chosen by the district's Career in Teaching Program panel, comprised of six teachers and six administrators. To accommodate a four-person mentoring load, mentors' own classes are reduced by half. Mentors are also given a stipend of 10 to 20 percent of their salary.
A pool of 200 teachers is available for mentoring duty, although not all are available during the same school year. In any given year, as many as 20 mid-career teachers and 600 first-year teachers undergo peer review. Positive evaluations result in moving more quickly to the other career development stages established in the district--resident, professional and lead teacher.
Reviewing Peer Review
As Rochester's program continues, so does the national debate about the value of peer review. A 1999 Education Policy Institute study claimed "no credible evidence that peer review results in a higher level of teacher competence in peer review districts." In fact, the study associated these programs with high costs, potential legal issues (as teachers attempt to take on traditionally managerial functions) and an undermining of the role of principals in evaluating teachers.
Urbanski asserts that the process is only controversial where it doesn't exist. When there's trust between the union and the administration, it can work, Urbanski says.
And it appears to be working in Rochester. There are two main results of the program--more first year teachers are let go and fewer teachers who are retained leave teaching. Rochester's teacher retention rate is up to 90 percent, well over the 65 percent margin recorded before peer review was indoctrinated, Urbanski says. He adds that between 70 percent and 80 percent of veteran teachers who undergo peer review save their jobs.
The peer review debate is irrelevant to Matt Lewis, a first-year, eighth grade math teacher at James Madison High School of Excellence. In his experience, it has been nothing but a success--and he describes his mentor, Christine Grose-Moynihan, as exceptional. Her support, he says, "is a big reason why I am having a good year."
Grose-Moynihan, who has been with the district for more than 20 years and teaches at School of the Arts, meets Lewis twice a week and is available at all hours of the day. If he has a bad day, she is there. By all accounts, they are an example of how the program is supposed to work.
If Lewis has a classroom management issue, or if a lesson he implements goes slightly awry, his mentor is there. "She always [tells] me to hang in there," Lewis says.
Grose-Moynihan has had hundreds of success stories in her nine-year tenure as a mentor. When she works with young teachers, she is reminded of her own first-year struggles. "They need someone who is understanding and empathetic to what they are going through," she says. "My first experience was very different. Had I had a mentor it would have been [better]."
Grose-Moynihan even finds that mentoring improves her own classroom skills. Through her young charges, she is in tune with the newest innovations in the profession. "I've begged, borrowed and stolen [ideas] for my room. After asking [the teacher], of course," she says.
Protecting the Craft
Peer review has come a long way in the district. Costanza, who has taught there for 27 years, says she remembers, in the early days, "a wall between the administrators and mentors. It was because there was a lack of understanding about what each of their roles would be."
As time passed and teachers who had gone through the process rose through the ranks, peer review took a firm root in the district, Costanza says.
Teachers have had the chance to grow in their profession. At the same time, proving themselves through peer evaluations helps in debunking some of the common myths about teaching--such as that it's somehow easy and that educators are only interested in having summers off. It provides a sense of pride and ownership in the field. Costanza sees it this way: "I think we are guarding the whole craft of teaching."
Steven Scarpa is a Shelton, Conn.-based freelance writer.