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Teachers as Leaders and Learners Grant (TALL)

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Rider University, in an effort to increase the retention rate among new teachers, has received grant funding to develop and administer a program called Teachers as Leaders and Learners (TALL), whereby teachers in the Freehold Borough and Howell Township school systems are receiving advanced-level training to mentor their less-experienced colleagues.

The “Building Teacher Leadership Capacity to Support Beginning Teachers” program, as TALL is officially known, is 100% federally funded from the Improving Teacher Quality Partnership (ITQP) Title II, Part A, Subpart 3, of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), and aims to improve support for beginning teachers in New Jersey. The goal is that the learnings from this pilot program can be adapted by other schools throughout the state to set up similar mentoring programs.

“There is tremendous turnover in the teaching profession, especially in the first five years of an individual’s career,” explains Deborah Cook, an adjunct professor at Rider who is the Project Director for the TALL grant. She adds that while teachers receive excellent training at the university level, the mentoring process needs to continue after they begin working in the field.

Now in its third year, TALL is working with 16 mentor teachers from Freehold and Howell to provide them with the advanced training to better serve their peers. The teachers have been taking graduate-level courses at Rider focused on coaching and mentoring, special education, ELL (English Language Learners) and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), as well as taking part in an ongoing professional learning book study series.

The teachers also took part in a five-day series of workshops with instructional coaching expert Jim Knight. They are now using the strategies they learned from these workshops in their roles as reading coaches, literacy specialists, and district mentors. In addition, they are continuing their professional growth through an online book study group that focuses on the importance of effective communication in mentoring. The teachers are using Dr. Knight’s book, Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other to Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected, for the book study.

During the 2016-17 academic year, Rider established a post-baccalaureate residency program, Teach First Class (TFC), at Freehold Borough, for professionals interested in becoming teachers. The nine TFC career changers took classes at Rider and shadowed teachers in Freehold Borough during the fall semester. Those eligible for student teaching were placed in Freehold Borough with cooperating teachers participating in TALL. Thus, the mentors who were part of TALL were able to hone their skills by working with the TFC residents. As a result, the cooperating teachers and others in the TALL program are better positioned to work with beginning and novice teachers.

The TALL participants are now in the process of working with their district administrators to implement the practices they developed during the grant period and ensuring that these leadership models will be sustained in future years.

While the program is still ongoing, there is already preliminary evidence of the impact TALL has had thus far. A new creativity surrounding policy development of novice teacher mentoring programs has emerged, and schools are implementing policies and programs that were either directly a result of TALL, or were inspired by their participation.

One example of a change resulting from TALL is Howell Township’s new-teacher orientation process. Every August, a cohort of first-year staff begins what they’ve termed the “New Staff Academy,” which spans four years. This replaces their former new staff orientation, which lasted for three days in August and was followed by a one-year mentoring experience. Where the prior orientation gave novice teachers guidance on mostly administrative topics, now the New Staff Academy and multiple meetings throughout the year take a much deeper dive into the practice, speaking to such things as communication skills useful for meaningful interaction with parents.

Jacqueline Moore, Supervisor of Professional Development/State & Federal Programs for Howell Township Public Schools, says that while it’s too soon to have data showing the impact of TALL and the New Staff Academy, the anecdotal feedback from the new teachers has been “very, very positive,” adding that the teachers, “feel more aware and informed of methodologies and practices, and better supported in decision making. They also have a better understanding of where to go for guidance and coaching.”

Samuel dela Cruz, Director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Freehold Borough School District, also sees many benefits. “We now have more District Mentors who have leadership training to be more effective in their roles. In addition, we now have teachers who exhibit their leadership skills through their participation in various committees at both the district and school level. For instance, our Mentoring Program Plan and District Professional Development Plan are now more comprehensive and substantial in helping the district achieve its goals.”

An added benefit of the TALL program is that not only has it aided new teachers, but it has also proven valuable to the mentor teachers in furthering their professional development. “It’s provided a structure through which teachers have been able to develop into leaders,” says Ms. Moore. “It’s helped develop a culture where teachers start to see themselves as instructional leaders and experts as opposed to more passive practitioners. So rather than taking direction from a manual, they employ a decision-making process based on their training in the profession.”

One of the major objectives of TALL is to develop a successful mentoring model that can be replicated by districts statewide. Key learnings and data gathered over the three years of the grant period are currently being analyzed and will be compiled into a mentoring toolkit that will be accessible on the New Jersey Department of Education website. In addition, Rider will be hosting a conference on May 3 to share and discuss the findings.

Rider University Mentoring and Induction Toolkit (PDF)