Editor’s note: This is a continuation of an ongoing series, Your School, that examines what is holding back teachers, principals, parents and communities from helping students realize their full potential, and aims to hold up promising efforts that other places might learn from. Along the way, please write to us with questions and ideas for coverage at mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

More than any other factor at school, teachers are the key to improving students’ academic performance, according to well-established research.

But it’s difficult to know precisely what makes a great teacher. “No one knows the answer to that, but it is a topic of discussion going back throughout the history of education,” said Stephen Abbott, director of public engagement at the Great Schools Partnership.

But there are a number of steps states could take to fortify their teaching workforce. Here are three areas where they could focus.

Teacher preparation

How well teachers themselves are taught can set up their future success in the classroom. But Maine’s 16 state-approved education degree programs are all quite different, meaning there’s a greater risk not all graduates will be ready to teach.

For example, just seven of the teacher preparation programs in Maine required a minimum grade point average for admission in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Of the 12 schools that required a minimum GPA to graduate, seven set it at 2.5, the equivalent of a B-minus.

The schools also required that their students spend varying amounts of time getting classroom practice. In 2016, Colby College in Waterville required the fewest student teaching hours — 250 — while the University of Southern Maine required the most, 936 hours, or the equivalent of a full school year.

A full year of student teaching better prepares USM students for what they’ll encounter in local schools, said Amy Johnson, assistant director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at USM.

It “gets the school district people much more involved,” Johnson said. “So there’s a little bit more opportunity to make sure that you learn the things the district wants you to learn.”

Support for new teachers

There’s no way teachers can learn everything before they take on a full-time teaching job, so it’s important for the schools that hire them to support them through their transition, which can take a few years and is when the risk of attrition is greatest.

“No matter how great of a job you do with teacher preparation, during those initial two years is when teachers do a lot of learning about how to be a teacher,” Johnson said.

Beginning teachers who receive help such as mentoring tend to stay in their jobs longer, have higher job satisfaction, more effectively manage their classrooms and see their students earn higher scores on achievement tests, according to a 2011 review of 15 studies examining the effects of different strategies for supporting new teachers.

Maine schools are supposed to pair their new teachers with mentors. The requirement isn’t ironclad, but “it is generally understood that there is an obligation to provide mentors for new teachers,” Johnson said.

New rules the state Department of Education has proposed for Maine schools would make coaching a more formal requirement: They would require all teachers new to a district, regardless of their experience level, to have a peer mentor for at least one year.

The help new teachers currently receive depends heavily on where they teach, which became clear from a recent BDN Maine Focus survey sent to teachers through the Maine Education Association and taken by more than 50 educators.

One teacher said support as a new hire was “limited unless I sought it out from colleagues.” Another also described it as minimal: “3 veteran teachers observed my classroom each one time and provided written feedback.” Another teacher described having a mentor program that “probably wasn’t the most effective, but it was better than nothing.”

Some said they had a mentor for one year, others for two years. Some said they did not feel supported by their administrators. Others did.

“In my first year, I had an excellent administrator who checked on me regularly as did my department head. In my second year, I had an assigned mentor I could call on, but we did not talk much. Every year, I have had excellent peers/colleagues who are always willing to talk about issues, strategies, and new methods,” said one survey participant.

School leadership

The quality of school leadership can have a significant influence over teachers’ job satisfaction. Administrative support, or lack thereof, is “the factor most consistently associated with teachers’ decisions to stay in or leave a school,” concluded a study by the Learning Policy Institute, an education research organization.

Administrators have control over many things, such as hiring, instruction and professional development. Equally important, they set the tone of a school.

“Most researchers would say effective teachers are affected very significantly by the school-level culture, and that’s where leadership comes in,” said Gordon Donaldson, professor emeritus of education at the University of Maine.

Research shows it takes about five years for principals to fully apply new practices to improve staff and student performance. But in Maine, about half of all principals leave their positions before completing five years.

Recruitment and retention of principals, then, become important for the recruitment and retention of teachers, as high rates of turnover among principals tend to correspond with an increase in teacher turnover.

“Not having quality principals certainly is a huge factor in whether or not you can keep quality teachers in a school,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of research about how teachers care as much about school culture as they do about salary.”

Experts point to principal mentorship programs, consistent state standards for what principals should be able to do, and training for district staff to become principals as some ways to bolster states’ corps of principals and reduce turnover.

What teachers say

The BDN survey asked Maine teachers about the conditions in which they are most effective.

Many teachers said they seek the basics: time to spend with students and devote to lesson planning, support without micromanagement, respect, opportunities to discuss student work with other teachers, encouragement to try new things, adequate supplies, collaboration as part of a team, a principal who pays attention to what’s happening in the classroom, and feeling appreciated.

A telltale sign as to whether teachers are actually being effective is how they take responsibility for student achievement, said David Silvernail, director of USM’s Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation.

“If kids aren’t learning something, who do they turn to for explaining that?” he said. “Some teachers will blame the kids: ‘The kids didn’t study. The kids don’t have a good home life, or they don’t care,’ versus teachers who say, ‘I must not be doing something right because I’m not getting to that child and helping that child.’”

Some respondents reflected that sentiment of “no excuses” in the survey.

“There are no preconditions to make an effective teaching situation,” said one teacher. “One must accept the situation and adapt to meet the needs of the students involved.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Read the rest of our Your School series here.

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Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is the editor of Maine Focus, a team that conducts journalism investigations and projects at the Bangor Daily News. She also writes for the newspaper, often centering her work on domestic and...