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Ellen Moir is improving learning for students—and especially underserved students—in America by accelerating the effectiveness of new teachers. She does so by building the world’s first corps of professional education mentors composed of expert teachers.
The New Idea
Ellen is filling the gap between the training teachers receive before they have their own classrooms and the skills and support teachers need to respond and thrive amidst the realities of the classroom.
Beginning with a simple premise—that the best teachers of new teachers are expert teachers—Ellen is working to establish a comprehensive induction program for all new teachers, and to build a corps of professional mentors made up of expert teachers. Through the induction program, new teachers receive one-on-one mentoring with rigorously selected and highly trained veteran teachers, tailored professional development, and a formative assessment system designed to identify specific areas of need in their classroom and to match those areas with learning goals and teaching tools that can be easily embedded into day-to-day practice. The result leads to improved teacher effectiveness and increased retention of beginning teachers in turn, producing higher student learning and performance outcomes.
The impact, however, is by no means limited to each new teacher and his or her classroom: By equipping expert teachers with the leadership capacity to effectively establish team goals, provide adult feedback, and oversee multiple classrooms at once, Ellen is building a powerful professional development ladder and the skills needed to exercise continued leadership in education. Whereas most programs rely on part-time or volunteer mentors, the New Teacher Center (NTC) model trains and equips full-time mentors, who go on to serve as principals, district administrators, and internal advocates for improved teaching practices within their schools.
With an extensive array of partners across the country and a widely acclaimed e-mentoring program, the NTC is now active in all fifty states, having served more than 1.5 million students in the last year alone. Ellen is regularly called upon by district leaders and policymakers within the U.S. and from around the world eager to start their own induction programs.
As Chair of the Education Department at the University of Santa Cruz in the late 1980s, Ellen noticed an alarming trend: Her best students were leaving the profession within the first few months of their first year of teaching. Often charged with the hardest classrooms, new teachers were made to sink or swim, and struggled when classroom realities failed to match expectations.
In addition to wasting resources, Ellen realized that the “sink or swim” mentality fueled education inequity, as it disproportionately affected underprivileged students, and deepened the achievement gap within today’s education system. Lacking clout, new teachers are typically placed in the most difficult classrooms in the highest need schools, with the result that a third of these new teachers end up leaving the profession within the first three years. As a result, many children are matched with inexperienced teachers year in and year out, or may have multiple new teachers in the course of a single year, thereby putting them further and further behind the peers in their same grade level.
There is little incentive to change the system from the inside: Having struggled through the same system to reach their current standing, principals and superintendents rarely question the approach, reinforcing the same trying environment of decades past. Where professional development does exist, it employs a one-size-fits-all approach, wherein teachers learn a series of teaching techniques and strategies to manage a classroom over the course of a few days of workshops and training. However, once back in the classroom and alone, research has found that transference is extremely low.
And while new teachers are regularly encouraged to find an admired teacher in their school willing to take on the role of coach, lesson-planning advisor and friend, these programs typically rely on after-school meetings and informal relationship-building to meet the demands of both teachers’ schedules. As a result, mentors can rarely prioritize their support of new teachers, and program quality varies widely. Without ample support not only for new teachers, but also for the mentors guiding them, such programs often fail to yield significant results.
Once in the classroom, teachers lack significant opportunities to advance. Often, the only option available to them outside of teaching is to become a principal: A task that demands an entirely new skill-set as a manager, financial overseer, visionary, and coalition-builder. Professional development for principals suffers from many of the same problems that plague teacher development—namely, an over-reliance on theory over practice, and little in the way of a peer-learning network. For those not interested in a career as a principal, the alternative is often to remain a teacher. Stuck in the same position for decades, even the best teachers can stagnate, failing to keep their teaching practices cutting edge, while losing the passion that brought them to the classroom.
Finally, the growing emphasis on teacher effectiveness in today’s education system has come at a cost, depending too heavily on standardized tests as the sole measure of teacher and student performance. In response to what was long considered an absence of effective teacher evaluation, policymakers and school boards have over-compensated, establishing standards that are impossible to meet and that encourage teachers to drill their students on math and reading at the expense of other subjects, including key skills related to teamwork, empathy, and leadership development. The result is a growing number of cases of cheating and collusion among teachers and principals to boost test scores. What’s more, many of these measures fail to effectively predict students’ long-term performance, as students are taught specifically for the test, rather than mastering the knowledge and skills they need to be effective later on.
NTC works with school districts, state boards of education, state and federal policymakers and other educators to establish a comprehensive induction program for all new teachers: In some cases, running the programs themselves while building local capacity to take it over; in others, supporting the district in an advisor role. They begin by carefully seeking out partners among larger districts with a high proportion of schools serving low-income, minority, or English-language learning students. Ellen looks for a combination of a high level of need, federal funding to pay the grants to train more teachers, and support from the superintendent and top-level leadership.
Following a rigorous selection process, expert veteran teachers are paired with a small group of new teachers. Mentors are paid by the district and serve over a three-year period on a full-time release. Recognizing that being a great mentor takes more than simply being a great teacher, Ellen places significant emphasis not merely on teachers’ development, but on that of mentors themselves. Mentors undergo extensive training, learning in the first two years everything from coaching and observation strategies and assessment practices, to the ins and outs of adult learning, and how to tailor their approach to support teachers’ specific learning styles. Ellen has built a rich community of practice among mentors, who meet weekly to share what’s working, analyze improvements and problem-solve together. By their third year, mentors take part in a series of advanced academies aimed at strengthening their leadership capabilities to advocate for better teaching and learning conditions, better district and state policies to support new teacher development, and a deeper understanding of systems change.
Through a series of interviews and classroom observations, each teacher works together with his or her mentor to diagnose what’s happening below the surface of the classroom—who their students are, what needs are and are not being met, and where their students need to grow—and to create an action plan to meet those needs. Participating teachers are also able to learn from one another, meeting monthly for a seminar series, where they also share evidence of student improvement, and work together to identify areas for further development. The model is designed to ensure that professional development services and induction programs remain results-based, and able to evolve according to areas of need. In so doing, Ellen has established professional learning communities at every level of the organization, allowing groups of teachers and administrators to come together to apply learning concepts and group problem-solve.
Normally, experienced teachers have two options: Continue teaching or become a principal. The NTC offers the opportunity to try something new, and to gain a powerful set of skills for use later on in the classroom and beyond. Alumni mentors often return to teaching and go on to serve as principals or teachers of teachers. The result is a win-win-win for students, new teachers, and experienced teachers: Students enjoy immediate improvements in teacher effectiveness; new teachers benefit from attentive one-to-one coaching and results-based teaching strategies; and expert teachers are able to take advantage of a hitherto nonexistent professional development ladder. As a result, Ellen has begun to explore the role of the NTC in principal development, establishing an induction program specifically for principals, and working with their mentor alumni network to train principals in how to calibrate assessments, give feedback, and meet other critical functions.
Ellen sought definitive evidence of the impact of their programming on teacher effectiveness and retention, in order to drive the conversation over what defines effective teaching altogether. Having identified which factors are critical to new teacher success and the accompanying components of a quality induction program, Ellen also now works to shift policy standards and improve teaching conditions at-large. Through the Teaching, Empowering, Leading & Learning (TELL) survey, she is working with school districts across the country to analyze their respective teaching conditions, and the relationship between those conditions and student performance, teacher retention, and related variables. Ellen then uses the results to design tailored training materials for those districts, so that they may use the findings to improve both teacher and student learning. Begun in North Carolina in 2002, the TELL survey has been administered in eleven states to more than 300,000 educators. Ellen and her team have worked with nearly 10,000 schools to understand the results, and improve school planning accordingly.
Today’s focus on teacher effectiveness has resulted in a powerful inflection point in her work: No longer beholden to the university for infrastructure, Ellen has been able to rigorously streamline and scale their efforts, working in concert with principals and entire districts to share and improve their talent development methodology. As a recognized leader in the field, Ellen is now working to influence the entire system through policy change and by openly sharing their model with schools and districts interested in learning more. Each year, she holds a weeklong induction program open to anyone, so that others can learn from their example. And such knowledge exchange extends to the individuals and partners they work with: Beyond the formal three-year partnership period, school districts and network leaders are invited to stay on to co-lead the Academy for Year 1 mentors.
Ellen’s focus on policy as opposed to standalone induction programs is similarly beginning to see results: As part of the national Race to the Top efforts, Ellen joined Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to incentivize the creation of formal induction programs, offering extra points to districts that inducted new teachers. Leveraging NTC’s respected position within the teacher effectiveness debate, Ellen is furthermore using the vast array of data NTC has collected over the years to distill eighty popular competencies for teachers into fewer than ten. The result, she hopes, will open the door for wider adoption and improve teacher evaluation overall, ensuring that performance metrics actually translate into improved student performance.
Today, Ellen oversees a budget of more than $20 million, allowing the NTC to support more than 7,500 mentors—and in turn, nearly 25,000 new teachers, and 3,500 new and experienced principals—each year. Working on the ground in thirty-four states, they were thus able to reach almost 1.5 million students in just one year. Through a widely acclaimed e-mentoring program, they have engaged teachers and mentors throughout the country, and have been invited to work with school districts and education authorities in Singapore, Finland, and a number of other countries.
Ellen grew up in a blue-collar family, and for much of her childhood, did not see college as a possibility. While in high school, however, her Spanish teacher—brand-new at the time—praised her work in the classroom, and pushed her to consider a career as a bilingual teacher. She recommended that Ellen go to Mexico for the summer, and helped her secure a scholarship. After she left, the two continued writing letters to each other, and at her teacher’s urging, Ellen became a teacher in 1972. The relationship left a profound imprint on her, reminding her from that point forward of the critical role a teacher can play in a student’s life, particularly those in challenging circumstances at home, or those who may have little else pushing them to excel.
Following several years as a teacher, Ellen joined the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1979, where she developed its first bilingual program and spent fifteen years directing its teacher education program. Alarmed that teacher training was all theory and no practice, she redesigned the curriculum to focus on co-teaching, creating extensive opportunities for students to learn from experienced teachers rather than merely researchers. Yet she found the problem did not end there: Often, her best and brightest students were dropping out within their first year, frustrated by the lack of support available to new teachers, and unable to control their classrooms.
For more than thirty years, Ellen has made accelerating teacher effectiveness and improving student achievement her top priority. Wanting to establish a model induction program for new teachers, Ellen founded the Santa Cruz New Teacher Project in 1988. The project went on to support more than 12,000 beginning teachers during the first two years of their careers, and gave birth to the New Teacher Center in 1998.