Caitlin Tchaikowitz, a fifth-grade teacher at P.S. 35 in the South Bronx, sat in a circle with colleagues from her district one snowy afternoon last week and told them about the time she helped save a first-year teacher.

Observing the new fourth-grade teacher’s lesson one day, she had noticed that just two of 13 students actually did their work during partner time, Tchaikowitz told the other teachers in her mentor-training program. She thought to herself: These kids aren’t learning.

After an assistant principal observed the teacher and was alarmed, Tchaikowitz asked for some extra time to help her mentee. The two met during lunch, free class periods, even during their morning commute. They planned lessons together, talked about classroom discipline, and practiced speaking in a firm teacher tone, with Tchaikowitz playing the role of an inattentive student.

When Tchaikowitz returned to her mentee’s classroom a month after that first lesson, she now found that 11 of 12 students were doing their work.

“To find that one little point of growth was exactly what she needed at that point,” Tchaikowitz told the group, adding that the teacher soon received a positive evaluation from her principal. “It’s like she’s built back up from a point where she was very, very low.”

District 9 teacher-mentors swapped stories during a recent training.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 9 teacher-mentors swapped stories during a recent training.

New teachers, or at least the frazzled novices who feel under-trained and overwhelmed, pose a challenge for the entire school system: More than a third leave within their first five years, according to a report last month by the city teachers union. The problem is even more acute in an area like the Bronx’s long-struggling District 9, where P.S. 35 is located and where there are more new teachers and greater turnover than in most districts.

Tchaikowitz and the 75 other teacher-mentors in her training program represent one answer: Train skilled educators to coach their new colleagues as a way to improve the mentees’ craft and make them less likely to quit, while at the same time sharpening the mentors’ skills and giving them a taste of leadership.

While the District 9 program is funded by the city and in tune with the schools chancellor’s focus on teacher training and collaboration, it was hatched outside the system through an unusual partnership between a nonprofit teacher-training firm, a parent advocacy group, and the local superintendent. If it works, officials said it could be spread to other parts of the city. But for now, the idea is for the South Bronx district to harness the power of its best educators to lift their peers.

“You’re what’s going to turn this district around,” Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario told the mentors last week before leading them in a District 9 cheer. “You’re the engine and the gas that’s going to move this wonderful work.”

The plan to turn District 9’s top teachers into mentors started with the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, or PAC, a two-decade-old South Bronx advocacy group that published a 2013 report calling on Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to prioritize the chronically low-performing district. (Last year, its state math and English test scores were far below the city average, as was its graduation rate, and it is home to 13 of the 94 struggling schools in the city’s new turnaround program.) One of the group’s recommendations for the new mayor was to create a mentorship program for the district’s many novice teachers.

Many district parents have watched new teachers receive little support as their classrooms spiral out of control, until sometimes they “got desperate and would explode,” PAC member Karen Jimenez said through an interpreter. The district has a way of churning through such teachers, she added.

“There are many new faces,” said Jimenez, whose children attend P.S. 114 and KAPPA middle school, “and they don’t last long.”

New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit that trains teacher mentors, saw the parent group’s report and proposed a partnership. Together, they approached the city education department, which agreed to provide a $265,000 grant that would let any elementary or middle school in the district send teachers to the trainings.

Out of about 50 such schools in the district, 45 chose to participate in the mentor program, with 43 also opting into a separate but related training series for school administrators. The goal is develop a common approach to teacher development in those schools, while giving seasoned educators some leadership experience and staving off the exodus of overwhelmed novices, said Thandi Center, New Teacher Center’s New York City director.

“These schools are bleeding teachers,” she said, adding that the schools could retain more of their new hires if they had help supporting them, since many schools don’t know how best to do that.

Dianne McNamara, a New Teacher Center presenter, leads a session for the District 9 teacher-mentors.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dianne McNamara, a New Teacher Center presenter, leads a session for the District 9 teacher-mentors.

Following state law, the city requires first-year teachers to be mentored at least two periods each week by experienced educators in their schools. (The city stopped sending full-time mentors to schools several years ago.) While the education department offers optional training courses for those part-time mentors, some teachers say the mandated help can amount to brief observations and informal chats.

“It felt more like a compliance thing,” said Fatima Jernigan, a seventh-grade teacher at M.S. 145 who is part of the training program.

The District 9 mentors, who are not paid extra for their coaching, attended eight full-day trainings and four half-day sessions. They learned how to gather valuable data by watching their mentees in action and scouring their students’ work, how to guide a new teacher toward solutions without feeding them answers, and how to build trust so that the mentees would welcome their feedback rather than resent it. Members of the Parent Action Committee led one session in Spanish — it was translated into English through headsets the teachers wore — about how to team up with students’ families even when they speak different languages.

Education department officials called the District 9 mentor trainings a pilot program, which they will evaluate after this year to decide whether to continue it in that district and perhaps expand it to others. They added that the early feedback from the educators and parents who participated has been positive. New Teacher Center already has it sights set on two other districts that struggle to attract and retain new teachers.

Tyson Strang, a literacy coach at J.H.S. 22 who works with 18 first and second-year teachers, said the training has given him the right words and approach to push his mentees forward. That is essential in a district where most students are behind academically, he added.

“Every second is extremely important,” he said to his fellow mentors last week. “These teachers need to be effective now.”