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Texas Master Teachers to join UT Austin College of Education mentoring plan aimed at ending state’s K-12 teacher attrition crisis

Her classroom walls remained bare, an achromatic isolation that always made her feel like she was running, running, running. In her first year as a teacher, Odilia Garza was very alone.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Her classroom walls remained bare, an achromatic isolation that always made her feel like she was running, running, running. In her first year as a teacher, Odilia Garza was very alone.

Fast forward nine years.

Hilario Alvarado, now completing his teacher training at the UT Austin College of Education, reports to a Master Teacher as an early test case for an impending major mentoring initiative battling new teacher attrition — the TIES Progam, or Teacher Induction & Education Support.

Twelve highly energetic 4-year-olds — all enthusiastic bilingual pre-kindergarten students welcome him at T.A. Brown Elementary in North Austin — darting quickly in front of classroom walls rioting with warm colors, engaging lesson plans and oversized student names: Homero, MariCarmen, Mireya, Diego. . . .

Odilia Garza has survived well.

Now recognized as a district-wide role model, her classroom could easily appear on national television — only all the materials were purchased with her own money.

“It takes years, really, to become good at teaching,” she says, “and it’s very important to share your proven experience with new teachers. . . .they will inherit classrooms with bare walls and no materials, just like I did. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you: ‘The first three years are absolutely the hardest.'”

Last month, Garza won the statewide Carolyn and Mario Benitez Teaching Award, named after two prominent Texas educators. The honor was presented at an annual two-day conference, co-sponsored by the UT Ex-Student’s Association and the UT College of Education, which recognized 10 secondary and two elementary instructors in the “Texas Excellence Awards for Outstanding Teachers.”

But for Alvarado, who hopes to run his own classroom next year, Garza is a wonderful feedback source for his untested new ideas. “Don’t worry,” she tells the 36-year-old, who switched from a successful business entrepreneurship in San Antonio — starting his own cosmetology college and day care center — to pursuing second career fulfillment in special education. “We’re both learning together.”

Next year, she hopes to mentor a newly produced UT College of Education teacher assigned to a classroom at T.A. Brown Elementary.

The test case partnership between Garza and Alvarado foreshadows the TIES Program. Funded partly by a $400,000, three-year startup grant from The Meadows Foundation of Dallas, new teachers will be paired with Master Teachers across Texas.

The UT College of Education solution joins other pilot programs nationwide, aiming to staunch the flow of new teacher attrition which now claims more than half of all new teachers within their first five years. Texas already faces a 2001 teacher shortage crisis as it attempts to fill about 40,000 new vacancies; nationwide, more than 2.5 million new teachers will be required in the next decade.

UT’s College of Education already has hired Dr. Anne Bustard, who has specialized in field-based teacher preparation for the last six years, to coordinate new teacher matches with the more than 200 winners of Texas Exes’ Teacher of the Year honor. Ten high school instructors have been named yearly since 1987; elementary school teacher awards began in 1995.

“My new job symbolizes the reality of American education reform shifting to the most important factor of all — teachers,” said Bustard, who also helped found one of Austin’s leading children’s book stores, Toad Hall.

Bustard’s TIES Program formally begins this September, but now she is creating an electronic communication network that will allow UT’s new teachers to interact with one another, College of Education faculty and Master Teachers.

Her 12-hour days also will help TIES to offer statewide distance learning workshops at the College of Education’s state-of-the-art facilities, emphasizing two-way interactive video for new teachers. An annual conference will invite these teachers and their mentors back to campus after the first two months to discuss problems with all the participants.

“All the studies point out that the teaching profession needs to develop a systematic method of inducting beginners gradually into a complex job that demands hundreds of important management decisions every day,” explains Bustard.

The TIES pilot program also mirrors impending changes from the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, which will emphasize both mentoring and assessment practices for all new Texas teachers — and ultimately link their performances back to the colleges that produced them, as well as eventually analyzing their students’ TAAS scores.

“We believe that mentoring our teaching graduates in their first one-to-three years (induction) will help them to become even more successful teachers,” says Dr. Larry Abraham, associate dean for teacher education and student affairs at UT Austin’s College of Education. “They will be better teachers, they will have higher self-esteem, and they will teach longer.”

Even though SBEC will be evaluating pilot mentoring programs for a three-year period, the move recognizes that selecting and training master teacher mentors — along with paying stipends — ultimately must pass legislative approval.

“Talented new teachers are high maintenance,” says Abraham. “If you don’t give them support, but do instead assign them the worst case scenarios of rookie teachers — you kill their dedication and spirit. It prevents them from becoming the great teachers that they want to be, and not surprisingly, too many leave in frustration.

“Everyone with an interest in education believes they have the perfect idea to improve our public schools, ” he adds, “but each depends on good teachers who can positively affect the K-12 pipeline. We hope to make TIES a national model.”