Can Coaches Thwart Teacher Turnover?

A little one-on-one classroom mentoring goes a long way toward keeping educators in the game, giving them the confidence to succeed.


Whitnee Garrett at Roots, Oakland.



Whitnee Garrett is being tracked. Every step she takes in her history class at Roots International Academy is mapped. The 39 responses elicited from her students during a 20-minute span are recorded and tabulated. Her lesson plan on black history is broken down into segments, everything from the 15-minute introduction to the 15-minute class-ending group work. Just like game tape from an athletic event, every move is dissected and analyzed.

And while Garrett, a former De Anza College athlete, swapped the shot put and throwing circle for lesson plans and a quadrilateral classroom, she is still under the watchful eye of a coach.

Garrett, 24, is a second-year teacher at Roots, a sixth- through eighth-grade middle school located at the intersection of 66th Avenue and International Boulevard in East Oakland. Garrett has honed her teaching craft under the guidance of Anna Martin, one of seven full-time instructional coaches working at Alliance Academy and Roots, two schools in neighborhoods where poverty and crime are common.

“I imagine my classroom as my throwing ring,” Garrett said. “It is me and Anna, and she is going to influence my instructional practice. She helps me to run my drills, and in this case, my data on students to see where they are.”

During a coaching session in late February, Garrett gained insight on her practice and how the critiqued lesson was best received by her students.

“When I have more control, I think they are learning more, but that is not true,” Garrett told Martin after reviewing the breakdown of the lesson, in which student activity and response grew when the kids worked in groups and not when Garrett was lecturing to them. “The data is not telling me that. That was big for me”

“You still had control,” Martin replied back to Garrett. “It was just a different type of facilitated control that changed the power dynamic in the classroom, and you empowered your students.”

“That was big for me,” said Martin about the revelation. “I pride myself on having legit classroom management, and sometimes I am afraid to let the reins go.”

If it hadn’t been for Martin’s guidance, or the coaching that Garrett received last year from another coach, she might not have returned to the classroom. The task of working in a high-needs school—where the teacher turnover rate is high, and a large percentage of students come from families with incomes below the national poverty line—and being on her own in the classroom would have been too overwhelming.

“One goal as a coach is retaining teachers, and part of that is providing support,” said Martin, who also coaches at Alliance Academy, a middle school at Plymouth Street and 98th Avenue in East Oakland. “If we can’t hire [veteran teachers], then we should train the teachers we have and help them stay.”

Martin and Garrett are part of an increasing trend in the Oakland Unified School District on how to help teachers refine and improve their craft—especially those in high-needs schools—with additional support beyond what is provided by school administrators and credentialing programs. Martin and the small cadre of six other coaches support 35 teachers and educational leaders at Alliance and Roots through a grant program. School Improvement Grants are federally funded grants authorized through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that provide resources for low-performing schools—schools that have few students that meet state standards.

Martin and the other six coaches coach full time and meet with their respective teachers at least once a week to check in on lesson plans and the teachers’ emotional well-being. They also conduct weekly observations and provide constructive feedback designed to help teachers improve and advance their teaching craft, keep them in the profession and the district, which leads to better student outcomes. The group also undergoes extensive training on honing and improving its coaching techniques.

Oakland has struggled to keep its teachers in the district with the average tenure among its 2,562 credentialed teachers at 10.4 years, three years less than the average in Alameda County. And it has one of the county’s highest percentages of teachers with less than two years of experience in the district at 20 percent, according to data from California Department of Education. Complicating matters is that Oakland teachers are among the lowest-paid teachers in the Bay Area.

“In Oakland, we have a challenge where in the first five years, 70 percent of our teachers leave Oakland, and some of that is due to not enough mentorship,” said OUSD board member Christopher Dobbins of District 6, which includes Roots. “You are going to be more successful if you have that type of [coaching] support from master teachers, and I think it is 100 percent a huge component to helping teachers stay.”

However, being an effective teacher does not necessarily translate into being an effective coach. Coaching requires an additional skill set where active listening, positive feedback, and collaboration are key components. The seven coaches working at Alliance and Roots have a professional development session every Friday, at which time each coach can talk about their week and share and collaborate with the fellow coaches on his or her work and experiences with supporting teachers.

Teacher support is not a new concept, and there have been various programs established over the years to help teachers, but what makes the approach different in Oakland is the time-intensive nature that coaches spend with the teachers. The National Council on Teacher Quality, a national research and policy group concerned with teacher standards, released a 2013 report on teacher quality in Oakland, and the findings revealed that teachers needed ongoing feedback, and that such feedback from a third party or students would provide them with important insight into their work.

“Coaching is critical, and unfortunately it is not the norm, because it’s expensive and time- consuming,” said Hope Tollefsrud, who spent nine years as Oakland’s new teacher support coordinator and is now the executive director for the Oakland-based Reach Institute for School Leadership, a nonprofit that provides teacher credentialing and coaching and leadership training for teachers and educators.

“A lot of new teachers have never had any experience and are in a classroom all day long with 40 kids and don’t know what they are doing,” Tollefsrud said. “They have to figure it out on their own.”

Reach works with 42 Bay Area campuses, mostly charter schools, with a mission to centralize the credentialing process for teachers and also provide teachers and educational leaders with one-on-one support through coaching.

Hilary Yamtich has taken coaching courses at Reach and coaches three teachers in addition to teaching full-time at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland.

Yamtich is in her ninth year teaching and started working at Lighthouse in its infancy when there were no master teachers, and she was left to mostly hone her craft alone. Schools typically have personal development and collaboration among their teachers, but what Yamtich realized was that most full-time teachers don’t have the time to provide extensive peer coaching.

“First year teachers’ chances of success without guidance are pretty close to zero,” said Yamtich. “The job as an instructional coach is to know that this is a long journey, so let’s pick one thing that is not working and start there.”

For Garrett and Martin, that started with their bond of teaching history in similar environments and has evolved through multiple meetings, phone calls, text messages, and shared lesson plans into a trusting relationship.

“Working with Anna has been therapeutic,” said Garrett. “Without that support, I don’t know if I would still be teaching. I trust her because I know she has my best interests at heart.”

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