Local News

UNC Gives New Teachers Online Lifeline With Their Diplomas

Posted February 11, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— When UNC education majors leave Chapel Hill this spring for classrooms across the state, they won't be more than a modem away from a new high-tech support network aimed to keep them afloat in the classroom and help stem the rising tide of attrition.

The School of Education's Lighthouse Project, the collaborative brainchild of UNC Chancellor Michael Hooker and Dr. William Burke, interim dean of the School of Education, is providing N.C. Teaching Fellows graduates from Carolina with laptop computers and high-speed modems to help them communicate with peers, master teachers and faculty mentors. The computers and Internet access are providing the new teachers with an on-line support community, which UNC officials believe is critical in combating the alarming rate of attrition among new N.C. teachers.

"In a very real sense, beginning teachers are keepers of the light for children navigating the exhilarating but sometimes stormy seas of learning," said Dr. Marjorie DeWert, assistant professor of education and project director. "Unfortunately, the profession has not done a good job of providing the support structures beginning teachers need to perform their vital work. Beginning teachers are leaving teaching in record numbers due to low pay, poor working conditions, unreasonable assignments and inadequate support from fellow teachers, administrators and the education community at large."

Hooker said the lack of support was pushing young teachers out of classrooms and into other professions. "Our schools of education are teaching prospective teachers how to handle the academic subject matter, but graduates are hitting a wall when they enter the classroom. They lack the professional support network they so desperately need in those first few years. They feel alone and blame themselves for their failings. Morale plummets and many leave the profession as a result."

Hooker said he saw the reality first-hand as his step-daughter, Jennifer Buell, struggled last year in her first year of teaching in Charlotte. Despite top-notch preparation while in college, she and her colleagues were not prepared for the lack of support encountered when they entered the classroom, he said.

"The Lighthouse Project will provide new teachers with some of the support they are lacking and quell that sense of isolation," said Hooker, who earmarked $75,000 for the project from flexible funding allocated last year by the N.C. General Assembly. "They will realize help is as close as their computer."

The concept of such mentoring and support programs isn't new, but the Lighthouse Project adds a high-tech twist, overcoming some traditional problems, DeWert said.

In the project's pilot phase, which began earlier this year, 13 beginning teachers, four master teachers and 10 UNC education faculty members are being connected via the Internet. The new teachers are graduates of the elementary and middle grades education program at Carolina and teach in 11 school systems around the state. All were members of the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program, a statewide effort to lure top students into the education profession by paying for university costs in exchange for agreeing to serve five years as an N.C. teacher.

The School of Education has loaned the new and master teachers laptop computers with high-speed modems and hhas provided them Internet accounts with unlimited service. The UNC faculty members already have Internet access through their office computers.

The master teachers and education faculty will serve as "telementors" for the new teachers through a variety of computer communication tools that have been created, including a listserv for all participants, one for just the beginning teachers and one for the telementors.

The listservs will give participants an on-line "discussion group" that will provide the new teachers support from their peers in the program, as well as from the telementors. So far, new teachers have posed on-line questions on subjects ranging from educational software selection to literature circles for first-graders to methods of building patience. They can query not only the experts as a group, but also their peers. And direct e-mail access via their laptops offers more personal, one-on-one communication.

Attrition among new teachers is a major problem facing the state's schools. A nine-month 1996 study by the Public School Forum of North Carolina found that 17 percent of the state's teachers leave the profession after the first year in the classroom, 30 percent by the end of three years and 36 percent by five years. And the best and brightest new teachers -- the North Carolina Teaching Fellows -- are even more likely to bolt from the profession, according to a 1995 study.

"The marriage of computers and mentoring in the education field is a concept whose time has come," Hooker said.