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UNC Gives New Teachers Online Lifeline With Their Diplomas

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CHAPEL HILL — When UNC education majors leave ChapelHill this spring for classrooms across the state, they won'tbe more than a modem away from a new high-tech support networkaimed to keep them afloat in the classroom and help stem the rising tideof attrition.

The School of Education's Lighthouse Project, the collaborativebrainchild ofUNC Chancellor Michael Hooker and Dr. William Burke, interim dean oftheSchool of Education, is providing N.C. Teaching Fellows graduates fromCarolinawith laptop computers and high-speed modems to help them communicate withpeers,master teachers and faculty mentors. The computers and Internet access areproviding the new teachers with an on-line support community, which UNCofficials believe is critical in combating the alarming rate of attritionamongnew N.C. teachers.

"In a very real sense, beginning teachers are keepers of the light forchildrennavigating the exhilarating but sometimes stormy seas of learning," saidDr.Marjorie DeWert, assistant professor of education and project director."Unfortunately, the profession has not done a good job of providing thesupportstructures beginning teachers need to perform their vital work. Beginningteachers are leaving teaching in record numbers due to low pay, poorworkingconditions, unreasonable assignments and inadequate support from fellowteachers, administrators and the education community at large."

Hooker said the lack of support was pushing young teachers out ofclassrooms and into other professions. "Our schools of education areteaching prospective teachershow to handle the academic subject matter, but graduates are hitting awallwhenthey enter the classroom. They lack the professional support network theysodesperately need in those first few years. They feel alone and blamethemselvesfor their failings. Morale plummets and many leave the profession as aresult."

Hooker said he saw the reality first-hand as his step-daughter, JenniferBuell,struggled last year in her first year of teaching in Charlotte. Despitetop-notch preparation while in college, she and her colleagues were notpreparedfor the lack of support encountered when they entered the classroom, hesaid.

"The Lighthouse Project will provide new teachers with some of thesupport theyare lacking and quell that sense of isolation," said Hooker, who earmarked$75,000 for the project from flexible funding allocated last year by theN.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 theLighthouse Project adds a high-tech twist, overcoming some traditionalproblems,DeWert said.

In the project's pilot phase, which began earlier this year, 13beginningteachers, four master teachers and 10 UNC education faculty members arebeingconnected via the Internet. The new teachers are graduates of theelementaryandmiddle grades education program at Carolina and teach in 11 school systemsaround the state. All were members of the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program, astatewide effort to lure top students into the education profession bypayingfor university costs in exchange for agreeing to serve five years as anN.C.teacher.

The School of Education has loaned the new and master teacherslaptopcomputers with high-speed modems and hhas provided them Internetaccounts withunlimitedservice. The UNC faculty members already have Internet access throughtheiroffice computers.

The master teachers and education faculty will serve as "telementors"for thenew teachers through a variety of computer communication tools that havebeencreated, including a listserv for all participants, one for just thebeginningteachers and one for the telementors.

The listservs will give participants an on-line "discussion group"thatwillprovide the new teachers support from their peers in the program, as wellasfrom the telementors. So far, new teachershave posed on-line questions on subjects ranging from educational softwareselection to literature circles for first-graders to methods of buildingpatience. They can query not only the experts as a group, but also theirpeers.And direct e-mail access via their laptops offers more personal,one-on-onecommunication.

Attrition among new teachers is a major problem facing the state'sschools. Anine-month 1996 study by the Public School Forum of North Carolina foundthat17percent of the state's teachers leave the profession after the first yearintheclassroom, 30 percent by the end of three years and 36 percent by fiveyears.And the best and brightest new teachers -- the North Carolina TeachingFellows-- are even more likely to bolt from the profession, according to a 1995study.

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

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