teacher kneels by desk of second grader who is looking at a laptop

Why do teachers stay? CECI programs show success in retention for early-career teachers

Mentorship programs for Battle Creek teachers part of partnership with district, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Devan Washington distinctly remembers his first day as a teacher assistant. It was the start of the school year during the COVID-19 pandemic and 13 small kindergarten faces appeared in Zoom squares on his computer.

"On that first day, my cooperating teacher's internet went out, so I had to start the whole day by myself," said Washington, a 2021 Grand Valley graduate. "I was not ready for that, but it turned out to be a great experience."

Washington, who now teaches fifth grade at Fremont International Academy in Battle Creek, may have had to fly solo that day but he has been supported in his teaching career since. As a first-year teacher, he participated in the Early Career Teacher Mentoring program (ECT) through GVSU's College of Education and Community Innovation. Washington continues to receive guidance in the Professional Learning Community (PLC), a program for second- and third-year teachers.

teacher on left sits across the desk from a fifth grade student who is in a dark polo shirt
Devan Washington, fifth grade teacher at Fremont International Academy in Battle Creek, works with a student. The 2021 GVSU graduate participates in Early Career Teacher mentoring programs sponsored by the College of Education and Community Innovation.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

The two mentorship programs are among the tactics supported by the partnership among Grand Valley, Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS) and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to positively impact education in that region. Established in 2019, the programs aim to increase teacher retention in BCPS. Nationally, nearly 40 percent of teachers leave within their first five years. 

Since the programs started, 97 BCPS teachers have participated. Sarah Cox, visiting faculty of education, serves as a mentor and said the programs are making a difference, adding that the retention rate among teachers in the program is 85% from 2019-2024.

Retention rates among BCPS teachers are increasing, Cox said, because she and other mentors provide individualized support and talk frankly with mentees about their classrooms and their lives as teachers.

"When you are a teacher intern, you understand the foundation of teaching but that's only one part of becoming a classroom teacher," Cox said. "They have to acknowledge that they will participate fully in the lives of their students. But then they take a breath and look at that classroom environment and ask, 'What does that mean?'"

At left, Sarah Cox gestures to a student during a class. A GVSU Lakers flag is tacked to the wall behind them.
Sarah Cox, visiting faculty of education, teaches a dual enrollment course at Battle Creek Central High School. Cox also serves as a mentor for the Early Career Teacher program.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts
Devan Washington leaning against a wall with a colorful moasic in background
Devan Washington began teaching during the pandemic. He said participating in the mentorship programs has helped him thrive, rather than only survive in the classroom.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

For Washington, participating as a first-year teacher in the ECT program meant thriving in the classroom rather than surviving. Retired teacher Catherine Stevens was Washington's mentor during his first year and now mentors other Battle Creek teachers. Washington said Stevens helped him create bulletin boards, staple packets, assist with lesson planning — "Anything I needed, really" — and monitored how he managed a classroom.

"Cathy noted I called all my students 'friends,' as in, 'OK, friends, let's come back together,'" he said. "It created a weird little dynamic in that we weren't teacher-students, we were friends, and that was making my classroom management a bit more difficult. 

"As soon as I stopped myself from saying 'friends,' there was a big change."

Stevens, who retired from East Kentwood High School after a 30-year teaching career, travels to Battle Creek three times a week to meet with her mentees. The ECT program calls for 18 individual meetings during the year plus peer group meetings. Program mentees also take a graduate education course, "Leading and Managing in a K-12 Classroom."

"I let them know that I'm here for them, I'm here to help them problem solve and prepare for relationships with their administrators, their students and peers," Stevens said. "I'm there to give them the confidence they need to succeed and to be a resource for them."

Lexus Baxendale stands in the middle of a classroom surrounded by tables of students
Lexus Baxendale, a 2021 GVSU graduate, teaches biology at Battle Creek Central High School.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Lexus Baxendale, also a 2021 GVSU graduate, teaches biology at Battle Creek Central High School and serves as the school's science department chair. Like Washington, Baxendale is in her third year of teaching and has participated in three years of mentor programs. She said each year the program content has a different focus and builds on the previous year.

"This year, we've been talking a lot about being a leader, how to make changes and implement them," Baxendale said. "We build on the discussions we have had over the past two years and talk about how we can make significant change."

Lexus Baxendale
Lexus Baxendale has participated in three years of mentoring programs and now serves as BCCHS's science chair.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Baxendale said the PLC meetings are helpful to discuss common issues with colleagues and find solutions to bring to the rest of the teaching staff. 

As a mentor and PLC leader, Cox said part of her job is to help mentees "retain the enjoyment of teaching and remember why they went into this field." She added the research on these unique programs is contributing to gaps in national conversations about why teachers are leaving the profession. 

"Collectively, we don't talk about what makes teachers stay. We need to listen to their answers. By examining the lived experiences of our ECTs, we're contributing to gaps in the literature and answering why we're able to help a district retain its teachers," Cox said.

teacher in a hajib stands over the desk of a young student, also in a hajib
GVSU student Yasmin Alemayehu is completing her ESL Elementary internship at Valley View Elementary School in Battle Creek. Alemayehu is pictured assisting Halimah at her desk.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.