Those difficulties — daunting bureaucracy, tough working conditions, to name a few — used to mean that 75 percent of new teachers in East Palo Alto's Ravenswood City School District failed to return for a second year.
But that figure has reversed itself dramatically in the past few years — about 74 percent of first-year teachers now stay on for at least three or four years.
That's welcome news for Superintendent Maria De La Vega, who has said a more stable teaching staff is key in boosting student performance in a district where nearly 70 percent of students are English-language learners and 85 percent qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
Many new teachers credit mentoring from the New Teacher Center, a national organization dedicated to "accelerating the effectiveness of teachers," for giving them the support and sense of professionalism they need to stick with, and thrive in, the challenging job.
"The New Teacher Center has had a tremendous impact on my abilities as a teacher," said first-year teacher Kathleen Florita. "From orientation at the beginning of the year, to NTC mentors at my school site to my own NTC mentor, they have all transformed my classroom into an environment conducive to learning and myself into a strategic and purposeful teacher."
The mentors are a cadre of veteran teachers from around the Bay Area and the Ravenswood district itself, who work side by side with every first- and second-year teacher to assist in their growth and help to foster a supportive working environment.
"When teachers have a collegial atmosphere, a good school climate and feel the power to make a difference for the kids, they want to stay here even though they could make $5,000 or $10,000 more by traveling over the bridge," mentor Barbara Allen said. Allen, a Palo Alto resident, spent decades as a special-education and second-grade teacher in San Jose's Berryessa Union School District.
Sometimes it's as simple as bringing the new teacher a cup of coffee or meeting her on a Saturday or after school to help set up a classroom library or a folder system.
"In education, it's easy to develop a culture of blame — kids can blame teachers, teachers can blame parents, parents can blame the school — but we try to encourage a different way of thinking about the situation, to help empower the teacher," Jen Bloom said.
Bloom taught English-language learners in San Francisco and later was a founding staff member of an Oakland charter school before joining the New Teacher Center. She mentors teachers at Flood, Willow Oaks and Green Oaks schools.
"It's an intimidating situation for a new teacher to walk into on the first day — a class will have some students at grade level, some two grade-levels below, some with no English and some 'inclusion' (special-education) students. It's so complex, all the different challenges," Bloom said.
"Our role is not to evaluate, just to support. Really listening in a nonjudgmental way is one of the ways we can build trust. Listening and reflecting back what we've heard can help teachers see things in a different way."
Mentors also sit through classes and record data on how a new teacher is performing.
"A teacher might say, 'The kids won't listen.' Then you look at the data with her and see she was talking to a group of 5-year-olds for 14 minutes straight. She can see, 'Oh, wow: No wonder they get a little antsy on the rug," said Jenny Morgan, who co-directs the project at Ravenswood.
Mentors gain credibility in Ravenswood by showing up regularly in the classroom.
"I had a conversation the other day with a teacher who was glowing about (mentor April Stout)," said Ravenswood math teacher-turned-mentor Ryan Stewart. "This teacher had multiple mentors from different universities, but she said how much of an asset it is that April can be there, know the kids, the curriculum, the challenges, and offer support targeted to those particular kids.
"She knows what the teacher is going through on a daily basis."
Mentors also help new teachers learn how to manage the bureaucracy — especially important in a district such as Ravenswood, which is mired in state mandates and a federal court order on special education.
"Some of the teachers come in here with a strong social-justice background, wanting to make a difference. They know it's going to be tough, but they say it's tougher than they thought it would be, but not for the reason they anticipated," said mentor Marie Crawford, a veteran of the Redwood City School District and the education program at San Jose's Tech Museum.
"They were thinking the kids would be tough, but they notice that that's the easiest part. They fall in love with the kids almost immediately. It's the compliance measures, the pacing schedules they have to stay on, the benchmarks they have to share and the test scores that become so important.
"These things take hours and hours of paperwork."
Morgan said: "We help them navigate all the different requirements and initiatives, and maintain some perspective so they can understand the bigger goal and purpose. That way they can take them on in a meaningful way and feel good about it rather than get bogged down by it."
Mentors also have helped organize "professional learning teams" at each school, enabling teachers to meet together regularly to develop a sense of collaboration and shared purpose.
The New Teacher Center's work in Ravenswood is supported by a $2.46 million grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which expires this year.
"This is our last comprehensive year," program manager Kitty Dixon said. "Next year we will support at a minimal level," adding that "there are no additional grants in Ravenswood at this time."
De La Vega said she "had not had that conversation (about grant renewal) with anyone yet."