By Brenna R. Kelly
When Melissa Richards walked into her classroom at Stuart Middle School four years ago, she wasn’t just a first-year teacher fresh out of college; she was also new Louisville resident with no friends or family nearby.
“I didn’t know anything about the city except that they had the Kentucky Derby,” said Richards, 8th-grade social studies teacher at the Jefferson County school.
But luckily, administrators at her new school had just implemented a mentoring program designed to support novice teachers by pairing them with veteran educators.
“Being a mentee that first year was extremely beneficial because there are so many struggles and so many phases you go through and you don’t know you are going to go through,” Richards said. “You have this really excited feeling, and these great lessons, and then you get to this point in the school year where you need people to help you along. That’s part of growing as an educator.”
Renee Bledsoe, then assistant principal, started the program in 2011 after the TELL Survey showed that more than 30 percent of new teachers did not consider the school’s support as a deciding factor about whether to return. Those results, coupled with high teacher turnover, led administrators to take a more deliberate approach to new teacher support, said Bledsoe, now the school’s principal.
“When you first come out of school, you have this grandiose idea of what teaching is going to be,” Bledsoe said. “Then you get in the classroom and you realize that everything you thought you knew about teaching is not really what you knew at all.”
Across the country, nearly half of all teachers leave the profession during their first five years, according to a study by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.
In 2007, the National Center for Education Statistics began a study of more than 2,000 beginning public school teachers. That study found that 10 percent of the teachers left after the first year and 12 percent were not teaching after two years.
But the study showed that having a mentor seemed to help. Of the beginning teachers who had a mentor in 2007-08, about 8 percent left the profession after one year and 10 percent left after two. Among beginning teachers with no mentor, 16 percent left after one year and 23 percent were no longer teaching after two.
Bledsoe, Richards and other Stuart staff shared their experiences with other Kentucky educators at the Continuous Improvement Summit held recently in Lexington. Stuart Middle’s program was one of 10 initiatives recognized as a Best Practice by the Kentucky Department of Education. Each school or district received a $500 grant.
The program, now in its fourth year, has increased new teacher retention and helped create a family atmosphere at Stuart, which is receiving support from KDE as a priority school based on persistent low achievement on state assessments.
“Whenever you are a brand new teacher you are nervous, you are scared to death,” Bledsoe said. “We realize that there are a lot of demands on us because we are a priority school. However, just because we work in a priority school, it doesn’t mean that we’re not trying to do what’s best for kids. We work hard, sometimes even harder, and we make sure that our staff knows that they don’t have to go at it alone.”
At Stuart, administrators select veteran teachers and send them an invitation to participate in the mentoring program they call M&M.
“A lot of them were like, ‘I’m honored, thank you for choosing me,’ ” Bledsoe said. “It was surprising how many were appreciative of being chosen, because not everyone gets to be a mentor.”
The mentors and mentees meet over the summer, then continue monthly meetings throughout the school year. New teachers get a survival guide and mentors receive a calendar with monthly activities to help guide them in meeting the needs of the new teacher. This year there are nine mentor/mentee pairs, with new teachers having replaced veteran teachers who moved to new positions in the district, Bledsoe said.
Mentors also sign a confidentiality statement to help the new teacher feel that they can talk to them about anything.
“We wanted them to feel that this person is not going to be evaluative,” said assistant principal Jessica Jones. “We want to establish trust right away.”
There are also group meetings and a book study, which this year is “What Great Teachers do Differently,” by Todd Whitaker, she said.
Sandra Meadors had been teaching for 31 years when she was asked to be Richards’ mentor.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, I probably have a thing or two that I could share with Melissa, no problem,’ ” she said. But Meadors quickly learned that her mentee wasn’t the only person benefiting from the relationship.
“It enhanced not only Melissa’s skills,” she said, “but it rejuvenated me and gave me a chance to enhance mine.”
Richards helped her embrace technology that she might not have otherwise, Meadors said. Without any family in the area, Richards also had someone to turn to if she needed help outside of school.
Because they taught the same grade and subject, they could also discuss specific lessons. They still collaborate nearly every day.
“We don’t have an easy job at Stuart. We are PLA school and we have a lot of uphill battles,” Meadors said. “But what we discover is that when we work together, when we are there to help each other and support each other, then the battle isn’t quite as difficult as it could have been.”
Now that she has three years under her belt, Richards said she can recognize those phases first-year teachers go through and how Meadors helped her survive them. At the conference, she directed educators to plot the phases – anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, reflection – on charts around the room.
For Bianca Crockam, an English teacher at Christian County High School, learning the phases and when they are likely to hit was particularly helpful. Crockam, who is in her seventh year of teaching, is informally mentoring a first-year teacher.
“I had a wonderful first year at a school in Florida when I just started teaching,” she said, “so all of the things that I am giving her are some things that I got.”
Crockam said she will use the diagram of the first-year phases and the idea for a calendar with her mentee. She’s hoping her school will start a similar mentor program.
“No new teacher wants to come in with the idea that I’m not going to make it,” she said. “They want somebody to support them.”
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