Before the school year began, Lynn Ferrell, a veteran first-grade teacher in Montgomery County, helped three rookies fashion bulletin boards and arrange child-size desks.
She gave each new teacher a book, "Bearenstein Bears Go to School," so they would have something special to read to their class during the first few days. And on the eve on the students' arrival, she sent each teacher a note.
"I reminded them I was right on their shoulder -- not because they needed me, but because I trusted them, and I knew they would do a good job," said Ferrell, 42, who has taught in Montgomery County for 16 years, the last three at Gaithersburg's Strawberry Knoll Elementary.
Ferrell's advice and reassurances are part of a coaching system that the county has devised for its fledgling elementary school teachers. In a county with more than 103,000 students in 172 schools, the coaching is intended to keep new teachers from being overwhelmed by the complexity of the school system and by what they are expected to teach.
The program is hoped to shrink the high proportion of young teachers who leave the profession. Nationally, half of all new teachers quit within five years. The coaching system also reflects dissatisfaction nationwide with the preparation of graduates from university teacher-training programs.
During the last few years, school systems in the District and Prince George's and Fairfax counties have tried various kinds of match-ups between fledgling and veteran teachers.
In Montgomery County, the school system has experimented with two types of grooming. In one method, begun in 1987, an experienced teacher, such as Ferrell, works with three to five teachers around the county.
A more intensive approach, started in 1988, matches a neophyte with a veteran teacher in the same school. This version was a main recommendation of a 1987 Montgomery commission that explored ways to get and keep good teachers. It gives new teachers more help and time with mentors, but is about five times as expensive.
Mentors receive stipends of up to $1,600. Combined with other expenses, the more intensive program costs $2,500 for each new teacher, compared with $490 for the other version.
Montgomery school officials say both programs work well. They are trying to decide how much coaching the county can afford, and whether the more intensive version is worth the price.
Both programs elicit praise from participants.
"It is definitely a great help," said Laura Garcia, 23, a first-year teacher at Strawberry Knoll, who is one of Ferrell's proteges. Garcia said she has learned practical tips that weren't part of her education at Pennsylvania State University, where she received a degree in early childhood education last year.
She said Ferrell has taught her small things: how to help small children put their coats away efficiently, or get into a straight line. Ferrell also has guided Garcia through what is a major source of stress for a novice: how to conduct a parent conference in a way that inspires confidence. Other new teachers said mentors have helped them fill out report cards, handle discipline problems, thread a movie projector and cope with anxiety.
"As a first-year teacher, the work is incredibly overwhelming, and you want to do everything perfectly," said Alison Haycock, 23, a second-grade teacher at Bethesda's Ashburton Elementary, who worked last year with veteran Gail Klein.
Ferrell said, "It is nice to know you have someone you can turn to and say, 'Aaaagh, I need help!"
The coaching is popular with Montgomery's top school administrators. "I think it is one of the best programs we have," said Superintendent Harry Pitt. "In many professions, a person gradually moves into the job. In teaching, we expect you to move into your job right away."
The high expectations of neophytes are no small matter in Montgomery, where hiring has accelerated dramatically in the last several years. Because of a wave of retirements and a large enrollment spurt, the school system expects to replace about three-fourths of its teachers by the end of the decade.
So far this year, the school system has hired 455 teachers, nearly half of whom had no prior professional experience, said James L. Shinn, the school system's personnel director.
Said Allan Eisel, the administrator who oversees training of new teachers, "We may never have the opportunity to reshape the work force the way we do now."