She was fresh out of college, well-versed in the psychology of young children and techniques of teaching the elementary grades. Yet on Day One of her teaching career, Mary Everett-Helmer came face to face with a challenge for which her studies had not begun to prepare her:
The classroom bulletin board.
"All I can remember is thinking, 'How can I cover all of that with paper?' the Prince George's County teacher recalls 30 years later.
But she figured out how to organize it, with the help and suggestions of the veteran teacher next door. It's a lesson she remembers today, as a full-time mentor to new teachers embarking on their careers at Beacon Heights Elementary.
As they struggle to find enough qualified teachers, school districts across the country also are trying to offer more support to the newcomers they hire--mindful that many vacancies are created by frustrated young teachers who leave the profession early. Increasingly, school officials are asking experienced teachers to serve as mentors to new teachers--offering up one-on-one coaching on the kind of stuff they don't teach in education school.
"Teaching is a very isolating job," said Robyn Cochran, a former first-grade teacher who spent the last five years mentoring new Fairfax County teachers. "Just knowing that someone is there, and that person is expecting you're going to ask questions, is helpful."
Virginia lawmakers passed legislation this year requiring that all school districts create mentoring programs; a likely model will be the mentoring program that Fairfax started five years ago. Arlington has two full-time mentors, one working with new high school teachers, the other working with elementary and middle school teachers. For years, Loudoun has had a program that pairs new teachers with a colleague working at the same school. Alexandria assigns mentors not only to first-year teachers but also to second- and third-year teachers; this year, the city school system is beefing up its program with classes to teach the mentors how to best support their proteges.
Schools in Montgomery County and the District are starting mentoring programs this year. And Maryland education officials are talking about expanding a program--first introduced in Baltimore County and started last year in Prince George's County--that puts veterans such as Everett-Helmer to work full time coaching new teachers.
For a typical new teacher, the questions are complex and many.
How to arrange the desks in a first-grade classroom? How to hush a bunch of rambunctious middle-schoolers? What to say to an angry parent?
And, uh, where's the copy machine?
"It can be difficult to be in the classroom for the first time," said Denise Tann, spokeswoman for District public schools. "Even if you have little kids, it can be daunting to stand up there in front of them."
"You prepare teachers in college, they student-teach for a semester, and then they get a teaching job," said Virginia H. Pilato, chief of program approval and assessment for the Maryland State Department of Education. "But typically, it's difficult kids, it's the classes that the senior teachers don't want. They are brand-new, and they have no experience, and they have the worst circumstances."
Traditionally, experienced teachers have always kept an eye on their greener colleagues and stepped in to lend a hand as necessary. Yet some educators believe those informal networks fall short. Years ago, Fairfax County school officials starting asking veteran teachers to work with specific newcomers in their own school. Five years ago, they formalized those relationships by starting a beginning teachers induction program.
Each first-year teacher is assigned a mentor--a fellow teacher who breaks away from regular duties to spend three hours a week counseling the new hire, compensated only by a $450 stipend.
In addition, new teachers are brought together in groups of 20 to 25 to meet twice a month with "mentor coaches," who also have years of experience in the classroom.
The District this fall is expanding a mentoring pilot program to all of its schools. Each school is being asked to assign one of its teachers to mentor all the new teachers in the building. These "resident mentors" will receive $1,000 stipends and graduate credits.
D.C. schools also will try out a new "electronic mentoring" program in some of its senior high schools this year. A new teacher will be linked via laptop and e-mail with a mentor and a curriculum specialist in the teacher's subject.
Montgomery County schools last week assigned each of their 800 new teachers a mentor from their school; this week, the pairs started working together during orientation programs at each school.
Meanwhile, Prince George's County school officials are a year into a program that provides full-time mentors to new teachers and those who are working under provisional licenses. The program is expanding from 31 sites last year to 61 this year.
Each mentor is a former classroom instructor who now works full time coaching 10 to 30 less experienced teachers. These mentors not only advise the newcomers, they spend time in their classrooms--watching and critiquing their teaching performance, even taking over a class period to demonstrate how it's done.
Yet despite this level of monitoring, the mentors think of themselves as fellow teachers, not administrators. Everett-Helmer says that her classroom observation is designed solely to find ways to help the teacher, not to report back to the principal.
"I'm not their evaluator--everything I do is to help them," she said. "I can be a friend who's in there, watching how everything flows, and afterward sit down and offer some helpful suggestions. It has to be a nonthreatening situation."
New teachers most typically need guidance on planning instruction time--how to take the school system's expectations for what a child should learn over an entire year and slice it down to day-by-day lesson plans.
Classroom discipline is another area that new teachers have to master on the job. "They might have all their content areas down pat, but what do they do when something unexpected happens? How do they set classroom behavior standards?" Everett-Helmer said.
That's where a mentor comes in. Cochran says a formal mentor relationship works best because new teachers need to be reassured that it's not only all right, it's expected that they will need help.
"Beginning teachers are so afraid to ask questions because they don't want other people to know what they don't know," she said.
Far from feeling patronized by a mentor's help, most new teachers seem to thrive on it, school officials said. Sharon Mullen, staff development specialist for Fairfax County schools, said Fairfax's mentorship program "has been a huge recruitment tool."
"They're selecting Fairfax because it has a better support system in place," she said. "They're asking, 'Do you have an induction program? What do you have for beginning teachers?' We feel it's attracting a lot of good candidates into the schools."