Angie Erwin, a new first-grade teacher at Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Elementary, can easily explain the latest theories of elementary education. But when it comes to preparing progress reports or handling a parent-teacher conference, she acknowledges she needs a little bit of help.
"I'm just starting out so I need to know pretty much everything," said Erwin, who graduated from college this year.
That's where Leanne Meisinger steps in. After 14 years of teaching, Meisinger knows a thing or two about report cards, open houses and final exams--duties that seem simple enough but can fluster anyone the first or second time.
Meisinger is what Charles County calls a teaching partner--and what other counties with similar programs call mentors. She is assisting 11 new teachers at Dr. Samuel A. Mudd in Waldorf.
With thousands of new teachers flooding school districts throughout the Washington area, most school districts have begun asking experienced teachers to serve as mentors to the new instructors, offering them the one-on-one guidance they need to get through their first year.
In Virginia, lawmakers passed legislation this year requiring that each school district have a mentoring program. In Maryland, several school districts, including those in all three Southern Maryland counties, have some form of a mentoring system in place, and many of them are expanding their programs.
That's the case in Charles County, where the teaching partner program started in the middle of last school year. The program is now in its first full year at 19 schools, and school officials are discussing ways to expand it.
Experienced teachers in the county have always tried to help their newer colleagues, but that was not enough, school officials said. So they created a formal network of tenured teachers to serve as partners for their more inexperienced colleagues. The partners have to attend regular meetings and record all of their interaction with their new teachers on a log sheet.
A partner's job is to help new teachers learn the culture of the school, navigate the school bureaucracy and improve their techniques in the classroom--"the kinds of things that foul up a first-year teacher," said Jackie Grabis-Bunker, coordinator of the county's teacher education center.
"Most undergraduate programs will not prepare students for classroom management," said Carolyn Graham, the county's coordinator of staff development.
When Meisinger started teaching more than a decade ago, there was no official mentoring program. So she latched on to the teacher in the classroom next door, a veteran who was a year away from retiring.
"The first year is so much trial and error," she said. "I just picked her brain constantly."
As a teacher partner, Meisinger helps new teachers prepare their lesson plans and models teaching techniques for them.
During a recent reading class, Meisinger took over for Erwin at her request.
"I was having management problems in my classroom," Erwin said.
As the newcomer sat with her students and took notes, Meisinger asked them to write a paragraph about an argument they had with a friend.
Meisinger tried to get the students on track by going around the room to read what each student was writing and asking the youngsters several times to tell her what she wanted them to write. "You have to get them to understand the question," she said.
Officials in Charles and other school districts say the teacher partners may help fulfill an even larger task.
"We're in the midst of a teacher shortage . . . so when we get them, we want to keep them," said Heath Morrison, principal of John Hanson Middle School, which also has a partnering program. "It's another selling point. We can tell them that we'll help them find a home. We'll help you with open houses and we'll help you get through the MSPAP."
That selling point worked with Matt Heffernan, a new sixth-grade math teacher at John Hanson who previously taught at a California school. When Heffernan wanted to know to whom he would send a student with a discipline problem and how to prepare his kids for the MSPAP student performance tests, he was able to get that information from his teaching partner, Kelly Courtney, another sixth-grade teacher.
"They're trying to make us feel we're a part of the school," Heffernan said.