Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Mentors Give New Teachers Guidance

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Written by Su-Jin Yim, writter for the Oregonian. Read the entire article here.
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Career educator Katy Mayer looks at the Big Three automakers pleading before Congress and has one big thought: Those people need to talk to some 9-year-olds she knows.

A new mentor to first- and second-year teachers in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, Mayer recently visited a class of fourth- and fifth-graders and found them quizzing each other on math.

"To see 9- and 10-year-olds asking each other, 'How can you justify that? Don't just tell me what you did, tell me why you did it.' It's like, wow," the former principal says. "It really gives you a lot of faith for the future." That kind of critical thinking is built over time, with a teacher dedicated to nurturing inquisitive minds.

Novice teachers don't always have the skills, which is one of the reasons the West Linn-Wilsonville district partnered with six other Clackamas County districts, Clackamas Education Service District and Marylhurst University to launch a mentoring initiative this year with a $400,000 state grant.

The Legislature last year allocated $5 million to mentoring programs statewide to increase the effectiveness of new teachers, principals and superintendents. Eleven applicants, representing 85 school districts, won money.

The state program is part of a larger push nationwide to better train and support new teachers. Barack Obama's presidential campaign pledged to expand mentoring programs and noted that 30 percent of new teachers leave their jobs within the first five years of their career. Research shows that high-quality teachers are the single biggest factor in student achievement, more than poverty or class size.

The Clackamas County program funds three full-time and three part-time mentors to work across the organizations. Individual districts also have their own designated mentors, who meet weekly with their assigned teachers. All teachers attend a monthly class and spend 15 hours observing a veteran teacher's class.

Some school districts, such as the North Clackamas School District, already have teacher training and professional development programs in place to provide one-on-one feedback. West Linn-Wilsonville schools have a welcoming program for teachers new to the district, but it's not aimed at novice teachers.

The support is important because teaching has become more complex as society has diversified, Mayer says. "I think we have higher expectations for schools," says Mayer, who started teaching in 1972.

Phil Anderson, a first-year teacher at Willamette Primary School in West Linn, says he's already benefited by talking with Mayer about classroom management and planning lessons. "As a first-year teacher, there's so many standards; it's really overwhelming to look at all of them," he says, adding that the mentoring program has been extremely helpful. "I can foresee it being even more beneficial the more I teach after three or four years."

All conversations with mentors are confidential, which frees teachers to discuss concerns and get support from other newbies.

It's unclear whether the Clackamas County consortium, which includes Canby, Estacada, Gladstone, Lake Oswego, Oregon City, Oregon Trail and West Linn schools, will be funded again next year, but the state grant is included in the governor's new budget.

Lending an empathetic ear is an important part of mentoring, but it is not the key piece behind the state funding, says Bev Pratt, education specialist at the Oregon Department of Education. "It isn't so much so you have someone there to support you, but it's someone to actually help you in your classroom and to become a better teacher," Pratt says. "And what does better teaching really look like?"

The state program is designed to help new teachers benefit from others' experience and recognizes that novices deserve more help. "Just like in other professions, there is sort of an intern time where you (should) have that extra support," Pratt says. "Their skills will improve as they go along."

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