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Published in Print: January 1, 2003, as Gigabyte Guidance

Gigabyte Guidance

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Milwaukee moves its teacher-
mentoring program online.

There’s no doubt about it, says Erin Bechtel, a second-year teacher at Sarah A. Scott Middle School in Milwaukee. Without mentoring, the French teacher probably wouldn’t have returned to school in September.

In her first year, Bechtel says, she felt overwhelmed. She had questions about lesson-planning and administrative issues, plus the occasional unmotivated student. And she wasn’t used to working in an urban environment. “I come from a small town in Ohio,” Bechtel explains. “Coming into a big school, it’s really hard.” Luckily, she had help from one of the district’s mentors, a veteran educator paid to take a leave from the classroom and look after a handful of new teachers.

Bechtel is not the only teacher to credit Milwaukee’s mentoring program with keeping her in education, but its reach has been limited. Last year, the city could afford to match only 80 of its 975 new teachers with advisers. So this past fall, Milwaukee decided to replace its face-to-face program with a portal— a private Internet site, complete with Web pages, subject-related discussion areas, and chat rooms—developed and designed by the district and by researchers at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. It’s a cutting-edge solution that likely will be watched by other districts seeking cost-effective ways to support teachers.

Now 22 mentors, or facilitators, are working with 200 teachers. The job has been transformed into a part-time gig that can be done at any hour of the day, expanding the potential pool of advisers to include classroom teachers and educators on leave. The district’s costs have been reduced to laptop computers for participants and facilitator compensation, which is currently being negotiated but which may include professional-development credits and time off in lieu of cash. Officials estimate that running the online program and creating a new district Web site will cost $200,000 over three years, significantly less than salaries and expenses for its now-defunct team of full- time mentors.

Milwaukee has an incentive to expand these efforts. Each year, the district hires 800 to 1,000 new teachers, only to watch one-third of them depart by June. Bob Nelson, the district’s director of technology, believes a major reason they leave is disenfranchisement. “Teachers aren’t getting what they need to do their jobs,” he says. “Teachers want timely access to information. They want immediate advice.”

The portal allows all of the above. New teachers can chat with their facilitators online and post questions, comments, and gripes to a message board. There’s a curriculum-design feature that helps teachers create and share lesson plans. And the site serves as a convenient repository for useful Web links, grading and administration literature, and school and public policy documents.

While online mentoring may lack the personal touch of advice traded over a cup of coffee, Milwaukee’s teachers don’t appear to value virtual counsel any less. In fact, last year, teachers who had access to a test message board as well as face-to-face mentors said they preferred the anonymity of an online board. “The newer teachers said they went online first if they had a problem that they didn’t want to discuss with their mentors,” says facilitator Kristin Hoelzl, a literacy coach at Hi-Mount Elementary School in Milwaukee. This is no surprise to Harvard-based program director Chris Dede, who points out that many new teachers have grown up with the Internet and are already used to chatting online.

Teachers may still schedule in-person meetings with their mentors if they wish; in fact, the portal makes such sessions more efficient, says Kathy Onarheim, director of school technology support for the Milwaukee school district. “When they meet for that one hour, they can get right to work on the teacher’s concerns and leave all that getting-to-know-you stuff online,” she says.

It’s too early to tell whether the online mentoring program will help Milwaukee stanch the flow of departing teachers, but Erin Bechtel says the portal makes her want to stay.

"It’s really interesting to go online and get ideas from other teachers in the district," says Bechtel, now a facilitator. "You also feel less alone. Making people feel welcome and part of a team is how we’re going to retain our teachers."

—Karen J. Bannan

Vol. 14, Issue 4, Page 9

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