Learning From The Experienced

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Since the early 1980s, however, a number of states and districts have begun to address the problem, creating mentor programs to ease the rookie's transition into the profession. The typical program pairs novices with experienced veterans, who observe and work with the newcomers during their critical first year in the classroom. Many districts pay their mentors a sizable stipend for taking on the coaching responsibility, so the programs have the added advantage of offering experienced teachers the chance to advance professionally without leaving the classroom.

Although some are threatened or being whittled away by budget cuts, mentor programs were up and running in 19 states in early 1991, according to a study conducted by Indiana State University education professor Daniel Horton. Of these, 11 require new teachers to participate in them as a condition for certification. Some programs, in fact, give mentors a prominent role in deciding whether the new teacher should be certified.

Most of those selected as mentors are skilled veterans who have proved that they can work well with others. Typically, the mentor's and novice's teaching loads are reduced so both can focus on the mentoring process. And it is not uncommon for a school or district to hire a substitute to free up a new teacher so he or she can observe other classes or attend workshops. Inservice programs for mentors and new teachers are also usually provided. In some places, the first year serves as a probationary period, with the new teacher becoming fully certified only after successfully completing the mentoring year.

All this adds up to positive results, Horton says. His study found that mentoring programs improve teaching, raise teachers' self-confidence, and increase teacher retention. Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Connecticut, for example, evaluated its own mentor program in 1989 and found that 88 percent of its new teachers felt that working with mentors made them more competent teachers; 73 percent said that the mentoring increased their enthusiasm for teaching. And in Indiana, both mentors and new teachers gave that state's program a positive rating in a 1989 study.

Special education teacher Lori Beverage doesn't need survey results to know that mentoring works. When she was first hired by the Toledo, Ohio, public schools, Beverage took part in the district's 10-year-old Intern Consultant Program. She completed her first year of teaching under the guiding hand of mentor Gail Lance. "It was a valuable program,'' Beverage says. "I was not someone who sailed through. I came into my classroom in October with one day's notice, and Gail's help was just in- valuable. I'm a much better teacher for having been in that program.''

Unfortunately, mentor programs are not cheap. In Toledo, for example, mentors are released from their teaching duties for three years and receive $4,000 a year in addition to their regular salary. The stipends and inservice training for program participants cost the district $350,000 last year.

And in New York state, individual school districts have been applying to the state for grants to reduce the class loads of mentors and new teachers and to provide inservice training. The 5-year-old program cost the state $16million last year, including $8 million for New York City alone.

These kinds of costs have made mentor programs a tempting target for state and local officials looking, during this recessionary period, for ways to slash budgets. So the programs have been among the first to feel the knife.

The Toledo program that so helped Beverage, for example, is in serious jeopardy. In December 1990, the local school board decided to eliminate the program from the its 1991 budget. But the Toledo Federation of Teachers vehemently opposed the move, and, in the end, the program received a oneyear reprieve. Nobody is sure what will happen next year.

New York state completely eliminated its mentoring program from the education budget this year. And in Connecticut, lawmakers cut the funding for that state's successful 2-yearold program by 70 percent; new teachers will still be required to participate in the program, but their mentors will no longer receive stipends.

Kansas eliminated its fledgling program in 1989, after spending four years piloting it in select districts. "We were ahead of the game,'' says Kathy Boyer, a specialist for the state department of education. "Unfortunately, it was just not good timing for money.''

Indiana, too, is facing budget cuts this year, but, unlike many other states, its mentor program will remain intact. Carolyn Roper, director of the state's 3 year-old Beginning Teacher Internship Program, says it survived the budget cutting process because it has a broad base of support among teachers and administrators. That it is relatively inexpensive also didn't hurt; mentors in the state, who teach a full load in addition to their support duties, receive a meager $600 a year for the extra services they provide. Last year, the total cost to the state was only $1.7 million.

But Indiana seems to be the exception to the rule. "When you have a $2 billion deficit in the state, you have to cut things,'' says Harriet Feldlaufer, program manager of Connecticut's Beginning Educator Support and Training program. "And sometimes governors and legislators have to make decisions to cut without necessarily having knowledge of the individual program.''

The mentor programs' worried defenders believe these policymakers are being extremely shortsighted. "Common sense and anecdotal evidence say these programs are cost effective,'' says Indiana's Roper. "Fewer teachers leave; it's as simple as that. Once you get a new teacher trained and with experience, you have a better teacher. And it also means the district does not have to recruit and orient another new person.''

Debra Ladestro

Vol. 03, Issue 02, Page 1-24

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