`Buddy system' gives first-year teachers support from veterans

JUDY HALL remembers well her first months as an elementary schoolteacher. ``All of a sudden there were 25 kids in front of me,'' she says. ``I had all these new responsibilities and there was an overwhelming amount to do.'' Although she had just successfully completed her education degree, she considered herself a failure at actually teaching subjects like reading.

``I didn't think I could reveal to anyone how I was feeling,'' she adds. ``I'd come home on the weekend crying. I just didn't want the job, and I didn't think I could make it through the year.''

Ms. Hall's first year would have been markedly different, she concludes, ``if I'd had a person who could have given me practical suggestions and a realistic view of teaching.''

Twenty-five years later, Hall is still teaching, but she also supervises a state-run pilot program in the Westport, Conn., public schools that offers new teachers the very help she lacked. Under the program, every ``rookie'' is paired with an accomplished veteran or ``mentor,'' whose support and advice are making the first year less painful and more productive. By July 1988, Connecticut will require all public schools to provide the same support, and mentor teachers will receive training and stipends.

Even before the state became involved, though, Westport had established a ``buddy system'' to aid its new teachers. An influx of almost 30 faculty members - half of whom were brand new - in the fall of 1985 prompted school officials to adjust.

``We're a fairly compassionate school system,'' says Morton Sherman, Westport's director of curriculum and instruction. ``Our responsibility does not stop after we throw teachers into the classroom.''

Superintendent Claire Gold adds: ``We were concerned that a lot of first- and second-year teachers fall by the wayside because they feel frustrated or inept. Or worse, they stay on teaching having developed bad habits.

``It's also very difficult for a new, insecure teacher to unburden problems to a principal,'' Dr. Gold explains. The buddy system provides ``an older colleague who's been through the ropes and who in a simple way can help with classroom management and curriculum.''

The ``buddies'' make contact before the fall term and meet frequently with the new teachers throughout the school year. Their involvement extends from helping with details such as obtaining classroom supplies and arranging parent conferences, sharing instructional methods and tips, to exchanging classroom visits.

Mainly, though, the senior buddy stays close and available to the incoming teacher. To this end, the pair is usually located in adjacent classrooms or in the same office and is matched according to grade level or academic subject.

Westport's recently hired instructors tell a story that relegates experiences like Judy Hall's to the educational Dark Ages. Peter von Euler says of his entry into fourth grade teaching last year, ``I felt that I wasn't out there alone. I had someone to come to and say, `I had a horrible day,' and usually she would pick up on the few positive things that had come out of it.''

Sue Robey, a kindergarten teacher, admits that without a buddy to consult, ``I would have been a lot more unsure I was doing the right thing. Because she'd get excited about my ideas, it was easier to give them a try.''

The bottom line, insists Gold, is that ``we have had very, very few failures. These new teachers have turned out not only well, but excellently.''

The buddy system also affects the veteran who participates. They gain recognition as good teachers, renew their enthusiasm, and generate further insights into their profession. New teachers have much to offer, observes Dr. Sherman, especially in their understanding of recent learning theories and technologies and in their overall perception of the world.

Of her work last year with Von Euler, Pat Beasley reflects, ``I learned a great deal because we had fresh ideas.'' Most of the experienced teachers indicate that they are thinking and talking about their own approaches, even as they seek to help their younger colleagues.

The emerging state program - now being pilot tested in 11 school districts besides Westport - is much like the buddy system. In fact, Gold chaired a committee that recommended how the state version should operate. The senior teachers and the new faculty members for whom they are selected meet twice weekly and attend monthly conferences outside of school.

In explaining why mentorship will become statewide and will be required for certification within two years, Marjorie Bradley, who directs the state program, stresses the need to train and retain new teachers effectively. ``We lose a lot of very good people the first three years,'' she reveals. ``This way we can maximize help when teachers are most eager to learn. The match is perfect.''

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