First-year teachers spell help m-e-n-t-o-r

It's been a long day in school for Erica Staine, a first-year teacher.

"I've been working so hard," she says, looking exhausted in the gravel parking lot of the Pinkston Street Elementary school in Henderson, N.C. Most of the other teachers left hours ago. Ms. Staine just finished preparing the next day's lesson plan.

"It never stops," she adds. "We've got the [state] test coming up, too. That's a lot of pressure."

Fortunately, she has help. Standing close beside her is Nikki Thompson, who has taught for four years and is Staine's friend and mentor. She has been helping with lesson plans and giving Staine clues on how to manage her room.

"I don't know what I would have done if she wasn't here," Staine says.

But state officials do. One-third of new North Carolina teachers quit by their fifth year. So to hang onto recruits, the state is doing something others are not: spending millions to train and pay experienced teachers to mentor first-year teachers.

This program is so new that its impact on new-teacher attrition can't yet be calculated. But the payoff can be seen at Pinkston Street, north of Raleigh.

Two years ago, this school's students were pegged as the lowest-performing in the state. Since then everyone here has been under enormous pressure to bring students up to grade level. New teachers like Staine find they must perform like veterans from the start.

Last year, the school's scores leapt dramatically. And much of that jump was due to the overtime of new teachers supported by a handful of seasoned teacher-mentors like veteran Peggy Price.

"I'd like to see the day when every young first-year teacher could spend the year with a veteran," she says. "These graduates just haven't had enough actual classroom experience."

Ms. Price mentors two of the 12 first-year teachers out of a staff of 25. Her advice runs from the formidable (how to handle and avoid student behavior problems) to the mundane - how to stay organized when collecting homework.

Mentoring new teachers is not a new idea, of course. Education reformers have long advocated it. But with a national teacher shortage looming, and about 30 percent of new teachers quitting in their first five years, there are signs it may catch on in hard-pressed states first.

In Massachusetts, where science and math teachers are in short supply, reform legislation long ago called for mentors for new teachers. Nothing happened. But some districts are now taking it up.

Nick Ballasel is in charge of mentoring for 160 new teachers in the Boston public schools, where it has been a major program only since 1994.

"The attrition rates among new teachers in urban school systems are horrific - 30 to 50 percent," he says. "Even those that are fully trained who come into schools find it very difficult."

To promote mentoring, Simmons College in Boston has established a working partnership between its school of education and Teachers21 in Acton, Mass., a nonprofit group that runs mentoring sessions aimed at easing new-teacher transitions. Together the two will jointly operate a "Beginning Teacher Center."

"You would never take a graduate from medical school and throw them into surgery," says Jonathon Saphier, Teachers21 chairman and author of one of the bibles of teaching, "The Skillful Teacher." "You find mentorship in architecture, engineering, and law - we need it in education," too.

That makes good sense to Dan Conti, an English teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Sudbury, Mass. He got crucial help from a veteran teacher his first year. Now he's running a mentoring program at his school.

"Colleagues, administrators, department heads, kids, parents, the school committee - the state," he says. "The demands come from all corners and it all hits you all at once on the first day."

And none of this even involves teaching. "You get thrown in and you basically tread water furiously for the first year. That's what I did," he says.

And that's what Kate Chatellier is doing at 8:40 a.m., just minutes before her science class at Fenway High School in Boston. Ms. Chatellier is a fifth-year teacher-education student who will receive a master's degree in teaching from Simmons in May. She is, by all accounts, "treading water" well. For most of her last year she has been teaching full time.

She snaps the class to attention. To help illustrate her lesson on how atoms bond to one another to form molecules, she's brought two bags of colored gum drops and toothpicks. Students will stick together atoms (gum drops) to create molecules like ammonia and water - a red gum drop equals oxygen, a blue one equals hydrogen.

"Can we eat the gum drops?" asks one girl, her hand raised over her head.

"After class, that's fine."

When class is finished, Chatellier grabs a pad of paper and rushes to a room with a TV set and VCR. There, her mentor, Susan Panico, a veteran with National Board Certification (awarded by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards), reviews minute-by-minute what happened in class.

"My first impression is that they were not really settled, so it was hard to engage them," Ms. Panico says.

Chatellier nods and listens. The video reveals that she is calling mainly on students toward the front - and on those who volunteer. Panico urges her to develop a strategy that includes more students in the back of the room.

Afterward, Chatellier reviews: She needs to settle the students down more, develop a pattern of questioning, make different seat assignments - for starters.

Still, the session has left her upbeat. "I'm really glad to have this extra year of practice," she says. "It gives you more confidence.... I feel like I can come back next year and dive right in."

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