Publisher’s NOTE: The following column relates to the High school that my wife teaches for. She has not stopped working since retirement six years ago – or is it seven now? She ris more than familiar with the subject a matter and personal at the heart of what you are about to read. Arizona has a tremendous shortage of teachers – for reasons we have stated here before – maybe the following is part of the answer. ~ J.B.
As students file in to Adrianne Penullar’s general chemistry class at Westview High School, their first task is relinquishing their phones.
Each student has a labeled pocket on a shoe-caddy that hangs in the room. It’s called “Ms. P’s Cellphone Hotel,” and it’s a classroom management tool Penullar found on Pinterest and adopted with the help of her mentor, Teri Thomsen.
Thomsen identified phones as a disruption during one of her many visits to observe Penullar in the classroom as part of the New Teacher Academy, a mentor program designed to support beginning teachers in the Tolleson Union High School District.
The program was established in 2014 after a partnership with a teacher induction program dissolved, said Vickie Landis, director of curriculum and instruction at TUHSD. Landis was instrumental in planning and implementing the New Teacher Academy, which supports more than 100 teachers per year in the district.
“Without a teacher mentor program, it can take five to seven years for a teacher to be effective,” Landis said. “We know that we can reduce that time by providing a mentor.”
Penullar, who is in her second year at Westview High School, credits the support she receives from the New Teacher Academy as the primary reason she’s still teaching.
When Penullar began teaching in 2016, she was overwhelmed by the long hours and large class sizes, and she considered quitting several times within her first few months in the classroom.
Her mentor also saw she was struggling.
“I didn’t think she was going to make it past her first quarter,” Thomsen said. “She was struggling so severely. She was scared and intimidated.”
Thomsen said the New Teacher Academy begins when a new teacher is hired. Mentors in the program identify first- and second-year teachers, who begin intensive training to prepare for the classroom before the start of the school year.
Mentors are in the classroom observing and supporting their mentees almost daily for the first month, Thomsen said.
“In the beginning, I like to meet in my office because I want to pull them out of the classroom,” Thomsen said. “They’re stressed in the classroom, and there’s a lot going on.”
Thomsen, one of six mentors in the Academy, said the program develops more structure as the year progresses, with mentors observing once a week and then sitting down with mentees to discuss their observations.
“There’s no opinion and there’s no judgment at all. It has to be judgment-free because they have to trust me,” Thomsen said. “And it cannot feel like an evaluation or an attack because if you do that, you’ve just damaged the relationship and they’re not going to grow.”
Thomsen said the needs of each teacher vary, and the role of the mentor is to identify problem areas and provide the support and guidance necessary for teachers to develop their own solutions.
Penullar said she would typically have 36-40 students per class, and her struggles in the beginning centered on classroom and behavior management.
“I used to be afraid of being next to kids,” Penullar said. “There are many questions, and more often than not they all talk to you at the same time.”
Thomsen worked with her to address the issue, making observations and suggestions, and the two of them tweaked and adapted a few successful strategies, including the cellphone hotel.
“The two of us worked together, and she honestly is my pride and joy. I know that it was Adrianne and I together that got her where she is,” Thomsen said. “Now I actually take teachers into her classroom to see what she’s done. It’s given these other teachers the motivation and the power to recognize that they can do this, too.”
Mentor program’s success
It isn’t just the testimony of teachers and mentors that lends support to the success of efforts like the New Teacher Academy.
Tolleson Union High School District has seen a substantial increase in teacher retention in recent years. The district retained 82 percent of its first- and second-year teachers in the 2016-2017 school year, compared to only 62 percent in the previous year.
While other changes such as teacher pay raises also occurred in that timeframe, end-of-year surveys suggest the mentoring program may have had some impact on the increase in retention, according to Liza Lawson, a district mentor in La Joya Community High School.
“Teachers have said on the survey that they wouldn’t have made it through the year had it not been for their mentor,” Lawson said.
The New Teacher Center (NTC), a national organization that provides support and training modules for initiatives like the New Teacher Academy, conducted multiple studies that showed a link between mentor programs and an increase in teacher retention.
In a 2015 analysis of Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida, NTC found there was a 30 percent increase in teacher retention after two years. According to the survey, 90 percent of NTC-trained mentors claimed they remained committed to their district after five years.
Mentoring model could help others
While the New Teacher Academy may not have all the answers, it does provide a model that other Arizona districts could follow in providing support and potentially increasing retention, Landis said.
Danielle Brown, professional learning director for Arizona K12 Center, said mentor programs can be beneficial to new and veteran teachers.
Brown runs the Master Teacher Program at the K12 Center, which helps Arizona school districts identify and train mentors and establish mentor programs like the New Teacher Academy.
Brown said the Master Teacher Program “brings to the table a place for beginning teachers and veteran teachers to collaborate, and it provides veteran teachers with an opportunity to hone their teacher leadership skills.”
Lawson said establishing a mentor program could also help districts in recruiting new teachers.
“Because there are so many teaching openings, schools are really fighting over teachers,” Lawson said. “And there are teachers who have said that they chose the Tolleson district because they knew that they were going to have a mentor.”
According to Thomsen, retaining teachers boils down to building a bond with her mentees and creating a community.
“The more they feel connected to the people they’re working with and the more they embed themselves in the community…the more likely we are to keep them, regardless of the pay, regardless of how intensive the job is,” Thomsen said.
For Penullar, the New Teacher Academy provided the support she needed to continue doing what she loves, and that’s teaching students.
“I am not afraid of my kids anymore,” Penullar said. “Kids want to pass, and we as teachers have that responsibility to show them that it’s worth it. Teaching is a craft. You are making a difference with every single kid.”
Written by Derek Hall and published by West Valley View ~ December 21, 2017
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