Mentor program helps new teachers thrive

“It’s like flying a plane, while building it, with children on board.”

That’s the metaphor Heidi Kellar, who mentors new teachers in the Washougal School District, uses to describe a teacher’s first year on the job.

“In a teacher’s first year leading a classroom, they are learning to do many things at once,” said Kellar, who taught for seven years before becoming a mentor.

A new teacher is learning to manage a classroom of about 25 to 30 students, figuring out how to help the students listen and behave, and how to provide learning for students with a wide-range of abilities and behaviors. All while, finding time to get ahead on curriculum and communicate with parents, principals and other staff members.

“Many first-year teachers will spend 60 to 70 hours a week just to be prepared for class,” Kellar said.

The Washougal School District has about 10 new teachers a year, and Kellar’s main role is to make sure those teachers have the instructional and emotional support they need to get through their first year.

According to researchers, the practice helps retain teachers. The Institute for Education Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education’s statistical wing published a study in 2015 that found roughly 70 percent of first-year teachers remain at their original schools, but that 17 percent leave the profession within their first five years. For teachers who had mentors during their first year, the study found that 86 percent were likely to still be teaching five years later.

A little more than one-third of the teachers in the Washougal School District are considered “new,” having started their jobs with the district in the past five years.

Marian Young, WSD’s director of human resources, said some of these teachers filled newly created positions, but that the majority were replacing other educators.

“We have developed our Mentor Program in recognition of the 38 percent of our teachers new to our district,” Young said. “All new teachers receive support through orientation and professional development before the school year begins. Teachers who are also new to the profession receive additional support through the school year, with professional development and on-the-job coaching.”

Young added that the district has averaged about 10 percent of staff leaving at the end of a school year over the past five years. The data matches a University of Washington report on Washington State teachers, which shows that between 9.9 percent and 11.1 percent of teachers left their district between 2013 and 2016.

Kalista Ewer, a second-year teacher at Columbia River Gorge Elementary, said she’s had a good experience as a new teacher in Washougal.

“I think it’s going to be overwhelming no matter where you’re at, but this program definitely makes it easier,” Ewer said.

She said one of her challenges has been managing a large class of 31 fifth-graders, but that Kellar has been a great resource for classroom management ideas and has taught Ewer to make the best out of the situation.

“We can email her about anything. She will help with any topic. She will come model a lesson. She will be in the classroom or outside the classroom,” Ewer said of Kellar. “It is a huge help to have that point person, even if it’s just to bounce ideas off of her.”

Kellar said the first year for a teacher is really hard, and that the emotional support she offers is sometimes just listening to the new teachers.

“Sometimes I’ll ask them about what’s going well, just to force them to think about the good things that are happening and the successes their students are having,” Kellar said.

Often, special education teachers, because they have even more to do during their classroom time, have the hardest time adjusting, Kellar added.

The district added an additional special-ed mentor, Leslie DeShazer, this year.

A first-year special education teacher has a lot of responsibilities, including keeping their students safe while meeting individuals’ unique needs, DeShazer said.

“While the student’s well-being and education is the first priority, their second priority is managing important paperwork associated with evaluations and individualized education plans (IEPs),” DeShazer said. “Those documents drive the education plan for students.”

Since becoming a mentor, DeShazer said she has helped the new special education teachers prepare for the school year by working together to set up classrooms and get general procedures and policies in place before students arrived in September. Additionally, she supported the new teachers through their interactions with parents, as they developed IEPs and while they managed support staff.

“A new special education teacher has to be a strong communicator. Each student with special needs has a large team to support decision making,” DeShazer said. “The special education teacher is the hub of information for the team. The goal is to keep parents, general education teachers, therapists and support staff all moving in the same direction to support the whole child.”

Kellar’s position as the new teacher mentor was created in October of 2014. Before that, the district used a colleague mentor model, where a new teacher was paired with another teacher who taught the same grade level or subject for the first year.

Many school districts still use that model, which has a lot of benefits, such as the proximity to the colleague, Kellar said. One drawback to the program is that, if the colleague mentor was busy and stressed, it was usually at the same time that the new teacher was busy and stressed.

To help alleviate that problem, in 2014, the district created Kellar’s position as a fully released mentor, which means she’s not also teaching a full load of students and mentoring on top of that.

The Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) also grants more money to districts that are using a fully released mentor model, because the program ensures that mentors are trained and that all first-year teachers have a mentor before school starts, Kellar explained.

“When I started the job, I thought I was to be a fountain of knowledge.” Kellar said. “And the longer I’ve done it, the more I’ve realized that sometimes, you do offer advice, but the first step is to help the teacher reflect and surface their own ideas, so that eventually they’re not going to have a mentor and need to be able to figure and solve things on their own.”

Kellar said she starts talking with new teachers as soon as they are hired.

“I’m able to meet with every first-year teacher before school starts, once or twice, to help them get their room set up and help them get ready for the first day,” Kellar said.

From there, the first-year teachers will meet with Kellar one-on-one every week and as a group once a month to discuss specific topics.

Kellar visits the teachers’ classrooms at least once a month and offers non-evaluated feedback on how they’re doing. She said she usually bases the feedback around the goals they are working on, such as classroom management or differentiation.

“When you get trained as a mentor you learn about different feedback that is most helpful for new teachers,” she said. “What’s most helpful, is for them to hear all the things they’re doing really well, and then one or two things to think about.”

Elizabeth Camp, a second-year fifth-grade teacher at Gause Elementary, said the mentor program has been wonderful.

“They can provide resources and training and connect us with further training that fits our certain need,” Camp said.

Ewer said having a mentor like Kellar has been an awesome benefit to her.

“They offer professional development, they offer support of every type, sometimes even if I just have to rant, (she’s) there for that too, and figuring out how to figure all this out,” Ewer said. “It’s a lot, and the program isn’t something that every district has, and it’s amazing that we do have it.”