Providing some guidance for the new 'kids' in class


Sharon Gibb remembers being a newly minted teacher at Mayo Elementary School in 1965. She was 22, and her only experience in front of a class was teaching an Army GED class in Germany.

In short, she was overwhelmed.

"I particularly remember being in awe of the teacher in the classroom next to me, and she was very good to me," Gibb recalled. "They all seemed to know what they were doing, and I didn't."

The teaching profession has changed greatly in the 35 years since Gibb first faced down a room of 10- and 11-year-olds, but new teachers still experience the same uncertainty and anxiety.

As a participant in Anne Arundel County's first formal mentor program for teachers - which will begin next month - Gibb, 57, plans to devote this phase of her career to helping newcomers navigate the treacherous early years in the classroom.

County school officials hope the initiative will improve the overall quality of teaching in county schools and boost retention rates for new teachers. Thirty percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years, according to the Maryland State Teachers Association.

"There's definitely a sense of passing on the torch," Gibb said of her decision to be a mentor. "Not to sound soupy, but if you're committed to what you're doing, you want that to continue in this world."

Gibb and 17 other mentor teachers spent last week training at the school system's Carver Staff Development Center in Crofton, and three more veteran teachers are being sought to fill openings in the program.

The 21 mentors will work with first- and second-year teachers at 14 county schools, with each mentor assigned a maximum of eight new teachers. Program organizers considered several factors in the selection of schools, including the socioeconomic levels of students, the amount of school support staff and the school's teacher-turnover rate.

Anne Arundel County schools have had informal mentoring programs for new teachers for the past five years, but officials decided that the mentoring had to be more structured to be effective.

"We really campaigned for this to be a full-time position," said Pat Jones, the county schools' staff development specialist who developed the new mentor program.

Other jurisdictions with full-time mentors for new teachers include Prince George's and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City.

As Anne Arundel competes for a shrinking pool of teachers, school officials are hoping that the mentor program will make the county more attractive to those beginning their careers.

The mentors who will work with some of these new teachers were selected by school principals based on classroom management skills, leadership abilities and interest in nurturing beginning teachers.

"The mentor role is not to be a parent; the mentor role is to guide and be a coach," Jones told them last week during the training workshop. "It's a nonjudgmental, nonevaluative role."

Responsibilities include helping teachers develop lesson plans, sharing effective classroom strategies, co-teaching classes and introducing the newcomers to their colleagues. In addition to school-day mentoring duties, mentors are required to hold monthly meetings with their beginning teachers, and attend monthly mentor meetings with staff development specialists.

Mentors have made a four-year commitment to the program; it is expected that those who don't retire will return to teaching.

During training, each mentor received a three-ring binder filled with materials intended to help them smooth the way for new teachers: a sample mentor weekly schedule, tips on how to be an effective listener, and a 33-item checklist to prepare teachers for the first day of school - from emphasizing the importance of routines for students to locating the restrooms and teachers' lounge.

By Jones' calculations, the mentors average 20.7 years of experience in the classroom. Most remember their days as a nervous novice.

"I felt very isolated and alone," said Lora Espersen, 54, who will be a mentor at MacArthur Middle School. "Even though people were very kind to me, they had a limited amount of time they could spend with me because they had a full load, too."

During the workshop, the group discussed some common problems faced by first-year teachers, including difficulties with planning and classroom management.

"The truth is, beginning teachers have a really bare-bones approach to planning and designing instruction," Jones said. "And you will help them to put some meat on those bones."

Dana Kirby, at 25 the youngest in the mentor corps, said her biggest challenge as a new teacher was "managing the variety of personalities in a classroom and figuring out individual students' needs." With four years' teaching experience at Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park, Kirby is not far removed from the panic of her first year. "I was lucky," she said. "I was next to a teacher who taught for 31 years. She would hand me things and say, 'Do this, it will work with your kids.'"

Like Kirby, most of the mentors benefited from an experienced teacher who took the time to show them the ropes. But the job is more complex as teachers juggle individualized instruction, prepare children for state tests and try to keep up with technology.

With increased demands on teachers, Jones said, it is no longer realistic to rely on informal mentoring. "The level of expectations is so high," she said.

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