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Classroom instruction from some veterans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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 new 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.

Adding structure

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 hope that the mentor program will make the county more attractive to those beginning their careers.

"It was a good incentive for us when we would go recruiting to talk about a formalized mentor program," said Sharyn Doyle, supervisor of teacher personnel with county schools. She estimated that the school system will hire 300 first-year teachers for the 2000-2001 school year.

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.

Individual fine-tuning

Although some aspects of the mentor position are well-defined, others aren't spelled out but depend on each mentor's style.

"A mentor might take a lunch or bus duty for a new teacher to give her more time to plan, or put an apple in the mailbox with a little note," said Mary Brunst, one of four staff development specialists who will coordinate the program. "It's important to remind them, 'You really aren't isolated. There are a lot of people who care about your success.'"

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.

Felt 'isolated and alone'

Jones noted that after the security of student-teaching experiences, many new teachers are filled with doubt when they take charge of their classrooms for the first time. "They're wondering, 'Am I going to be able to manage the classroom, to discipline and construct an adequate lesson plan?'"

By Jones' calculations, the mentors average 20.7 years of experience in the classroom - and 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."

In her 20 years of teaching, Espersen said, she has supervised student-teachers and tried to help new teachers whenever she could. "A lot of them came back and said, 'Boy, it would have been nice if we had someone to stay with us through the first year.'"

Sharing strategies

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 a total of 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.' Thank God she was there."

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's no longer realistic to rely on informal mentoring. "The level of expectations is so high," she said.

Extra support

Mentors for beginning teachers will be assigned at these 14 Anne Arundel County schools:

Meade High

North County High

Bates Middle School

MacArthur Middle

Marley Middle

Freetown Elementary

Georgetown East Elementary

Harman Elementary

Hilltop Elementary

Marley Elementary

Maryland City Elementary

Meade Heights Elementary

Mills-Parole Elementary

Point Pleasant Elementary

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