Fox Prairie third grade teacher Emily Daino is in her first year as a full-time teacher after filling it at the school last spring as a long-term substitute. Once a month, she meets with Stoughton Area School District mentor teacher Chris Keenan to either observe her classroom, or the two watch another educator in action.
“We can talk about what the other teacher did, and if there are ideas I can take back to my classroom, and it makes me feel like I have guidance and have that support,” Daino told the Hub last month. “Chris is really good about saying, ‘What do you think, and how do you think we should change this?’ and trying to help me get the answer.”
Being a first-year teacher can be stressful, she said, and having a mentor on your side can make all the difference. She recalled an inspirational conversation Keenan had with her at the beginning of the year about “finding your miracles.”
“(It’s) finding the people who work to build you up and get you excited about education and who really love what they do, so you don’t get down on what you’re doing,” Daino said. “It’s hard to be really down on what you’re doing when you’re around those great people.”
While new educators often start their careers eager and full of energy and ideas, jumping into the new role can be stressful. To help ease them through those first years – and keep them teaching in Stoughton – the district’s expanded mentoring program focuses on working together to build long-term skills in the profession.
The program has gotten high grades from some district educators, who say the program has helped them through rough early stretches and given them a trusted educator to turn to.
Stoughton has had teacher mentorship since 2002-03, part of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) pilot program. For the first several years, Keenan was on her own, but as the number of new educators in the district has grown, so has the mentorship program.
This year, she is assisted by fellow mentor Stephanie Krenz, formerly a German language teacher at Stoughton High School. The two are keeping busy, as it’s the first year that DPI has mandated public school districts offer mentoring from a licensed teacher for educators with fewer than three years’ full-time classroom experience.
Not coincidentally, that move comes when the state is seeing fewer college graduates go into the teaching profession, and Keenan said also more teachers leaving the profession “for retirement or for other reasons.”
“I don’t know if they are retiring earlier than they used to (but) we’re seeing more teachers leave the profession,” she told the Hub last month.
To help keep new educators on the path, the district uses a “full release” model, meaning mentors’ duties are solely on mentoring, with no classroom duties.
“We’re able to put our full focus into our new educators and not having to wear several different hats,” Keenan said. “It’s been a model that has worked great for our district.”
The DPI teacher induction and mentoring guidebook highlights the district’s model as one of several “identified as most strongly influencing student learning gains.”
Releasing the mentor teachers from their teaching contract for three years allows them to “engage in ongoing observation cycles that provides the necessary time for deep, instructionally focused conversations,” the guidebook states.
During the school year, mentors work with mentees and their building principals, as well as one-on-one and monthly mentor forums with educators from other districts. Keenan said when she meets with her teachers, they talk about “less of the content of the class” than more big-picture topics.
“We’re trying to provide support, and (show) what effective and good quality teaching looks like,” she said. “We focus on the quality of instruction being provided.”
Ultimately, relationship building is the key to making an impact with a young educator, Keenan said.
“The No. 1 thing a mentor really needs to do is have that piece of trust, because they need to know when we go in to make those observations, it’s just between the two of us,” she said. “They can be themselves and ask questions that maybe they are afraid to ask other teachers.
“When you’re new, you don’t want people to think you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Finding the ‘flow’
Now in his second year as a physical education instructor at Sandhill Elementary, Beau Gueths has found a bit of a comfort zone, which he credits to working closely with Keenan last year. Even though his “classroom” is different than most teachers, he said she’s been able to gear their discussions toward more general themes, from how to manage students’ attention to filing paperwork.
“Especially my first year, I didn’t know what I needed to do to fill out this thing or that, and she’s been a great resource on how I document all that stuff and made it very stress-free,” he told the Hub. “That was a huge, huge help.”
His “rookie” season last year was a bit stressful at times, Gueths admitted, but this year is going much more smoothly, he said – something Keenan has noticed, as well.
“She was saying, ‘When you’re up there in front of the students, the flow of things is much more natural,” he said. “Year one, you have to figure things out as you go, and you definitely learn a lot. Year two is cruising along, and I’m having a lot of fun.
“I can definitely see myself just growing further and further and kind of getting a hold of everything.”