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Mentoring program helps first-year teachers survive - and thrive

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2010 - Shaire Strong-Duncan changed her mind about her original career choice, probation and parole, because she decided she didn't want to carry a gun.

Instead, she went into a profession where she was presented with a survival kit of a bottle of water, a granola bar, Post-It notes, pencils, hand sanitizer and a box of Kleenex -- and those got used a lot.

Strong-Duncan just completed her first year as a teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools, with 10 seven-grade students at Big Picture Middle School. She was also part of the first class of teacher interns in the St. Louis Plan, a program designed to help newcomers survive their debut in the classroom with a boost from mentors who can impart techniques to cope with what can be a tough transition.


With support from Rochelle Lewis, a 30-year classroom veteran, she made it through -- but not without some rough moments teaching students at an age that isn't always the easiest to get along with.

"They were the worst kids in the school," Strong-Duncan said of her class at the start of the year. "They were very disrespectful. They were rude. I'd never seen students like this before. They were just not motivated."

Rude awakenings like that contribute to the high turnover of first-year teachers -- a number estimated as high as 50 percent or more nationwide. To help keep qualified teachers in the classroom -- and help weed out those who may have chosen the wrong career path -- the city schools instituted the St. Louis Plan last fall, modeling it after a similar mentoring program in Toledo, Ohio, that began nearly 30 years ago.

Besides matching rookie teachers with experienced ones, the St. Louis Plan also has introduced an evaluation system that is used with both new teachers and experienced ones whose performance in the classroom has been judged unacceptable. Twelve consultant teachers act as mentors to newcomers across the district. Strong-Duncan is one of 24 teachers to complete the first year.

Cheryl Ward, one of the managers of the St. Louis Plan and a veteran educator herself, said two groups who have not always supported such efforts have helped to make the plan work -- principals and the teachers union, Local 420 of the American Federation of Teachers.

"We didn't know how principals would take this," Ward said. "Principals are in charge of their schools. This program has changed the whole dynamics of the St. Louis Public Schools' setup."

And as far as the union's role, Ward said they actually brought the plan to the district.


Two survival kits


One of the keys to making the St. Louis Plan work, Ward says, is that the mentors are educators whose heart is in the classroom. They are not looking to move up the district's ladder into the principal's office. They know too well what a first-year teacher will face because they deal with the same situations every day.

"If you want to be an administrator," she said, "you aren't part of the St. Louis Plan. We want teachers, people who have been on the battlefield. One of the biggest insults I ever got was when I was an instructional coordinator and someone said 'Cheryl, you've been out of the classroom too long.'"

That's not a problem that Lewis had. As a special education teacher for three decades, she was eager to join the St. Louis Plan and help newbies like Strong-Duncan -- and arm them with things they would need to survive, like the kit she presented on the day before classes were about to begin.

"The very next day she was going to have students," Lewis recalled.

"She had the agenda," Strong-Duncan added. "She was already focused. All I had to was follow through."

Building on the survival idea, Strong-Duncan made her own survival kits for her students -- a Ziploc bag containing a pencil with an eraser, a pen and five Life Savers. The eraser, she said, would show the students that everyone makes mistakes that can be changed, but the pen emphasized that some things are set in concrete.

As for the Life Savers -- they represented the fact that the world is an open place, and we're all in this together.

As the school year progressed, Lewis would show up in Strong-Duncan's classroom for observations, formal and informal. At times, she had to hold her tongue about what she thought was the best way to solve whatever problems came up. Seventh-grade girls often require conflict resolution as much as they need academic instruction, and Strong-Duncan's mediation efforts helped cool a sometimes heated atmosphere.

"The main thing was her interaction with the girls," Lewis said. "She pointed out to the girls whenever their behavior had escalated the problems."

Another key that Lewis taught was to make sure the parents are involved in whatever issues came up, including home visits by the teacher if necessary.

"You have to help us work with your child," Strong-Duncan said of the role that parents have to play. "There is no way this can work without parents, teachers and administrators always being together. Without that, there will always be a missing link."

Lewis said Strong-Duncan "fell right into that" part of the job, even with the caveat that she can't let the students' problems become all-consuming.

"A lot of times you can get overly concerned with things we can't deal with as teachers," Lewis said. "You have to keep things in perspective, figuring out what you can do and what you can't do."

"Every day is not going to be peaches and cream," Strong-Duncan echoed. "You have to let it go and come back tomorrow."

Strong-Duncan said she would use writing prompts to get her students to express their feelings and develop their verbal skills, often asking them to write to music, from classical to jazz to R&B. Because her class will be looped, Strong-Duncan will have the same students again this fall as eighth-graders, so she will be able to help them build on the progress they have made.


Real life experience


She will also be able to build on her experiences. One value of the St. Louis Plan, she said, is that she and her rookie colleagues have seen the difference between what they were taught in school and what they were up against when their own students filed in to the classroom.

"They tell you how to group your students, but they don't tell you what roles they might play, and what role I play as a teacher," Strong-Duncan said. "I have come to realize that these kids are not motivated, and if I were to come in with low energy, complacent, not motivated myself, all of that would come down to the students.

"Book knowledge is fine, but when you get into the classroom, it's a whole different ballgame."

Lewis also tried to stress that teachers have to use their successes as the basis for progress.

"Don't think about what you're doing wrong," she said. "Think about one thing you are doing right, and build on that."

Above all, Lewis said, she tried to communicate a passion for teaching for students -- a passion she feels so strongly, she is leaving the mentoring program after just one year to get back into the classroom herself.

Strong-Duncan seemed to have learned that lesson well and reveled in the progress her students made.

"When you are passionate about something," she said, "and you know it's what you are meant to do, you don't concentrate on monetary rewards. Overcoming obstacles is the best reward ever. Money comes and goes, but to see these students being able to own their own education, that's what makes me feel good."

And she obviously feels good about the mentoring she received.

"It's non-threatening," she said. "Being a first-year teacher, I didn't feel comfortable talking with my principal about behavior problems or lesson plans. I didn't want my principal to know I couldn't control my class. Ms. Lewis was able to relieve some of that stress."

To Ward, such interaction is exactly how the St. Louis Plan is designed to work.

"We need teachers to grow every year," she said. "I will never get to the point where I will know it all. We're here to keep them.

"With the relationship between these two, and in life in general, relationships build things. People do a lot because of that."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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