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Mentoring program helps Mankato retain teachers
College of Education partnership
A widely recognized and loudly applauded Mankato teacher mentoring program, made possible by a College of Education partnership, is stemming the tide of new-teacher turnover.
By Tanner Kent, Free Press Staff Writer [published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 8/16/2008]
Photos by John Cross
Lanette Olson, Bridget Weigt, Susan Levandowski, Kristin Dauk and Tracy Sexton are (left to right) this year's mentors for Mankato Area Public Schools' teacher induction program. In Mankato the program has helped curb a steep turnover rate for teachers.
When Kristin Bro was interviewing for teaching jobs two years ago, there was something in particular that sold her on Mankato Area Public Schools.
But that something wasn't any of the obvious choices — location, money or benefits. Instead, Bro was looking for that certain something that, she thought, would ensure her success as a kindergarten teacher.
"I interviewed with a lot of other school districts," Bro said, "and one of the biggest questions for me was, 'Do you have a program for young teachers?'"
Bro's worries aren't isolated. In a burn-out occupation such as teaching, debates about retention and turnover rates are nothing new.
Even since the days of single-room schoolhouses and yardstick discipline, communities have been trying to find ways to hire — and then keep — good teachers.
Educators have long held that 50 percent of all teachers leave the profession after five years, and 15 percent leave after the first year. In 2006, a study by the National Education Association confirmed those numbers.
In 2007 alone, the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future estimated teacher turnover cost public schools more than $7 billion in administrative and hiring costs. The troubling economy and increasingly pressurized environment of classrooms have only tinted the discussion with more fervor.
But in Mankato, a widely recognized and loudly applauded teacher mentoring program is stemming the tide.
"Research shows that a number of excellent teachers leave the field in their first five years," said Cindy Amoroso, Mankato's curriculum director and a former mentor.
Mentors undergo more than a year of training in order to help new teachers adjust to the classroom.
"There are many reasons for this, but one significant one is the lack of support they feel.
"Our program provides the necessary information and support about the district, its procedures and programs."
Mankato's programs consists, at the ground level, of five rotating teacher mentors on staggered three-year assignments. The mentors are regular district employees who are chosen from an application process. The position is full time and mentors receive their regular pay and benefits.
Those chosen as mentors are then trained in classroom support, from general advisement to curriculum integration to lesson plans, and act as both a colleague and friend to new teachers.
"Being a first-year mentor is like being a first-year teacher," said Kristin Dauk, an elementary mentor. "It takes a whole year just to learn the program."
When new teachers come to the Mankato Area School District — regardless of previous experience — they are automatically enrolled into the induction program.
It starts with an orientation session in late August and proceeds through the year with personal conferences, seminars and classroom observations. Discussions between the mentor and mentee are not shared with school administration, and the relationship is encouraged to be open and ongoing.
"The first year for any teacher is always the toughest," said special education mentor Lanette Olson. " You have a million questions and you just need that one person you can go to. Mentors can be that person."
Bro, who went through the mentoring program, said she chose Mankato because of all the support for teachers. Now beginning her third year of teaching, Bro said she appreciates even more the mindset that allows Mankato's mentoring program to flourish.
"It's just a team concept," Bro said. "Mankato does a great job of serving its students and its staff."
But the trouble is that teacher mentoring programs require a broad base of support. Some cashstrapped districts can't afford to let any teachers out of classroom time to become mentors.
Others don't have the administrative support in place to supervise and manage professional development programs. And still others don't have access to the kinds of higher education partnerships that have made Mankato's program so successful.
The district's collaborative effort with Minnesota State University allows for a handful of graduate students each year to substitute in a mentor's classroom. These teaching fellows are fully licensed, but considered students and are paid by the university and given free graduate-level tuition. In return, the mentors help place MSU students — as well as those at Bethany Lutheran and Gustavus Adolphus Colleges — into classrooms for field experience.
In 2007, the program earned a MnSCU award for community partnerships and was also hailed by Minnesota 2020 as the premier model for teacher induction. School districts from around the state have contacted Mankato about starting similar programs.
"The support of our administration and our partnership with MSU has been amazing," said Tracy Sexton, a middle and high school mentor. " We just couldn't do this without them."
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