Our mentoring program for new teachers has been generated by teachers for teachers. Our teachers' union, which enjoys a strong partnership with our administration, has been the driving force behind this successful program. As of fall 1998, we are starting our sixth year of the program.
The program started after our association president attended a board meeting in which fourteen new teachers were dismissed. We knew we had hired quality people for the jobs. The questions were:
Why had so many new teachers failed?
How had we, as an association, failed them? We knew that we needed to take some action to avoid this problem in the future. Our new teachers deserved better support from the district and from their colleagues. We decided to explore solutions and provide the leadership to make a difference.
How We Developed Our Program
Here are the steps we took to develop and launch our program:
1. We called a general membership meeting for people who were interested in mentoring and establishing a program to create the energy we needed for the effort.
2. We contacted our Superintendent of Schools, Dr. John Fagan, with our proposal. He was very receptive of our ideas and helped us contact our district's Grants/Development/Management Specialist, Tom O'Loughlin. Tom was very helpful and he found some available money for us to use as mentor stipends.
3. Because we needed additional money for other items, our union also gave us a budget.
4. Several of us attended a seminar sponsored by The Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network to hear ideas on how other districts were handling their program.
5. We invited Richard Lange to address our small group on how we should proceed.
6. We made our final proposal to our union and school board, got their approval, and began the program.
Progress has been slow and steady with a great deal of input from our new teachers about how we can make changes for the better. We as mentors were not a trained group, but our enthusiasm was high.
During our first year we had ten mentors in place, one in each building. Also, the school principals realized that the mentors were there to assist and offer guidance to the new staff in their building. During that year we established a criteria for selecting mentors, an application form, and a general letter of information about the program.
By the second year we realized that we did not have all the pieces in place. Mentor training and replacement were issues that required thought.
By the beginning of the third year we approached the administration about providing the new staff orientation program. Following administration approval we began new teacher orientation training and monthly meetings for all of our new teachers.
Creation of an Internal "University 97"
Our district then established our own district university, University 97. This university is an internal program that trains teachers in Oak Park in curriculum and staff development. Teachers are given credit to attend classes and this credit can lead to advancement on the salary lanes.
With the establishment of the university, our mentoring program was now able to offer new options to our staff. The following options were able to occur:
1. New teachers were given credit to attend a monthly class, called Best Practices, which was taught by our own mentors. New teachers were given an opportunity to evaluate the class after each session and offer ideas for improvement and structure.
2. University 97 also allowed us the opportunity to offer a course in mentorship training for interested staff members.
3. To accompany the mentor training, New Teacher Handbooks were created for the staff.
4. Core classes were created that allowed the district the opportunity to train our new staff in essential areas.
Creating Time for a Program Coordinator
As part of the past contract negotiations, our district has now established a release time program that allows our peer coordinator the opportunity to work first hand with our new teachers. The coordinator sets up daily visits to the various schools and works with the new staff in a variety of ways. The main ideas is that the coordinator is there for assistance and that assistance might be modeling a lesson, helping with a lesson plan, attending a field trip or offering help at the computer.
The Benefits We See
We see, as a district, that this on-going collaboration brings benefits to everyone. The new staff members receive the support they deserve, the administration is supported in its initiatives, the district has improved its retention of excellent teachers, the teachers' organization has assumed a greater leadership role and modeled collaboration, the parents see the improved continuity of instruction and staff, and most of all, the students of our community benefits from all of these advantages because they have strong, effective teachers, even when the teachers are new to the career.