Mentors help new teachers feel at home in classrooms, communities
Whether it is knowing how much homework to give, what to say in a parent-teacher conference, or where to find a good lobster roll, teachers who are new to their profession and/or the Island do not have to go it alone.
An induction program offered by the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) includes a school-based orientation program for all teachers new to the system. For beginning teachers, the induction program provides additional support through training workshops and a mentoring program. In the first weeks of school, they are matched up with veteran teachers who begin working with them one-on-one as their mentors.
In order to advance to a professional license in Massachusetts, beginning teachers must participate in an induction program and then undergo 50 hours of formal mentoring beyond their first year.
On February 13, new teachers finished the 100th day of their first year teaching in Martha's Vineyard schools. Thinking about how new presidents commemorate their first 100 days in office, Laurie Halt, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, thought the same milestone for the teachers deserved a celebration. Justine DeOliveira, a Spanish teacher at the regional high school and mentor steering committee member, arranged a late afternoon reception at the Mansion House for the 13 new teachers and six mentors in the program.
Kicking off the event, Ms. Halt offered congratulations and words of encouragement. "The first year of teaching is a roller coaster," she said, recalling her days as a new teacher. "In the first 100 days, so much involves trying to keep it all together. It gets a lot easier."
When asked to describe their first 100 days in one word, the teachers responded with words like overwhelming, exhilarating, exhausting, exciting - and Whoa!
Mentors, the Island connection
In talking with several teachers at the event, most of them said they were drawn to Martha's Vineyard to teach because of past visits to the Island or ties to family or friends. For Oly Wirtz and Stephanie Pavao, who had never been to Martha's Vineyard before, career opportunities were the attraction.
Ms. Wirtz responded to a job posting online and was hired to be a grade 2-8 Spanish teacher at Tisbury School two weeks before school started.
Undaunted by the idea of moving to the Vineyard, she said she viewed it as an adventure. "I didn't think about the difficulties of Island life - I just saw it as a great opportunity for me," said Ms. Wirtz, who is from Venezuela.
She went from teaching three English Language Learner (ELL) students in a middle school in Fitchburg last year to full classrooms in her new job at Tisbury School. Ms. Wirtz said her mentor at Tisbury School, third-grade teacher Anne Williamson, has helped her understand her students better and given her insight on how to talk to parents, which she did not have to do in her previous job.
Although Ms. Pavao's parents own a home on Cape Cod, the first time she set foot on Martha's Vineyard was for her interview at the high school for a Spanish and Portuguese teacher. For the last two years, she taught English, math and science to ELL students in a middle school in Leominster. Having lived in the Azores with her parents, who are Portuguese, Ms. Pavao wanted to find a foreign language teaching position that included both Spanish and Portuguese. The job at the high school filled the bill.
Ms. Pavao said her first year teaching two languages has been overwhelming at times. Having never taught Portuguese before, she had to start from scratch with a new curriculum. In addition to providing valuable help in learning school protocol, she said her mentor, regional high school teacher Jeff Caruthers, has been very supportive, always ready to listen to her vent at the end of a hard day.
Leah Dohr and Jennifer Farley first worked at Oak Bluffs School as paraprofessionals before becoming teachers there, a path they highly recommend. Ms. Dohr, now a grade 7/8 science teacher, said as a paraprofessional she observed some amazing teachers and learned different teaching methods from them. As a new teacher, Ms. Dohr said she finds it helpful getting immediate feedback as well as reassurance in the classroom from her mentor, first grade teacher Barbara Jones.
Having worked as a mentor for five years, Ms. Jones said, "I'm impressed with the young teachers' level of being so open, reflective, and inviting - they want to learn."
Ms. Farley, now a third-grade teacher, said she touches base a couple of times a day with her mentor, Ellen Berube, who teaches the same grade across the hall. "I'm learning from her, as well," Ms. Berube added.
Michelle Mayhew, a second-grade teacher at West Tisbury School, credited her mentor, Martha Stackpole, with encouraging her to be a little less serious and less hard on herself. Ms. Stackpole taught at West Tisbury School for 23 of her 34 years as a teacher. She became a mentor three years ago, after she retired.
Although unable to attend the Feb. 13 celebration, Ms. Stackpole shared some thoughts in a follow-up phone call. When asked what common concerns beginning teachers share, she answered, "How do you achieve balance and determine where to direct your focus and your energies? And I think assessment is another - how do you know what the kids know and how do you base your instruction on that?"
Although a mentor's primary job is to act as a sounding board, Ms. Stackpole said the hardest part is being a good listener and resisting the urge to offer advice based on one's own experiences. Allowing new teachers to arrive at their own solutions helps them develop problem-solving skills that match who they are as educators, she said.
The mentoring challenge
"The mentoring program focuses on what it means to be a new teacher on Martha's Vineyard," explained Ms. Halt during an interview in her office. In addition to the usual issues new teachers face, such as time management and expectations, those on Martha's Vineyard also deal with the social and geographic challenges of Island life, she pointed out.
For example, "You live right in the community - you're always on," Ms. Halt said. "Here your students are everywhere. You can't go to dinner without seeing a student or a parent. Some people love that, because you feel important and you feel connected. And for some people, that's overwhelming."
Continuing education requirements for young teachers present another challenge, Ms. Halt added. "Many of them have to travel off-Island. It might take six hours with travel time to take an hour-and-a-half course." Luckily, there are programs online, she said, and the MVPS website offers a list of opportunities for teachers that she and other staff have spent a lot of time compiling.
As a former teacher for 12 years at the high school, Ms. Halt was instrumental in creating the mentoring program, along with Edgartown School librarian Donna Lowell-Bettencourt. Both National Board Certified Teachers, they were nominated by former assistant superintendent Marjorie Harris to set up the public school system's formal program and to be trained as mentor trainers about three years ago.
Ms. Lowell-Bettencourt continues to work as a mentor trainer, along with Mr. Caruthers. After being chosen to fill Ms. Harris's job when she retired last summer, Ms. Halt now coordinates the induction program with a steering committee.
Mentors and beginning teachers are given release time to engage in mentoring activities, which include planning curriculum and lessons, observing one another's classroom, and co-teaching the beginning teacher's class. School principals assign the mentors, matching them with new teachers by grade level and subject if possible. Mentors receive $500 a year as compensation for their increased responsibility and time, as well as professional development credits, when applicable.