In Durham, teacher mentoring is cut, leaving newbies at risk | Durham County | Indy Week
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In Durham, teacher mentoring is cut, leaving newbies at risk 

First-year teachers such as Joshua Rudisill, who starts this week at George Watts Montessori School in Durham, will not have official mentors to guide them through the early stages of their careers. Durham Public Schools' mentoring program has been eliminated to save money.

Photo by Jeremy M. Lange

First-year teachers such as Joshua Rudisill, who starts this week at George Watts Montessori School in Durham, will not have official mentors to guide them through the early stages of their careers. Durham Public Schools' mentoring program has been eliminated to save money.

Just as students are combing store aisles this week for crisp white notebook paper and neon highlighters for classes that begin Aug. 25, Durham's newest teachers are harvesting their own supplies: markers, grade books and maybe even an aspirin stash for late-day headaches. But shrinking budgets, both at home and at school, mean many kids will use last year's dingy backpacks and marked-up textbooks. For new teachers, the funding losses mean less help in the classroom, particularly when it comes to one-on-one support from their more experienced colleagues.

Since 2005, Durham educators in their first three years of teaching have had access to mentors—veteran teachers whose full-time jobs were to observe teachers in class, help them reach struggling students and plan solid lessons. Nearly all districts use mentoring in some form to build better teachers and to help prevent them from burning out. Durham, a district with one of the highest teacher-turnover rates in the state, has gained renown for the scope of its program, which at one time had 32 full-time positions and a budget of $2.7 million.

Unfortunately, like many initiatives in North Carolina schools, funds for Durham's mentor program have dwindled. Last year, just 20 mentors were paid to serve more than 500 teachers who had less than three years' experience. And this school year, the program has been eliminated, one of several weighty decisions school board members made in order to pay for the basics: buses, lights and teacher jobs, more than 230 of which would have been cut had county officials not been able to pool $6 million in tax hikes and lottery revenues to save them.

"It was a really strong program," said Jim Key, a 27-year veteran of Durham schools and the principal of Chewning Middle School. "On the other hand, we have to have teachers in the classrooms. That has to be the top priority."

As always, it will be a challenge to keep them there. Across the state's 115 school districts, Durham ranks among the 15 school systems with the highest percentages of teachers who leave at the end of the year. Durham's rate from 2002 to 2007 was about 18 percent. The state average during that time was about 12 percent.

A state analysis of teacher turnover from 2000 to 2007 showed that among those teachers who left their schools, nearly a third of those resignations might have been prevented. Those departures included teachers who took early retirement with reduced benefits, resigned to teach in private schools or wanted a career change. Analysts concluded that preventable turnover was often linked with the amount of teacher support and the trust the teachers had in school leadership—both issues that one-on-one mentoring helps to address.

"Mentoring teachers, from the state perspective, is critical," said Lynne Johnson, director of educator recruitment and development for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. "It's critical for recruitment and sustaining good teachers and keeping them in schools."

It is unclear whether Durham Public Schools had other system-wide efforts in place that could help make up for the loss of the mentor program—an administrator for the program didn't respond to the Indy's request for an interview.

But some Durham teachers are taking on the challenge themselves, seeking other relationships for the same benefits—feedback on their teaching styles, advice on working with colleagues and sometimes a shoulder to cry on. Making those contacts has been a priority for new sixth-grade science teacher Joshua Rudisill, a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill who launches his career on Thursday at George Watts Montessori school.

"I've been coming to the school off the books to meet with my principal and every other staff member that has been here this summer, taking that initiative myself," Rudisill said. He's been collecting phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and has built a rapport with a former mentor who is teaching at his school. Former mentors have landed at other schools, too. Chewning alone has three on staff, Key said. All have volunteered to guide the school's eight novice teachers, despite the fact that they have full-time jobs themselves.

"If you're a full-time teacher you can't provide the same level of support that a full-time mentor could," Key said. "But those mentors—I think they all have a service heart and calling."

Key and other principals said that they've planned for the absence of the mentoring program. Many will pair a new teacher with a veteran on their staff. Most schools will also use time in planning groups called Professional Learning Communities to address the needs of first-time teachers.

But feedback from colleagues or your principal doesn't feel quite as safe as a relationship with a neutral third party, said Kristy Moore, president of the Durham Association of Educators.

"What I'm hearing from the new teachers is that they just kind of feel left out there to their own accord. The only feedback they get is when an administrator comes in and gives them an official evaluation. That's kind of scary for a teacher. That's going on your permanent record," said Moore, who had a mentor during her early years.

Mentors can help a teacher improve his or her shortcomings before they're documented on an evaluation, Moore said. She and others say they worry that the cancellation of the program, combined with the challenges of teaching in high-poverty schools with fewer teachers, assistants and supplies than previous years, might extinguish the fiery excitement and positivity new teachers bring.

"I'm hoping that these teachers will survive their first and second years," said Jan Pinkerton, who mentored for five years. "There are a lot of them who get so discouraged and they just leave ... That worries me."

With drastic educational cuts across the country, Congress last week passed a $10 billion bill to send emergency money to schools nationwide. More than $298 million is designated for North Carolina, and Durham's share could be $6.1 million, which would be the equivalent of 111 teaching positions. That money technically may be spent on mentors, said Paul LeSieur, director of school business services for the state Department of Public Instruction. School leaders haven't yet decided how they'll spend that money—or whether they'll save it for next year, when the disappearance of federal stimulus dollars will create another budget deficit.

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