Mentor program offers ‘lifeline’ for new teachers

This story is part of our Spotlight Newsletter, read more Spotlight stories or check your mailbox for the print edition.

For Joan Kline, eighth grade math teacher at Stewart Middle School, starting her first year as a classroom teacher in September 2021 was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

Like other school districts across the state, Tacoma Public Schools was experiencing the complexities of incorporating social distancing and other pandemic-related requirements into the learning environment. For new teachers like Kline, that made the school year especially challenging.

 “My time as a substitute teacher was great preparation, but I quickly learned how difficult it was to hold the class's attention and build relationships with students while trying to teach math as a full-time teacher,” Kline said.

She knew she needed some help to make her first full year as a permanent teacher a success. She found that help through Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST), a mentor program funded by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“Every teacher started out as a beginning teacher, and many would say success came from reflection and feedback from colleagues, said Tammy Larsen, TPS director of Academic Achievement and Innovation. “Providing tangible examples or watching other veteran teachers model a lesson in their classroom is invaluable support for teachers new to the profession.”

Through BEST, experienced educators partner with new teachers, providing resources to improve teaching practices and reduce the rate of educators leaving the profession. Mentor teachers provide a direct line of support and help co-teach, offer examples for lessons, and remind teachers that it’s OK to make mistakes.

Weekly check-ins pay off
Each week last year, Kline and her mentor, educator Anastaisha Salter, reviewed classroom goals and adjusted plans to support students. She watched Kline teach and, in turn, Kline watched her mentor teach in order to learn from her direct interaction with students.

“Joan would spend hours planning, so my goal was to help demonstrate that results don’t have to be immediate,“ Salter said. “Student understanding will come over time, throughout the year.”

The work Kline put in to accept her mentor’s help and apply it to her own teaching paid off for her and her students.

“Last year, I felt really isolated and was just trying to survive. The mentor program was a lifeline,” Kline said. “Anastaisha encouraged me at my lowest points and provided tangible ideas and examples.”

The value was obvious to others, too.

“Joan’s willingness to embrace the support offered to her contributed to her demonstrating the most growth in our building,” said Don Crider, Stewart Middle School principal.

Investing in new teachers
In the last five years, the number of new teachers hired in TPS grew from 19 in 2017-18 to 76 in the 2021-22 school year, which mirrors the trend of an increase in newly hired teachers across the state.

Last year, 70 of 76 new TPS teachers worked with a mentor through BEST.

“Now, more than ever, is a critical time for us to invest in our new teachers,” said Zeek Edmond, TPS assistant superintendent for Teaching and Learning. “The BEST program allows us to directly support the wellbeing of our new teachers and to improve their practice. TPS had a teacher retention rate of 91.5% at the beginning of last school year. Programs like BEST are why teachers stay in Tacoma.”

In looking back at her first year of teaching, Kline clearly sees the value of the time spent with her mentor. To others new to the profession, she advises them to take advantage of what experienced teachers have to offer.

For Kline, the most enduring lesson is perseverance.

“My mentor taught me how to not give up on my students,” she said. “Now, seeing the whole year, I can plan with balance. This year, I am more optimistic. I’m building relationships with students and spending time making sure they are on track.”