When Patti Billet had to write a detailed and technical student improvement plan for her pupils at Kent Mountain View Academy, she had her first breakdown after six weeks as a brand new teacher.
“This is part of this profession that I have no idea about, I’m expected to know and I have no idea,” she says.
Fortunately, Billet was able to find help in a colleague and finish the plans, but new teachers don’t always have a veteran to help them learn the ropes of their jobs. That’s where Kent School District’s Teacher Mentor Program steps in.
New teachers are expected to have the answers even before they’ve started their first day of school, and settling into a teaching career can be a daunting task.
The mentor program provides first- and second-year teachers with an experienced counterpart to help them through their first year. Whether it’s providing technical feedback on lessons and classroom management or giving emotional support to their pupils, mentors exist to ease a teacher’s integration into the district.
“Teaching is a unique profession where you’re expected to be a veteran on your first day,” says mentor Lynn Lofstrom.
Lofstrom, along with Kjell Rowe and Cynthia Huber make up the team. Lofstrom works with kindergarten through eighth grade teachers and Rowe works with high school teachers. Huber plays all-time defense for the three-woman team, filling in where necessary.
After student teachers finish their programs and go out into the world to start a career, the task can seem daunting.
Teaching can be an extremely isolating job, Lofstrom says, in that unlike other professions that incorporate teams of individuals, teachers are thrown into their classrooms alone and have to learn as they go.
“From the get go, you have to be a professional, and it’s hard! It’s a huge learning curve,” says Billet, who teaches sixth grade core curriculum and third grade math.
The 28-year-old graduated from Cal Lutheran University in 2007 with a degree in liberal studies but had to wait until she and her husband had the finances for graduate school. While Billet spent most of her time between schools working with children, she says that she was unprepared for the sheer amount of management that comes with heading a classroom. Classroom management is often the most difficult thing to establish for new teachers.
“Your students are angels and want to please you, but once they figure out who you are, they start to test you,” Billet says.
Beyond meeting one on one with teachers, the mentors also host classes for teachers to improve their skills, which Billet says have helped her settle in. After a particular class regarding getting students to participate even if they don’t know the answer, she felt her own classroom management skills had improved.
Billet says that having an experienced voice to share her concerns with has been cathartic to her experience in her first six weeks of teaching. While she’s only met with Lofstrom once, she’s had the opportunity to talk to her occasionally.
“Each time, whether I’m flustered or excited or I tell her things are going really great, she always says is there anything you want to talk about, how are things going with parents. She knows the right questions to ask,” Billet says. “I can tell her exactly how I’m feeling.”
Another teacher, Jesse Session, now in his second year teaching biology at Kentwood, says that the mentors help teachers with small things like gifts or care packages.
“Outside of all the technical stuff they were there to be supportive and show you that teaching was the right career to be in, that people actually cared about you,” he says.
This is how Leslie Shilleto felt when she first came to the district from Michigan. Being new to the school system, she was very isolated when it came to her failures and successes at Sunrise Elementary School.
“I feel like when things go wrong you’re mad at yourself, and when things go right you don’t have anybody to celebrate with,” Shilleto says.
Lofstrom, her mentor, provided her with a way to celebrate her successes and commiserate in her failures.
“I would have Lynn to share good things with, and she would be just as excited as I was. And if I was upset about something she’d kind of talk me through it,” Shilleto says.
Having a trusted friend in the district, someone who isn’t evaluating the their performance professionally as a principal would, has been invaluable for many teachers. With only three mentors available, their time is consumed with helping their fellow teachers. But as Lofstrom says, it’s a very rewarding line of work.
“This is a fabulous job and what’s so exciting about it is we get to work with folks that are right out of a college program, they’re really excited about teaching and learning,” she says.
It’s up to the team of three to make sure that these teachers are prepared to succeed in the future, so that in time, they might become mentors themselves.