One hundred seventy-nine teachers survived their first school year with extra support. That’s thanks to a new South Dakota program that connects first-time educators with veteran teachers. They pair up for two years to increase support and professional development. Meet educators who can now look back on their first year in the classroom and plan ahead for a second year of mentoring.
At the start of the school year, a Pierre middle school career and technical educator named Justin Tostenson was brand new. His mentor is Renee Allen. All school year, they worked together to provide students meaningful learning experiences. Allen is a special education teacher at Georgia Morse Middle School. She’s been teaching for 13 years.
"No college or really life experience can prepare you sometimes for having 30 middle schoolers looking at you saying, ‘All right, what are we going to do?’ And how are we going to do this in an organized way?" Allen says.
Allen and Tostensen are part of a two-year mentoring program. The pair commits to 34 hours each year to improve teaching techniques and provide professional guidance. Allen says new teachers encounter a learning curve. She says Tostenson was no exception.
"I think my favorite one was, like, the classroom disaster. They get up all the time! He does activities – a lot of activities, being a career and technical [teacher], and that’s what it should be. It should be hands-on," Allen says.
Allen offers a straightforward solution for her mentee’s wandering students.
"So we came with tape. You know? ‘All right, here’s Station One, Station Two, Station Three, Station Four. Here’s tape on the ground. You might be middle schoolers, but you can’t cross this tape,’" Allen says. "This is Mr. T. It was straight, 3M, boring – no fancy duct tape like I said – masking tape."
Tostensen defends his style.
"My door was decorated!" he says.
Allen says she researches career and tech ed strategies, because her special education work is different. That helps her help Tostenson.
"Then there were projects. Like I’d say, ‘Hey, do you think this project would fit with what I’m trying to teach them?’" Allen says. "I’d relay that to her, and then we’d kind of pick a project on some of the starting points."
Tostenson says a second opinion ensures his lessons lead students to understanding key concepts – like engineering in the woodshop.
"Yeah, it’s the cutting, the measuring, the math, the hammering, all the hand-eye coordination – the soft skills: working with people, waiting for tools, that type of stuff," Tostenson says. "And then another favorite one, I think, is the aviation. We do model rockets, and then we do model airplanes, and then the kids really love doing paper airplanes."
Tostenson says he knows the content, but he benefits from a long-time teacher who knows how to work with kids.
Parker elementary instructor Tammy Steiner says nothing but teaching teaches a teacher how to teach.
"You take all of these wonderful classes, but you really, really don’t learn how to teach and what you’re going to be exposed to until you get into the classroom," Steiner says. "And it’s not like learning out of a book, and there’s no situation that is the same that a college professor can tell you this is what’s going to happen. You don’t know until you get there."
Steiner got there 32 years ago. She says she hasn’t perfected teaching, but she’s comfortable guiding students in the classroom. The teacher she mentors is less at ease.
"He was frightened. I could tell that he was very frightened and didn’t have a clue about where to go and how to start," Steiner says.
Sam Schroeder just completed his first year on the job.
"You know, she said I had the deer-in-the-headlights look when I first went into her, which, you know, was absolutely true," Schroeder says.
He teaches K-12 vocal music in Parker.
"There would be days when I would go into her office and just say, ‘Goodness gracious, that did not work! What can I do to improve myself? What can I do to get this through to my students that it’s not only meaningful but that I care for them?’" Schroeder says.
Schroeder says his mentor helps him discern problems that are his own and issues that come with learning to teach. Schroeder says he’s had more than one revelation during his first year of the mentoring program. He says that includes the notion that he must stand by his word.
"I was losing trust with my students, and I think that kind of killed me this year," Schroeder says. "So I now know for next year that, if I say something, I have to follow through with it."
"When we say we’re going to do something, then we need to do it. We can’t make those empty threats and say, like when I grew up, ‘Wait ‘til your dad gets home!’ – my mother would always say. We can’t do that. We have to follow through with them," Steiner says. "Most kids are looking for discipline and guidance. Even though they misbehave and even though they’re acting out, they really want that, and they want those guidelines in their life. We’re their teachers. We’re the ones that need to show them what’s the right thing in the world."
Steiner says she believes mentoring provides new teachers safe, reliable resources. She wants them to feel equipped and supported, so they commit to molding another generation.
Not all first-time teachers match with mentors in the same school; other pairs use technology and occasional meetings to develop relationships and solve problems. The mentoring program costs the State of South Dakota $1,250,000. It was part of the 2016 initiative that increased the sales tax one half-penny for teachers’ salaries and property tax relief.
South Dakota’s Secretary of Education is a champion of the measure. Melody Schopp says teachers benefit from working together.
"In what I hear, I think this has just been really satisfying for me, for the mentees to be able to say this relationship was so different than just having the support of an administrator in my district, and I’m coming back next yaer. And honestly, it really was the thing that did save me. But the mentors themselves? I just talked to two of them this morning who said, 'This was the best professional development I’ve had in a long time. It reminded me of why it’s so important what we do. Secondly, it made me remember about the struggles that I had and still have. I was able to cry alongside my mentee that I had not done in a long time when we talked about our struggles that are real,'" Schopp says. "Together I think that that has been one of the best things that has happened to them personally and professionally in a long time."
Schopp says education leaders don't have enough concrete information to guage the effect of the mentor program on retention.
"So I don’t think that we’ll be able to measure necessarily the hard data for a while, but how do you know if it was the mentoring thing that kept them in the profession? I think just to know that they have that support, if it did that for them, we’ve definitely made a difference – and I know the retention rate, looking at the numbers right now, is really great for next year," Schopp says.
New teachers begin the mentoring program each year. As current mentor partnerships move into year two of the program, teachers who begin their careers this fall start their own two-year mentorship program.