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Re-mastering education

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Posted: Tuesday, October 17, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

October 18, 2006 - Brenda Kreidler is fast on her feet.

It's tough to keep up with her as she whirls in and out of the classrooms of Wilson K-8 School in Oro Valley. But she likes the fast pace, plus, she wears comfortable shoes.

"It's a lot of walking and a lot of talking," she said, as she ducked into Devon Busby's second grade classroom.

Observing from a corner, Kreidler watched Busby, a new teacher in just her second year in the Amphitheater Public Schools, compile a list of "cool things about cheetahs" on an oversized notepad.

A few children raised their hands to contribute a factoid they read in a book or heard on Animal Planet. But Kreidler immediately spotted a problem.

A few students were drawing on their desks, a few were staring out the window and a few made a game out of sliding back and forth in their chairs. Only a fraction of the children were actually paying attention to Busby's lesson.

So Kreidler broke in.

"Boys and girls," she called, two-dozen eyes quickly fixed on her. "Everybody think of one cool thing about cheetahs and tell your partner next to you."

Voila. The room erupted in cheetah chatter.

Busby beamed at Kreidler from across a dozen desks and mouthed, "Love it!"

"See," Kreidler said as she pulled the door to Busby's classroom closed behind her, "the student engagement went from 5 percent to 100 percent."

Sometimes it just takes a new approach to get the kids interested, she explained.

Kreidler, with her pocket full of teacher tricks and advice, is a Master Teacher Mentor.

It's a fancy term that means she's an ace educator. She's been honing her skills and teaching in a variety of schools for years, and it earned her recognition from Gov. Janet Napolitano, who created the Master Teacher Program. This school year is the program's first.

Teachers submitted portfolios, including videotaped classroom instruction and detailed lesson plans. They also underwent lengthy interviews to win Master Teacher status.

A panel of educators from Arizona's K-12 Center - a state organization that provides professional support and training to teachers - selected 23 veteran educators and asked them to mentor new teachers in the neediest schools in their districts.

Seven teachers from Amphi were selected.

And Amphi took it a step farther, putting its seven mentors into four poor schools and several other not-so-poor ones.

Teachers coaching teachers is nothing new in the Amphi district.

The district started a mentoring program last year and called the teachers instructional coaches. This year, by participating in the governor's program, the district gets state money to send seven teacher mentors to Arizona State University each month for training with other Master Teachers in the state.

The program costs about $40,000 per Master Teacher, or a total of about $760,000 per year. This year, the governor used discretionary dollars from the Workforce Investment Fund and federal grants to cover the costs of training - $7,000 to $10,000 per teacher and a $10,000 stipend for each mentor.

But the participating school districts foot the biggest bill.

Amphi had to pay to hire replacement teachers for the seven teachers it released to be mentors. To keep costs down, it only released some mentors for half of the time.

Nancy Young Wright, an Amphi school board member, said paying for the program is all a matter of priorities.

"We have been working hard to attract the got-get-'em teachers, and we want to keep them," Young Wright said.

Teacher mentoring has been a priority on the board for years, and the district is willing to cover the costs, she said.

The state Legislature has agreed to take some of the burden off the districts next year and appropriated $1 million to fund the program.

The mentors' advanced training comes from professors at ASU's BEST - Beginning Educator Support Team - and experts from the K-12 Center.

Amphi is the only district in Tucson to participate in the governor's program.

Master Teacher Mentor Chris Potter coaches differently than Kreidler. She doesn't zip through hallways or hug kids when they say something cute.

She seriously talked about the need for coaches.

"Forty-five to 50 percent of teachers will leave within the first five years of teaching," Potter said in the office of Rio Vista Elementary School where she coaches. "The bottom line is there is a teacher shortage."

Losing teachers in their first years of teaching is a major concern across the nation and state, said Todd Jaeger, Amphi's attorney.

"One of the reasons teachers say they're leaving the profession all together is because they didn't feel adequately supported, so the Master Teacher Program is designed to address that," Jaeger said.

Jaeger said retention is an issue within his district, though comparatively, Amphi's retention numbers are better than national numbers.

The trouble, Jaeger said, is that it's tough to pinpoint exactly why the teachers leave. The district doesn't know if they're leaving to go teach in a higher-paying district or just leaving the profession.

The district doesn't conduct exit interviews and it doesn't keep track of how long new teachers stay in the district or teaching in general.

The district also doesn't track the average number of years a teacher works in the district.

In 2003-2004, the district hired 63 teachers to long-term contracts, but at the end of the year about half said they weren't coming back.

Since then, the retention rates have been getting better. In 2004-2005, 23 of the 73 hires didn't come back. And in 2005-2006, only 12 of the 63 hires didn't come back.

With the Master Teacher Program in place, the hope is that no new teachers leave the district, at least not for feeling inadequately supported.

Potter said she's seen first hand how teachers can get bogged down and overloaded, especially in the first years of teaching.

The mentor program is about building collegial respect with the new teachers, she said.

And several mentors stressed that they don't judge or evaluate the teachers.

"Administrators are stretched thin with managerial tasks," Potter said. "This concept of having full-time mentors came out of teachers saying, 'I feel alone out here.'"

Teaching is an isolated profession, Potter said.

"The traditional way of letting relationships happen on their own hasn't worked," she said. "Something's got to happen. We're in a crisis. We've got teachers who work for three or four years and then decide to leave."

Gayle Kirkendall is one of Potter's prot/g/s at Rio Vista. Though the 47-year-old has been teaching on and off for years, this is only her third year in Amphi. And it's her first time at a school with children from mostly low-income families.

"From where I was before, a school with mostly upper middle class kids, there were only a few with lower socioeconomic levels, but here it's the majority," Kirkendall said. "And there are huge challenges associated with that."

Kirkendall said it's often difficult to communicate with parents who don't speak English, so they can't help with homework and aren't involved with their child's education.

Kirkendall, who taught in Utah before moving to Tucson a few years ago, said without Potter she would "muddle through and find books" on challenges that arise.

"You do make it work. Teachers are good at that," she said. "But that couple of years of insecurity you go through when you start out, she helps you complete that."

And for teachers just starting their career, Kirkendall said, "Potter is invaluable."

"When they lose hope, the mentor can come in and say 'It's OK,'" Kirkendall said. "You need someone to say it's OK all the time."

At Donaldson Elementary, 2040 W. Omar Drive, Principal Anita Howard said her school's challenge is not low-income kids who don't get support from home. It's making sure the high-functioning students keep excelling.

"Usually when you think of coaching, you think of the lower kids, but in Donaldson, we would be an excelling school if it weren't for our high kids who aren't making as big of strides as in previous years," Howard said.

Donaldson has teachers who have only taught high-risk kids, so they don't know what to do with the gifted ones, Howard said.

That's where Master Teacher Annette Orelup comes in.

"Annette can coach these teachers who have only worked with high-risk kids," she said. "We've got to keep an eye on the high functioning kids. The ones who finish their math in five minutes and pull out a Tom Clancy book."

The students don't need to be reading during math, Howard said, they need to be doing harder math.

So Orelup tracks student engagement.

Third grade teacher Alejandra Mercado, who is in her fourth year of teaching, but only second year in Amphi, is a self-proclaimed computer nerd. She tries to incorporate computers in as many lessons as she can.

But teaching a math lesson on a computer can make it tough to ensure all of her 8- and 9-year-olds - including some who are very quick on a PC - are on task.

For about 15 minutes Orelup observed Mercado's class and every minute checked students to see if they were on task. She tallied her observations at the end, and the next time she sits down with Mercado, they'll go over her findings.

Orelup also teaches lessons so new teachers can learn from her style.

"It's so nice to sit down for a change," an exasperated Kelly Colavito whispered as she sat at her desk.

Colavito turned over the reins to her third-grade class so Orelup could give a lesson designed to help kids score better on the reading portion of Arizona's standardized test.

Colavito dutifully took notes while she watched the veteran educator work magic on her students, almost never losing their attention.

Orelup swears by the lesson she taught Colavito's students and guarantees it will bring up their AIMS scores - an asset to Colavito who, as a new teacher, is measured hugely by the test scores of her class.

Joanna Honea, a program coordinator with the BEST Program at ASU, which has been advocating a teacher mentor model for several years, said the schools that fully implement the BEST model see higher teacher retention rates from year to year.

From 2002 to 2005, 96 percent of beginning teachers, mostly in the Phoenix area, who worked with the BEST Program returned to teaching, according to the BEST Web site.

The problem is, the districts aren't ready to invest the money in the program, Honea said.

It's expensive for districts to release full-time teachers from the classroom to mentor other teachers.

And although Amphi has released seven Master Teachers, most districts participating in the governor's program are only releasing one teacher, who works in just one school in the district.

Kreidler, who is released from all of her classroom responsibilities to mentor, said she thinks Amphi administrators have demonstrated a dedication to mentoring.

But she's not taking anything for granted. After returning from a recent BEST training session in Phoenix, Kreidler is implementing a new strategy to make sure her efforts have a lasting effect on the schools.

She's wants the teachers to know they can be leaders in the school, not just the principal, which Kreidler said is a "totally new way of looking at things."

"Hey, if we're not funded next year, we don't want things to just drop. It's about teaching them that they can take control of their classroom. They are the leaders of those kids."

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