Teachers' Aid

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), October 4, 2008 | Go to article overview

Teachers' Aid


Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

Julie McCauley counts herself lucky.

When she began her career as a Spanish teacher at North Eugene High School 23 years ago, two experienced colleagues "kind of took me under their wing," she said, steadying her through what might otherwise have been an overwhelming, even discouraging, first year.

Who's to say what might have happened if she'd been left alone to sink or swim, as is the case for many novice teachers?

According to various studies, anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of new teachers flee the profession within the first five years, many citing a lack of support for the challenging work they do. A 2007 study of five school districts by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future gauged the cost of hiring and replacing a teacher at between $4,400 and $17,900, depending on the size of the district.

But a growing number of Oregon school districts - including Eugene, Springfield, Bethel, South Lane, Creswell and Pleasant Hill - are channeling dollars into formal programs to help first-year teachers succeed and, they hope, stick around.

The trend isn't new, but it got a boost in the last legislative session, thanks in part to lobbying by the education advocacy groups Chalkboard Project and Stand for Children.

Drawing on research that shows greater effectiveness and higher retention rates among new teachers who have been in mentoring programs, House Bill 2574 called for formal mentoring for every new teacher and administrator in Oregon. Lawmakers set aside $5 million in grants this year, and there's guarded optimism that will increase in the next biennium.

The Eugene district started a mentoring program a decade ago, although it temporarily pulled the plug in 2001 due to budget woes. Now in its fifth year in its current form, the program assigns as many as five new teachers - with three or fewer years under their belts - to one mentor, preferably in the same building or the same area of instruction.

McCauley has been a mentor off and on for several years. This year, she is assigned to four teachers - two new, one who's been a substitute for several years and one with three years' experience as a classroom teacher in Louisiana.

"My role is to just give them support and be a person they can go to with questions, who is not judgemental at all, even if they feel like it's a silly question," said McCaul ey, who has met with the group, all of them at North Eugene, three times, most recently to help them prepare for next week's open house. She tries to touch base with each weekly, and pops into their classrooms on occasion to casually observe.

Brian Gulka, a fifth-grade teacher at Gilham Elementary School, is mentor to a group of five elementary teachers, three in his own building.

"My motivation is really that my first year was really hard," said Gulka, who started teaching in 1999 at Yujin Gakuen Elementary, the Japanese immersion school.

That first year, the district assigned him a mentor, a respected veteran named Jim Watson, who was working out of the central office at the time. The two communicated mostly by phone or e-mail, but it made a difference.

"I didn't see him a whole bunch, but he helped me out in huge ways that really made the year go so much better," said Gulka, in his fourth year as a mentor.

Fresh out of the University of Oregon master's program, Gilham first-grade teacher Amanda Edgecomb said Gulka came to their first group meeting with helpful lists of resources and suggestions for things to do your first day and first week. …

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