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Kelly Smith, Published January 02 2010

Mentoring helps new teachers learn

New teachers across North Dakota now have some extra help adjusting to their careers.

A statewide program to help mentor new teachers officially launched Friday. The state-funded two-year program, approved by the North Dakota Legislature in the last session, pairs experienced teachers with first-year teachers, offering them one-on-one support during the year.

It’s a valuable resource for budding teachers, state program coordinator Laurie Stenehjem said.

“We expect first-year teachers to be as competent as our experienced teachers,” she said. “We can’t expect that to happen. If we want teachers to get better, we have to provide them with support.”

Stenehjem was hired last summer by the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board, the state teacher licensing organization, after the Legislature approved investing $2.3 million into the program.

“We want to stretch the first-year teachers so they aren’t just comfortable, but improving their skills,” said the former longtime teacher and mentor. “If we don’t support our new teachers, we can’t expect them to be more effective. Teaching is a complex activity.”

That’s something 24-year-old Kelsey Welk has learned since graduating from Minnesota State University Moorhead last December.

The West Fargo teacher started at Osgood Kindergarten Center this past fall.

“There’s just a lot to it (teaching) that you don’t realize until you are a teacher,” she said of activities such as parent-teacher conferences. “We’re continually learning. The more we can learn from fellow, experienced teachers, the better.”

West Fargo offers new teachers monthly group mentoring as well as informal mentoring in each grade level. However, the district is taking advantage of the more intensive, structured statewide program next fall.

The state program trains mentors who then meet one-on-one with mentees 18 hours a semester, or about an hour a week. They offer guidance on everything from how to fit into a new school to how to develop lesson plans.

Across the state, Stenehjem said, 79 school districts are participating this spring.

“I definitely think it will make a difference,” said Ione Swenson of Grand Forks-based Red River Valley Education Cooperative, which has 10 rural districts and 25 teachers participating in the state program.

The hope, she added, is that by supporting new teachers, it will help districts retain them.

Now, when classes resume after the holiday break, 125 first-year teachers from across the state will begin meeting with teacher mentors.

Those first-year teachers won’t just gain support, but also college credits for being in the program. Teacher mentors receive their own incentive – $800 stipends.

The only cost to school districts is to pay for substitute teachers when mentors or mentees have to meet during class time.

Funding for the program, however, is limited to two years. Stenehjem hopes, though, it’ll be refunded in the next legislative session.

“I believe so strongly in the importance of mentoring,” she said. “Certainly our hope is we’ll be able to make it permanent.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515