Teacher Adriana Alexander, right, stands last month in her Oakbrook Elementary School classroom in Lakewood alongside Clover Park School District instructional coach Emily Bradshaw, Alexanders’ mentor in the state’s Beginning Educator Support Team, or BEST, program. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

Mentors help new teachers be their best

Inslee seeks expansion of state’s BEST program to support influx of new teachers

If not for the support of her mentor, Adriana Alexander doubts she would still be teaching.

Alexander, a 25-year-old teacher at Oakbrook Elementary School in Lakewood, said there were many times in her first year on the job when she felt overwhelmed and wondered if she was in the right profession.

That’s a normal feeling for new teachers, her mentor, Emily Bradshaw, said. The 35-year-old instructional coach has worked with several new teachers as part of the state’s Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) program.

“We have a lot of great first-year teachers that if they didn’t get the support they might walk away from the profession just because in the first year everything feels so new and it’s scary to do it if you’re doing it all by yourself,” Bradshaw said.

Strategies for supporting new state teachers are needed, especially now, as Washington state experiences an influx of first-time public school teachers. In the 2010–2011 school year, 3,387 state teachers were starting either their first or second year. By the fall of 2015, that number had more than doubled — to 6,918 teachers, according to a 2017 University of Washington report.

About 20 percent of all new teachers leave the profession within five years, but the BEST program has been shown to increase the retention of new teachers, according to the UW report, making it an important tool for addressing the teacher shortage around the state.

Gov. Jay Inslee is a strong proponent of BEST. During the governor’s time in office, he increased annual BEST funding from $1 million to $5.5 million but believes that all teachers — and their students — should benefit from the program. That’s why he included $50 million in his proposed 2017–19 budget to expand the program to all new teacher by 2020, and to make mentoring available to new principals too.

That additional funding was absent from the two budget proposals put forth by the House and the Senate, but Inslee said he hopes the program will be better supported in the compromise budget lawmakers agree on this year.

“When we support new teachers, we’re bolstering the quality of education our students receive,” Inslee said. “We’re also retaining those new teachers rather than losing them and the experience they gained in their first year.”

Alexander teaches a class of fourth and fifth graders and has 27 students in all.

In her first year, she sought help from Bradshaw several times a month, learning better classroom management skills and how to keep a fast enough pace in her classroom to cover everything she is required to cover.

At first those challenges seemed overwhelming, she said. Her classroom experience wasn’t the same as those she encountered in her teacher training, when there was an instructor present to fall back on.

“You get thrown into a profession where even though you are new, you can’t use that as an excuse,” said Alexander, who is now in her second year. “You have to be just as good as someone who’s been teaching for years. So it’s nice to have the support of someone who has been teaching for years.”

Bradshaw has 13 years of experience in K-12 education — six as a classroom teacher and seven as a teaching coach — and she has participated in the BEST program for four years. She typically works with four to five teachers at a time. In just one year, she said, she’s seen a substantial improvement in Alexander.

“It’s been nice to come in and see her take what she learned last year and put it into practice from the very beginning of this year,” Bradshaw said. “I see all those things we talked about. The kids know them. They know what to expect. You just feel that ease in the classroom.”

One morning last month, Alexander led her fifth graders in a game of math “Jeopardy” while her fourth graders worked with another teacher next-door.

As her students worked on the math problems on their individual white boards, Alexander walked around the room, giving praise to the students who were following her rules — and loud enough for all of her students to hear.

“Thank you for being so focused,” she told one child. The other students seemed to take note.

Adriana Alexander, who teaches a class of fourth and fifth graders at Oakbrook Elementary School in Lakewood, monitors her students last month while they participate in a math game. The game helped them practice multiplying, dividing, adding and subtracting fractions. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

The math problems involved adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing fractions. If the students got stumped, Alexander would provide a hint, or walk them through the problem on the big white board.

“Remember PEMDAS,” she said, referencing the acronym for the order of operations. “What comes first? What comes second?”

A lot of the techniques that keep her class moving each day were developed with Bradshaw’s help.

“The students are benefiting because I’m benefiting and I’m taking in more and I’m learning different strategies, different skills, different ways to teach them,” Alexander said. “That’s all going to my students.”

By design, the BEST program is put into practice differently from school district to school district, and state funding does not allow all districts to participate in the program. Robust BEST programs offered in Washington include a summer orientation, ongoing professional development, classroom observation and written or verbal critiques for new teachers.

For Alexander, who works in the Clover Park School District, Bradshaw would sit in on her class from time to time, taking notes that she could share with the new teacher later. They also looked at data specific to Alexander’s class and made changes to teaching methods to improve student learning.

Alexander said she wanted to become a teacher as a way to give back to her community, and that she has a soft spot for students who grew up with challenges, including poverty, because that’s how she grew up.

Although she had her doubts about her calling last year, Alexander said she now sees teaching as a lifelong vocation — and attributes that to the mentorship program.

“If the BEST program didn’t exist, my first year may have well been my last,” Alexander said. “I would have been very overwhelmed and I would have doubted myself so much. … It’s very easy to get down on yourself when you aren’t doing what you think you should be doing.”