How Did I Become the Teacher I Am Today? I Had Mentors.
By Julianne Beebe
I began teaching English in the fall of 1997 at a hard-to-staff, high-need high school, mere months out of graduate school, emergency-credentialed, and 100 percent mentor-free. Each day I showed up, fresh-faced and full of ideas, and each afternoon I finished with a visible sheen of exhaustion on my face to retreat into an hour or two of chips-and-salsa fueled numbness on the couch in my apartment. Not surprisingly, I spent the better part of the winter break in tears, not wanting to return for the second semester.
Looking back, I am sometimes surprised at the teacher I have become, one with confidence and the conviction that I can teach a beginning teacher a thing or two. This hindsight, however, has also made me realize that in the absence of an official mentor teacher to advise and support me, I was instead forced to piece together my mentors, like a patchwork personality quilt, from the snippets of time I could steal from my colleagues, in between classes or on lunch breaks. From Catherine I learned how to bring an unabashed enthusiasm to the classroom. Maggie showed me how to rely on my sense of humor. Sicily taught me how to stay calm in the face of any crisis, while The Coach taught me how to shut a situation down with a sentence. And Barbara reminded me to find the grace in each student. These teachers became my lifeline. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much faster I could have arrived at the confidence I currently enjoy had I been assigned a highly-skilled mentor teacher to turn to in my times of need.
Recently, the media has spotlighted the high rate at which teachers are leaving the profession, and has pointed to a number of reasons for this exodus, including lack of resources and support. I know all too well those feelings of despair that a beginning teacher often experiences; harboring those feelings in relative isolation only compounds the problem. I am convinced that the stabilizing presence of a highly-skilled mentor teacher is part of the solution to teacher retention, particularly in schools that serve students with high needs. Beginning teachers often land their first jobs in hard-to-staff, high-need schools and when they do not feel supported, it is only a matter of time before they begin to question their career choice.
This is more than just teacher intuition. Research has shown that one of the most salient factors that contributes to new teacher retention is the quality and experience of a mentor. In other words, a mentor should not be chosen simply because he or she is available, but should instead be selected on the merits of his or her track record of success. And district leaders understand the importance of mentors, too. According to data from the Learning Policy Institute, 74 percent of California districts polled in the fall of 2017 believed support and/or mentoring for beginning teachers could reduce teacher shortages, as 80 percent of those districts reported teacher shortages that same year.
California has taken a step in the right direction by adopting state standards for induction, yet beginning teachers’ experiences vary widely depending on where they teach because it is up to their local districts and counties to determine how they invest in mentoring. And because high-need schools are often saddled with a number of issues that justify allocation of dollars elsewhere, they may not be investing in quality mentoring at the necessary level.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my makeshift mentors, for helping to shape me into the teacher that I am today. Governor Newsom and the state legislature should invest in ensuring that every beginning teacher receives effective mentoring, structured to best support a teacher new to the classroom. They should make sure that resources are guaranteed for districts that are struggling to provide all beginning teachers with highly-skilled mentors. We owe our future teachers the quality mentors they deserve if we intend to keep them in the field.
Julianne Beebe teaches AP English language and composition at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Julianne is a National Board Certified teacher, was a 2015 Long Beach Unified Teacher of the Year, and is a 2018–2019 Teach Plus Policy Fellow.