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Poudre School District uses Mentor Grant to help novice teachers

Poudre School District uses Mentor Grant to help novice teachers

First-year Poudre School District teachers Jenna Sloan, left, and Ashley Michelena participate in a class exercise.

First-year Poudre School District teachers Jenna Sloan, left, and Ashley Michelena participate in a class exercise.

On a dark and chilly November evening at Poudre School District’s IT Center in Fort Collins, more than two dozen first-year teachers have joined their mentors and a group of mentoring coaches to learn more about topics such as how to manage a classroom, best practices for equitable grading, and knowing when and where to seek out support when the going gets tough.

Because these are beginning teachers hoping to succeed post-pandemic, the going is almost guaranteed to get tough. That’s why when Congress passed the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021 – from which the third round of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER III, originated. 

Colorado earmarked a portion of the funding for a Mentor Program Grant to help ensure novice teachers could receive critical mentorship and coaching support to better navigate the transition into the in-person classroom.

“Long before the pandemic, we were looking at how to more effectively address the high rates of teachers leaving the profession,” says Kristin Kipp, educator development specialist with the Colorado Department of Education and the program manager of the Mentor Program Grant. “The pandemic certainly made things worse across the board, but it particularly affected student teachers who suddenly found themselves navigating their programs remotely, which is a completely different experience. All of a sudden, they get the rug pulled out from under them when COVID shut everything down. When things opened back up again, now you have new teachers trying to manage something completely different from their expectations. And so the next thing you know, a lot of these new teachers are already considering leaving the teaching profession because it’s so incredibly stressful, and they hadn’t been able to acquire the skills and tools to deal with it.”

This past January, CDE hired Kipp to oversee the Mentor Program Grant, but prior to that, she had been a teacher for years, and so she understands the profession’s challenges. 

“Suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar classroom setting with few resources, some probationary teachers began to question their career paths,” Kipp explains. “These teachers in their first three years, their anxiety and stress levels are already extremely high because there’s a lot thrown at you very fast. But add in an interrupted experience like the pandemic, where teachers couldn’t get their field hours in or they were managing things remotely, and you’re going to lose a lot of really good people before they even get started.”

The Mentor Program Grant uses $9.5 million from ESSER III for Colorado districts over a two-year period (starting with the 2022-23 school year and continuing through 2023-24) to develop and implement a comprehensive program for teacher induction and retention. In addition to the 26 grant recipients, another 24 districts are benefiting from the program through professional development outreach and workshops.

“It’s appropriate to use the funds to support programs statewide, and so we are digging deep to try to figure out what actually makes a good process for this,” Kipp says. “It’s one thing to say this is what we’ll do with the fund, but it’s another to have real teachers in front of you and try to figure out how can we best do that.”

Mentor Program Grant funds can be used for things like supplies and materials needed to create and manage the plan, district FTE employees to develop and facilitate related programs, the cost of substitute teachers filling in for mentors and mentees, and technology such as video recording equipment for workshops.

For instance, Poudre School District split its $903,247 in funding in half to cover both school years, putting the majority of each portion toward hiring four mentoring and retention coaches.

“There’s a reason we decided specifically to call them that,” explains Susan Steinmark, a teacher for more than 30 years who has taken over the role of coordinator for mentoring and educator effectiveness for Poudre’s Mentor Program. “We know that there’s a correlation between a strong mentoring program and retaining both new teachers and keeping veteran teachers engaged. The experienced teachers who participate in these programs definitely show a renewed interest and passion for the profession, and they pass that passion on to their mentees. It’s a win-win for everyone, really.”

The district had already begun implementing a mentoring program several years ago, but Steinmark notes that it was “focused more on problem-solving rather than being people-driven, and so our main mission has been to strengthen our existing program to emphasize reciprocal growth for both new educators and the veteran teachers who serve as mentors.” 

For the 2022-23 school year, 110 beginning teachers have been paired with mentors, and Steinmark says the second year of the grant will see 86 new educators receiving mentoring.

Lora Bundy, a Poudre middle school teacher who participated in November’s workshop – the second of the quarterly sessions the district will offer each year – to spend quality time with her team of beginning fifth-grade teachers, says she feels reinvigorated by answering their questions and seeing them connect with others who are embracing the “labor of love” that is teaching. “Events like this workshop really help the first-year teachers understand that there are others in this with them, and that they are supported,” Bundy says.

In addition to mentoring beginning teachers, Mentor Grant Program funding can be used to support alternative licensure candidates, which allows school districts to hire teaching candidates who already hold an undergraduate or advanced degree and have expertise and knowledge in specific subjects. These candidates can teach while they complete the training to meet Colorado Teacher Quality Standards for becoming licensed teachers in the state.

“The ability to address alternative licensure candidates really deepens the available mentoring programs,” Kipp says. “These are people who maybe never considered becoming teachers, but who are feeling the call to put their considerable experience and education toward the classroom. Being able to match them with mentors who can help them navigate what it’s like to be in a room full of students is a real game-changer.”