Retirees become ‘sounding board’

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Every fall, John Green watches the looks on new teachers’ faces fade from sunny and warm to cloudy and chilly along with the weather.

“They come in with all this anticipation. You look around in October, November, and it wanes,” says Green, a 23-year retired veteran of Chicago Public Schools who taught 8th grade at Fuller Elementary in Grand Boulevard and served as assistant principal at three schools.

New teachers “need someone to direct them as far as [school] culture, parents, attendance books, problem-solving, professional growth, technology, self-assessment, classroom management,” explains Green, a mentor at Castellanos Middle School in Little Village. “All of these things are hitting them at the same time, and none of that is addressed in college. There, they get content knowledge.”

Julie Voynovich, a 7th-grade language arts and reading teacher who worked with Green last year, agrees. “College really does not prepare you for teaching,” she says. “John was my troubleshooter. If I needed to know anything, John would know where to go.”

Green and other former teachers are guiding rookies at 80 schools through the Retired Mentors Program, a two-year-old partnership with the Chicago chapter of the National Retired Teachers Association, the educator wing of (and precursor to) the American Association of Retired Persons, which pays some of the costs. Mentors earn $200 per day for 20 half-days of work.

Chicago’s project, part of a national initiative launched in 2002, is serving 163 new teachers this year (71 of the newcomers are special education teachers). Some of the schools were identified as hard-to-staff. Some new schools without many experienced faculty also asked to participate.

The program attempts to match mentors with mentees by grade and subject matter. But those factors are not overriding.

Disillusionment and discipline

The University of California at Santa Cruz is working on an evaluation of the program, to be completed in 2007. So far, according to a report from the national teachers’ group, a university survey found that 75 percent of participating new teachers say they benefited from the program.

Evidence that the program is helping to keep teachers on the job is beginning to surface, although the data involve small numbers of teachers. Of the 68 newcomers who began working with mentors in spring 2004, 62 stayed in the district and 43 stayed at their schools.

In 2005, the number of participating teachers more than doubled. Of 154 teachers, 122 stayed in the district, 97 of them in their schools.

Karen Cushing, program coordinator for the CPS Department of Learning and Development, notes that some new teachers from the schools served in 2004 quit before mentoring got underway.

“They realize, ‘This isn’t what I thought it was going to be,'” she says. “Part of the reason for this program is to help them through what we call ‘the time of disillusionment.'”

Mae Coen, a 36-year veteran who taught at Austin and Steinmetz high schools and has mentored at Douglass Middle, May Elementary and Clemente High, says some first-year teachers badly need confidence.

“Very little praise is given to these new teachers. They become very frustrated,” Coen says. “That’s where the mentors come in, to be the sounding board, to be the crying shoulder.”

Because student misbehavior is often the most difficult problem new teachers face, classroom management is a key component of the training provided to both mentors and new teachers; other topics include data-driven instruction and multicultural awareness.

Race, culture clash

Mentors can also help newcomers to bridge racial and cultural divides with their students.

Alvin Lubov, former veteran principal at Frederick Douglass Middle School, remembers one disillusioned young woman who was teaching at a school in a troubled minority neighborhood. Several teachers had been assaulted there.

“She really needed someone to talk to and vent,” says Lubov, who’s serving as a mentor this year at Mose Vines, a small school in the former Orr High campus in Humboldt Park.

The young woman, who is white, said her parents were apprehensive about the situation, so Lubov called to talk to them as well. A mentor can provide new teachers with “safety in an emotional sense,” he says. “People need to know that there’s somebody out there looking out for them.”

Christopher Stralkowski, who taught 7th and 8th-grade math as a new teacher at Ruggles Elementary in Greater Grand Crossing two years ago, says mentor Catherine Boyd-Morgan helped him to communicate with his students at the predominantly black school.

“There is an idea that, ‘You’re an outsider coming into our school, coming into our neighborhood,'” says Stralkowski, who now teaches 3rd grade at Ruggles. Boyd-Morgan, who is African American, talked with students and “was very helpful in making it clear that teaching and education are based on students’ minds,” not race or culture, he says.

“Lo and behold, come January or February, it was a non-issue.”