Mankato’s mentoring program: A model for success

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Minnesota 2020’s recent report, “Growing Gap: Minnesota’s Teacher Recruitment & Retention Crises,” highlights some of the key problems facing Minnesota schools. Now a partnership between Mankato Area Schools and Minnesota State University-Mankato has shown the way to keep new teachers from dropping out of education.

Research shows that a quality mentoring program such as Mankato’s can keep new teachers in the profession and, most importantly, improve the quality of education they bring to the classroom.

You can learn more about mentoring and how schools can attract and keep good teachers by reading Growing Gap: Minnesota’s Teacher Recruitment & Retention Crises.

The Mankato partnership does these things and more. Using a core of five experienced teachers on three-year rotations, the “Mankato model” helps first-year teachers become more productive, gives college education majors more hands-on experience and energizes the veteran teachers’ own careers.

At any one time, one special education teacher and two each from the elementary and secondary levels are full-time mentors on staggered three-year assignments in the Mankato program. They teachers get their full pay and benefits as if they were in the classroom.

They are replaced by MSU-Mankato graduates who are paid about $20,000 by the university and get free tuition for graduate-level classes. Although they are fully licensed, they are considered graduate assistants and are not employed by the school district.

“Essentially, they get a fifth year of college in the field” as well as a jump on masters’ degrees, said Lori Bird, assistant director of clinical and field experience in MSU-Mankato’s College of Education.

The mentors start the school year educating new teachers about the district’s expectations and standards for best practices. There are 40 new teachers in the Mankato district this year.

Throughout the year, the mentors organize seminars on topics such as assessment differentiation, classroom management, brain-based learning or working with English language learners.

Teaching is a time-intensive job, and studies show one of the reasons teachers quit is a lack of opportunity to make friends. That’s why the mentors plan social outings such as pizza parties, bowling, picnics, basketball games or ice cream after school.

“We have new teachers from different cities, different states, and they don’t know anybody here,” said Tracy Sexton, a middle school health and physical education teacher for 14 years. “At these picnics, it’s great to see new teachers and spouses chatting with other new teachers, making a connection.”

The mentors also go into new teachers’ classrooms. “We’re there for observation,” Sexton said. “If they want us to look at their interaction with children or their behavior management or look at the wait time between questions, we will work with them.”

Their discussions are not shared with the school administration. “This is for their own growth,” said Sandy Hatlestad, a fourth-grade teacher with 19 years of experience. “We want to work with them but also talk to them about what they’re going through as a new teacher.”

The mentors also work with students at MSU-Mankato, Bethany Lutheran College and Gustavus Adolphus College. While they spend some time in the classroom, their main job is to match students with teachers for their clinical field experience. This includes three-week teaching clinicals and the student teaching practicum. They work with more than 100 students each year.

MSU-Mankato extends the program to other area schools, including those in St. Peter, Le Sueur, Sibley East, Owatonna and Waseca. Gary Chamberlain is this year’s mentor in Waseca. The 30-year elementary education veteran meets separately with Waseca’s 10 new teachers each month. He also visits the teachers in the classroom three times a year to work on areas of improvement. Plus, he coordinates K-6 testing, K-6 science curriculum and staff development.

He also works to place MSU-Mankato students in clinical programs. He said he placed six student teachers in the Waseca district this semester and will have 12 next semester, in addition to 15 students he placed for three-week clinical visits. MSU-Mankato provides a teaching fellow to replace Chamberlain in the classroom.

All involved say the cost — mostly what MSU-Mankato pays for the teaching fellows – is money well spent. Michael Miller, dean of the College of Education, said the interaction of experienced teachers with the university’s students, the clinical studies performed by the mentors and the experience gained by the teaching fellows are all extremely valuable

The schools, meanwhile, get better first-year teachers, reduced teacher turnover and experienced mentors who return to the classroom with new vigor for their jobs.

“The initial investment can bring back more than the district can possibly spend,” Hatlestad said. “We get so much more from that nominal investment.”