A Little Extra Money, a Lot of Extra Work : Mentor Schoolteachers Seem to Be Passing the Test

Times Staff Writer

For Anita Rosen, a veteran teacher in the Palos Verdes Peninsula school district, the past year has been hectic but also deeply satisfying.

Last year a panel of her peers and administrators made her a "mentor teacher," a job that involved coaching teachers, developing curriculum, writing a guidebook on teaching English, giving teaching demonstrations and organizing the first districtwide spelling bee. All of that was in addition to teaching a full load of classes at Dapplegray Intermediate School.

For her efforts, she received a $4,000 stipend from the state, which began rewarding superior teachers with extra pay--and extra responsibilities--two years ago.

But Rosen said the money was not the only reward.

'Didn't Mean Much'

"The money really didn't mean much. That wasn't the motivation," said Rosen, an English and social studies teacher for 17 years. "It was (getting) some kind of affirmation that you, as a teacher, have some value. And it was the satisfaction of knowing you helped other people.

"(Being a mentor) really got my juices going. I was getting stale, and this broadened my horizons."

Rosen was one of 5,000 teachers in the state who participated in an innovative and controversial program created by the 1983 education reform law that, in part, is intended to give superior teachers a pat on the back. The mentor teacher program, according to state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, was designed to give some extra money to the best teachers and to allow them to "have more impact within the system" by coaching other teachers and improving the quality of instruction.

"Everyone benefits," Honig said. "It's a win-win idea."

But has the program succeeded? Although their enthusiasm runs high, many mentors in Los Angeles County have complained they are overworked and worry about neglecting their classes. And some districts have had trouble attracting applicants, which has caused some teachers to wonder if the program is as selective as it should be.

A 'Full-Time Job'

"I mentored during lunch hour, recess, before school, after school, in between, you name it. It's like having another full-time job," said Florida Hyde, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who was transferred from Kester School in Van Nuys to 59th Street School in Southwest Los Angeles to be a mentor. "It's more work, and the extra $4,000 is not enough."

State guidelines set general criteria for the program, but districts were were free to establish other requirements.

In the Long Beach school district, for instance, mentors are expected to spend 170 hours a year helping other teachers through coaching and other activities. For Barbara Cantor, a fourth-grade teacher at Gant Elementary School, it was too much to handle. She resigned from the program.

"It is very hard to do all those things that mentors are supposed to do and not neglect your class," Cantor said. "We do need mentors, and it's terrific of the state to pay for it. But the time came out of my classroom and I didn't want to do that. I love my class--that's why I became a mentor."

Although Honig agrees the program can be improved, he said that, in general, he believes it is working well.

Favoritism Feared

"The reports I've gotten are very positive," he said. "Initially, some teachers were very antagonistic. They thought it was merit pay in disguise, and they were afraid of favoritism. But those people are some of (the program's) strongest advocates now."

The education reform law says that up to 5% of the teachers in a district can be mentor teachers. However, state budgetary restrictions have prevented full funding of the program so far. Last year, the $30.8 million the governor budgeted for the program allowed about 3% of teachers to be chosen; for the coming school year, the mentor program has been allotted $44.7 million, which will allow between 4.2% and 5% of teachers to serve as mentors.

The funds provide school districts with $2,000 per mentor to cover administrative and support costs, in addition to the $4,000 stipends. Sixty-two school districts in the state managed to start mentor programs last year; this year 740 districts, or 72%, participated in the program. There are 850 mentor teachers in Los Angeles County alone.

For many teachers, the program is attractive because it takes a step toward improving salaries and career opportunities while allowing good teachers to stay in the classroom.

Desire to Help

Nancy Lander, a mentor at South Gate Junior High School, applied for one of the 400 positions offered in the Los Angeles Unified School District last year because of a desire to help other teachers and because, she said, "I think I'm a fine teacher." But she also wanted recognition of her skills--and she wanted it to be shown in a material way, an impossibility in a system that does not have merit pay.

"I'm on the top of the pay scale, and when you're on the top of the scale," said Lander, a sixth-grade English teacher with 16 years of experience, "there's no other way you can be recognized for doing a fine job . . . than the mentor program."

But the differential pay was the aspect of the mentor program that created the most controversy among teachers, according to spokesmen for several teachers' unions in Los Angeles County. In fact, Lander said she initially held back from applying because she thought the program would "cause dissension among the staff."

Like merit pay, the mentor teacher program raises the thorny problem of how to evaluate and choose the superior teachers. Teachers' unions feared that the program, if poorly run, would promote favoritism and argued that the money would be better spent upgrading salaries for all teachers.

Not Evaluators

Another concern was that mentors would be used to evaluate other teachers. Marilyn Russell Bittle , president of the California Teachers Assn., said mentors have been used as "quasi-administrators" in some districts in the state, even though the law specifically prohibits it. "There is support out there for peer assistance," she said, "but not for that assistance to be used against us."

But after the first full year of operation in most districts, the mentor program apparently has laid most of those fears to rest.

Mentor teachers interviewed by The Times said they were never asked to judge the quality of another teacher's work. "That was the beauty of the program," said Joan White, a mentor in the Pasadena Unified School District. "You did not talk to a principal afterward. It was strictly between the teacher who needs some help and the mentor."

State guidelines on selection of mentors were designed to prevent favoritism from playing a role. The law stipulated that each district set up a selection committee composed of teachers and administrators. In most selection committees in Los Angeles County, teachers were in the majority and a teacher was made chairman. Applications were open to any credentialed, permanent classroom teacher with substantial recent teaching experience. In most cases, candidates for mentor positions were interviewed by the full committee and were observed in the classroom.

Mentors' duties range from individual coaching and giving workshops on subjects such as teacher burnout to writing curriculum and designing other instructional materials. Some districts required mentors to work on specialized projects, such as developing lessons for a computer course. In addition, many mentor teachers had to serve a specific number of hours or keep a time log showing their activities.

Stipend Small Incentive

Few mentors said the $4,000 stipend was large enough to be a major incentive, however. And, as many mentors were quick to say, the bonus did not begin to compensate for the extra efforts they undertook.

Under the state guidelines, mentors could be excused from their classrooms no more than 40% of the time. School districts could use the additional $2,000 per mentor they receive from the state to train mentors, hire substitutes and pay for other administrative and support costs. But some mentors reported that a shortage of substitutes made it difficult for them to be released from their classes. And many, like Long Beach's Barbara Cantor who quit the program, were too devoted to their classes to leave them.

Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers of Los Angeles, said one of the changes he will bargain for in the next round of contract talks with the Los Angeles school district is reducing the mentor's teaching load by one-third.

Like many districts in the state, Los Angeles has had difficulty attracting applicants to the mentor program. Los Angeles officials had hoped for thousands of applications but only 453 teachers applied for 429 openings last year; 394 were chosen. State law allows mentors to serve a maximum of three years, and most of the Los Angeles mentors are expected to serve again, said Alice Bowen, an assistant coordinator of the district's mentor program.

More Interest Now

Officials in several districts say that interest in applying has picked up. In Los Angeles, "word-of-mouth from other mentors is helping a lot," Bowen said.

Los Angeles teachers say one reason for the lack of interest in the mentor program was the school board's decision to transfer mentors to the district's Southeast and South-Central regions. The board wants to use the mentor program to assist its growing number of new teachers--the district hired 1,675 last year and needs an additional 2,500 by September--who are concentrated in those two regions.

The Los Angeles board's efforts to use the program to help new teachers apparently is paying off. Assistant Supt. Dan Isaacs said preliminary reports show the attrition rate of new teachers has been reduced, a change he and other district officials attribute in part to the mentor program.

Sue Ann Parsons, a special education teacher hired by the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District last year, got some useful tips from her mentor, Anita Rosen.

"It was nice to be a sponge and take in her expertise," Parsons said. "Anita was wonderful and very unselfish with her time. And she is contagious. She is so excited and interested in what she's doing that you feel that way after a while."

Learned Something

Pat Plepler, a Santa Monica school district teacher with 17 years of experience, said she somewhat reluctantly attended a demonstration of a science lesson given by mentor Barbara Banner. But she found that she was able to learn something new, too.

"I tend to be a cynic when it comes to any kind of in-service program. Nine-tenths of them tend to be not all that valuable," Plepler said. "But this one was really outstanding."

Banner had set up a laboratory for 20 teachers, complete with microscopes, living specimens and dissecting kits. These supplies were only a few of the exhibits in the "traveling museum" she assembled for the teaching demonstrations on life sciences she gave during daylong sessions at five schools.

"It takes more than a stick of chalk to walk into a classroom," Banner, a 28-year classroom veteran, said. "You need energy and enthusiasm."

Some mentors reported that their offers of assistance were firmly, if politely, refused. "Teachers in general did not really need or want help," said Sharon Flynn, a French language mentor at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach. "There was a threatening thing there."

Longer Terms Wanted

Other mentors said they wished that mentors could serve longer than three years.

State Supt. Honig said he would like to see another system replace the mentor program that would create more of a career ladder for teachers. "We're eventually going to have to bite the bullet and establish 'master teacher' roles. . . . They would work full time, earn $40,000 a year and take on extra responsibilities," he said.

For many in the rank and file, however, the term "master teacher" is offensive and smacks too much of a hierarchy.

But most mentors say they hope the mentor teacher program will continue. Dan Fichtner, a mentor teacher at Ridgecrest Intermediate School in the Palos Verdes school district, said coaching his peers has been "exceptionally satisfying."

"These teachers are good teachers," he said. "But we all have a lot of tools in our pockets that we forget about, and sometimes we have to be reminded that they're there.

"Also, I've found that adult learners are different from kids. We mentors have had to be retooled to learn how to work with other teachers. But I really believe in lifelong learning, and this has given me a chance to grow. I think I've learned a lot."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°