Teaching Teachers : With Hard Work, Mentors Seem to Be Passing the Test

Times Staff Writer

For Barbara Banner, a veteran Santa Monica teacher, the school year was hectic but also deeply satisfying.

Last year, a panel of her peers and administrators made her a "mentor teacher," a job that occupied "half of Christmas vacation, half of every weekend, all of Easter vacation" and countless hours after school.

She assembled a "traveling museum" of paraphernalia--including microscopes, the skeleton of a whole horse and assorted live, dried and petrified specimens--and carted it to different schools for daylong training sessions on how to teach science to youngsters.

At each session, she gave teachers a 45-minute "pitch" about teaching science. Then every half hour different teachers came in with their classes for a demonstration lesson. And at the end of the day, Banner said, "I would stagger home," tired but happy.

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 Banner said the money was not the only reward.

"I made new friendships. People would come up to me and give me presents. They'd say, 'You've got to have this,' a set of worms, different kinds of sea pods, a tree fungus from Mt. St. Helen's. I got a new lease on life."

In her view, the teaching profession gained something, too.

"Teachers teaching teachers is better than someone from the central office coming out and telling us how to do things," said Banner. "It's us helping each other, and that is going to have a long-term effect."

Banner 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."

Some Complaints Listed

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

"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 free to establish other requirements.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, for example, mentors are expected to spend 170 hours a year helping other teachers by coaching them and through 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."

Reports Are Positive

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

"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.

Career Recognition Wanted

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 teacher 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. Teacher 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.

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.

Not Asked to Judge

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 afterwards. 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.

"The feedback I got from committees was they worked real well," said Shirley Guy, executive director of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach. "There was a lot of concern that there might be administration manipulation of who would be mentors. But the feedback I got was there was no trying to ramrod a person through. There was a genuine look at the application and files."

Extra Pay Is Earned

Moreover, Guy said that the $4,000 bonus mentors received was not resented by other teachers. Unlike merit pay, the mentor program requires teachers to assume additional responsibilities in order to justify the extra money.

"It's not a gift of $4,000," Guy said. "They (mentors) are working very hard for it."

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.

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. Many, like Long Beach's Barbara Cantor, who quit the program, were too devoted to their classes to leave them.

Lighter Class Load Urged

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 reduction of the mentors' teaching load by one-third.

"People have not been flocking to apply," Johnson said, "because the program as it exists now is not attractive. If you're going to teach all day and are asked to do a lot of additional work for a few thousand dollars, you're not going to do it. But if you are guaranteed that you will teach only two-thirds of the day and the money is increased, that may be an incentive."

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. The district hopes to find an additional 286 mentor teachers for the coming year.

Some critics say that the minimal competition for mentor positions raises doubts about whether the best teachers are being chosen.

Many Held Back

In the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, about 25 teachers applied for 15 openings last year. One teacher said that although district officials "bent over backward to give everyone a chance to apply," many outstanding teachers adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

"That is an accurate criticism," state Supt. Honig acknowledged. "Some of the best people hung back." But he said he is optimistic that more teachers will apply when they see that it is "not a hokey, superficial program."

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 new teachers last year and needs an additional 2,500 by September--who are concentrated in those two regions.

Bowen said that fear of the transfer rule has lessened because very few teachers were transferred from one region to another last year. "The transfers were intra-region (between schools in the same area)," she said. However, Bowen said she did not know if more teachers in the Westside, the San Fernando Valley and the harbor area are applying for next year's openings.

Attrition Rate Drops

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.

At South Gate Junior High School, a Southeast region school, Principal Peter Ferry said his five mentors have been an invaluable asset. "Until we had this program," he said, "we had no direct access to constant help for our new teachers. For them, (the support) is the key to success on the job. Our teachers were very appreciative of the mentors' help, especially the new people."

Mike Conway, a science teacher who joined the staff last year after 10 years away from teaching, said he appreciated the help he received from mentor Nancy Lander. "Any program offering teachers a means of getting feedback and communicating with other teachers is positive," he said.

Lander said she tried to give new teachers practical advice, particularly in the area of classroom control. "That's one of the hardest things teachers have to learn, how to keep little kids quiet, under control and in their seats," she said. "(New teachers) are accustomed to college where everyone comes in, sits down and starts taking notes."

Booklet Produced

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. An English and social studies teacher at Dapplegray Intermediate School, Rosen gave demonstrations about writing, produced a booklet on ideas for teaching composition and counseled new teachers such as Parsons.

"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."

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. Barbara's enthusiasm is infectious. It makes you want to go dashing madly to your classroom and start teaching science."

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

According to Plepler, other teachers had "very mixed feelings" about the mentor program. "I recall hearing everything from extremely favorable to extremely unfavorable (reactions). Many people feel it is an attempt to show people how to teach. You can't really show people how to teach. But if you look at it from the viewpoint of gathering fresh ideas, it has a greater value."

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." She said the program needs "more positive publicity."

Other mentors said they wished that mentors could serve longer than three years. "Right now," mentor Nancy Lander said, "when the three years are up, you go back to doing what you did before," with no permanent career advancement having occurred.

Master Teacher Roles

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. They say their experiences have brought them personal and professional satisfaction and broken down barriers that often isolate teachers from one another.

"I have gotten a lot of regenerated energy," Banner said. "It dug out of me things I forgot I ever learned. I'm so happy I was a mentor. It absolutely made my year."

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