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Mentor program helps keep teachers in fold
Miranda Clayter
First-year special education teacher Sara Studier (left) and veteran special education teacher Miranda Clayter of Effingham County Middle School discuss writing an Individualized Education Plan. - photo by Mark Lastinger/staff

SPRINGFIELD — First-day-of-school jitters aren’t the exclusive domain of students. A lot of teachers get them, too.

In fact, new teachers frequently endure struggles everyday and need guidance from more experienced educators. The Effingham County School District supports them through a long-standing mentor program.

“I knew that was the key to teacher success because I had seen it so many times,” Human Resources Executive Director Susan Hartzog said.

Prior to accepting her current job in 2015, Hartzog mentored new teachers at South Effingham Elementary School where she eventually served as principal.

“It was even helpful for me starting out because even though I was the music teacher — and there wasn’t anybody else at the school who taught music — I was paired with an experienced teacher who showed me the ropes ...,” Hartzog said.

A mentor’s duties include:

— Establishing a supportive relationship with the new teacher

— Promote the socialization of the new teacher in the school setting

— Help the new teacher identify pressing duties and prioritize time’

— Assist the new teacher with ideas to organize and manage the classroom

— Recommend ways to plan and deliver instructional materials

— Conduct confidential classroom observations with pre- and post-observation conferences

— Help the new teacher access resources

— Suggest ways to communicate effectively with parents

— Model a commitment to school improvement and effective teaching

— Fulfill other mentor-related duties as deemed appropriate by the principal

Hartzog explained that mentors freely share important bits of information that aren’t discovered during the student teaching process.

“College teaches you theory,” Effingham County Middle School special education teacher Miranda Clayter said. “It teaches you how things look in the ideal world. It really makes it look easy and pretty, and (professors) don’t want to scare people because they don’t want you to not go into teaching.

“They prepare you in certain ways but then you have a lot of things thrown at you that you need a coach or support person that you can ask how to handle things.”

New teachers are frequently surprised by the amount of paperwork that their job requires. In special education, the writing of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) is extremely important and requires a high level of knowledge of state compliance guidelines.

“I knew there was paperwork but I didn’t realize it was this much,” first-year Effingham County Middle School special education teacher Sara Studier said.

Effingham County Middle School Principal Timothy Hood charged Clayter, a 13-year education veteran, with assisting less experienced special education teachers. She is the school’s special-needs coach.

“There is a high turnover rate for teachers but, particularly, for special ed teachers,” Clayter said. “It is a very stressful job and it is critical area where there is a shortage so he wanted to find a way to support special ed teachers. We have a lot of teachers who are coming to us from other professions. You can do the alternative pathway to teaching.

“For instance, we have one teacher who has a degree in computer technology. She did that for a long time and then she decided she wanted to be a teacher. She’s coming in and having to do all these things like IEPs and she has never seen one before.”

The mentor program is also used by veteran teachers who came to Effingham County from other school systems.

“That’s because every county does things differently,” Clayter said.

“Clayter helps special education teachers in a variety of ways, including writing IEPs and setting up meetings with parents.

“I’m trying to help alleviate some of that burden off of them so that they can focus on the instruction,” Clayter said.

Studier appreciates Clayter’s efforts.

“If we are bogged down, she kind of helps us get it done,” she said. “There’s a lot of information and it is so overwhelming.”

In addition to forging better teachers, the mentor program benefits the school district in another important way.

“Studies suggest that it costs $70,000 to replace an employee — and that is not even counting the salary,” Hartzog said. “... That makes me pay attention because, when we talk about that much money, that is funding (that could be used) for another teacher if it costs that much to replace someone.”

The burgeoning Effingham County School District has added 80 teaching positions in the last two years. Its current retention rate for teachers after one year is 88 percent, up from 85 percent the previous year.

“When we were a smaller system, we could be in the nineties,” Hartzog said.

New teachers in Effingham County receive mentor support for three years.

“A first-year teacher will get a lot more support and observation as compared to a third-year teacher who may not need as much help and support,” Clayter said. “By your third year, hopefully, you are getting your feet under you and you know what you need to do.”

Clayter said that it is important that mentors constantly reach out to their proteges.

“New teachers may not be confident enough to come ask for help,” she said. “That’s why it’s the mentor’s job to reach out and build that relationship. If you feel like you are isolated and you don’t have anybody, then you are going to be disconnected.”