Education can be an industry with a lot of turnover among its workforce, so Tana Starman jumped at the opportunity to make sure a new coworker felt like a part of the family.
Starman served as a mentor for Megan Bunn, who is finishing her first year teaching in Ralston Public Schools.
Both women are English Language Learner teachers at Ralston High School, and they are one example of a mentorship program used by RPS to help new staff get acclimated to the district.
“I felt like it was my responsibility to help do that because I want to keep Megan around,” Starman said.
Research shows when teachers have strong professional relationships and support from their peers and administration, there is a correlation with lower attrition rates and better student performance. Mentorships and other induction programs are seen as a way to attract and retain teachers and foster strong professional relationships.
The programs are viewed as a key way to address a national teacher shortage that has been estimated to be more than 100,000 people.
“We know that teachers that feel accepted and welcomed and part of the community are more likely to stay,” said Lindsay Kelly, mentor program co-coordinator for RPS.
RPS takes principal recommendations and groups mentors with mentees they think will be compatible, Kelly said. Around the beginning of the year there is a district-wide event where mentors and mentees can meet each other and the district provides points of interest to discuss in the classroom.
Mentors also attend a one-day training session at Educational Service Unit 3, Starman said, where they read articles and had activities that taught them the best way to serve new teachers.
Mentors are assigned to all certified staff, such as a teacher, guidance counselor or nurse, who are new to the district.
They are expected to meet with their mentees weekly, Kelly said, and keep a monthly log to show what they’ve been working on, which provides accountability and a reference for future goals.
Starman said she was hesitant to be a mentor because this was just her second year in the district, but her facilitators encouraged her to do it.
Mentors help provide answers for big and small questions, from district policies to how to make copies or get more Kleenex. But the most important thing they do is help build relationships with other teachers, administration and students, Bunn said.
“Collaboration is one of the most important things for a teacher,” she said. “Your teachers are your best resources and so whenever I had questions, anytime, Tana was willing to be there.”
Starman and Bunn collaborated all the time, they said. They met more often than was required — even during passing periods, lunch or after school — because their rooms are right next to each other, but also because their classes have to work together so closely. They were able to develop a curriculum that helped students transition from Starman’s room to Bunn’s room and then to a mainstream classroom.
“That allowed us to do a lot of help for our students to make sure things were aligned between the two classrooms and make sure they were prepared leaving our rooms,” Bunn said.
Starman benefited from the relationship as well. Bunn is finishing her 13th year as a teacher — she previously taught for two other districts — while Starman is in her sixth, so she benefited from being around a more experienced teacher.
“Her wealth of knowledge in our content area has been super helpful for me,” Starman said. “I have not only been a mentor for her, she’s also helped me become a better teacher for my students.
“I’m not the fount of knowledge in this relationship. We are really a team and that has been a great experience for both of us.”
Nebraska used to provide state funds for mentoring programs, but the Legislature eliminated those funds in 2006, Now the onus is on individual districts to fund and implement mentorship programs, although the Nebraska Board of Education provides guidelines for districts to consider.
RPS provides stipends as an incentive for teachers to serve as mentors, Kelly said, but the relationships and leadership building are an incentive in and of themselves.
“It’s viewed here as a leadership opportunity,” Kelly said. “So that’s definitely an incentive we give them to step into a leadership role.”