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In the early 2000’s, Greece Central School District in New York had 25 full-time mentor teachers. After the 2008 financial crisis, that number dropped down to one, plus a handful of part-time staff.
Now, the program is thriving again. Director of Professional Learning Marguerite Dimgba shares why she’s so proud of their teacher mentoring, how it fits into their broader professional learning program, and why this form of job-embedded professional learning is so crucial.
Nearly half of new teachers leave teaching in their first five years. 44 percent, to be exact — that’s from a report Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania released late last year. And while that number seems high — IS high — the fact is, teaching is tough, especially during those first few years.
There’s another study, released in 2012, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It revealed that when it comes to staying in their jobs, over 2/3 of teachers said that supportive leadership was, quote, “Absolutely essential.” Other important factors included professional development that is relevant to personal and school goals, time for teachers to collaborate, and evaluations based on multiple measures.
One way to accomplish these things, of course, is through teacher mentoring.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: The mentor teachers could provide support during the work day. But yet they could also be a model classroom. You and I could be in the same classroom, I might be gazing off and looking at the bulletin board, but the mentor realized, “Hey, there’s some great SEL practices going on over here in the corner. Let’s have our focus here.”
Today we’re looking at how one school district is using teacher mentoring to provide that crucial support, as well as to help teachers meet both individual and district goals.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: So by the two of them going together, the new teacher and the mentor, it really hones in on the practice and really focuses in on what’s essential.
From Frontline Education, this is Field Trip.
Marguerite Dimgba is the Director of Professional Learning at Greece Central School District in Rochester, New York.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: We have the 9th largest school district in New York state with 11,000 students and about 1100 teachers. This year we had 74 first and second year teachers,
Marguerite is also the mentor coordinator — that’s a vital role, since the district had 74 first and second year teachers this year. I spoke with Marguerite to ask how mentoring fits in with their professional learning program.
RYAN ESTES: Well, we are here today to talk to you about what Greece Central is doing with teacher mentoring. And can you first begin by telling me what you have done at your district with teacher mentoring, historically?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: We had a few models over the years based on the research and best practices from the New Teacher Center in California.
We sent a team there several years ago to find out best practices. During the early 2000s we had 25 full-time released mentor teachers. They were teachers on special assignment and we had one in every standards area. So for example, there was a full-time released English teacher and she was assigned to anyone who taught English, regardless of how many years of experience.
So any teacher new to Greece was assigned a mentor, and at that time we typically were hiring about 150 new teachers annually.
That was the early 2000’s… but the calendar pages kept flipping, and you won’t be surprised to hear that in 2008, when the economy tanked, things changed.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: It definitely changed how things were done. So instead of having 150 new teachers, one year we dropped down to having 10 new teachers. So our new teacher induction program, which normally was in a large cafeteria, I literally had them in my little library, doing a program with them. So we could no longer justify having the 25 full-time release mentors.
Over the next few years as those mentors retired or moved on to other positions and weren’t replaced, the school district needed use the remaining mentors as wisely as they could. Marguerite was asked to step in as mentor coordinator. And she and her team began thinking about how to meet state requirements with fewer resources. And by “fewer resources,” I mean one full-time mentor, three part-time mentors, and occasionally, a retired teacher.
In New York state, mentoring regulations say that any new teacher who is “novice,” which means less than two years of experience, with a New York state initial certification, needs to be assigned a mentor. So, unfortunately we couldn’t assign everyone regardless of certification or experience.
We really had to hone in on what they brought to the table and to make sure we assigned the mentor accordingly. So that helped reduce the number of mentors we needed, and also provided more targeted professional learning.
The years went by, the country slowly dug out from financial disaster, and Greece Central added more new hires, and more mentors. Fast forward to 2019.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: This year we had 66 new hires. What that meant was we were able to hire some more mentors. We had a couple full-time mentors. We really were targeting special education.
We had a lot of new special ed hires, we had a full-time special education mentor. We also had two retired teachers with a focus on elementary education, and then at that point, we applied and received a grant from New York State called the Mentor Teacher Internship program grant. That allowed us to hire a couple more mentors as well.
So as the hiring started to increase we started to pick things back up. But then it came to a point where, “Oh my, now I don’t have enough mentors for the number of new teachers.” And then Greece received another grant, probably about 6 years ago, where they were able to fund some teacher leaders, which means these are teachers on special assignment and they’re released 40% of their day, and now they have been taking on the responsibilities of mentoring.
RYAN ESTES: Let’s take a look at what you’re doing right now in a little more detail. As you think about your mentoring program at Greece Central, what really stands out in your mind as something that you’re very proud of?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: I’m really proud that the the teachers that we have—
Here Marguerite is talking about the teacher leaders who also mentor new teachers.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: —they’re very current in their practice. They’re really excited about mentoring. And they are released part of their day. Like I mentioned, they’re released 40% of their day. They don’t only do mentoring, but they’re also focusing in on social emotional learning. So that’s been a major focus in our district the last several years, and instead of having after school professional learning, we know that it’s much more impactful to have the job-embedded professional learning, and these teacher leaders were assigned to provide that support.
So it only made sense to have the teacher leaders also mentor, because they were in the classrooms anyway. By having the partial release, the forty percent, the mentor teachers could provide support during the work day. But yet they could also be a model classroom. So the new teacher could go in and observe the mentor while the mentor is actually teaching current students, and have that be a model classroom. And then the mentor teacher could push into the new teacher’s classroom when they’re not teaching, and provide that support. So it’s really been a shift in our model. This is only our second year with the new model and it’s really worked quite well.
RYAN ESTES: Can you talk a little bit more about how you decide who you’re going to bring teachers to observe. As a teacher says, “I want to observe a teacher teaching in the classroom,” are there specific criteria that you’re looking for? How do you determine, “Hey, we’re going to take you into this classroom or that one?”
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: Sure. We have a program that’s called a shadow day. And that actually has been one of our programs we’re very proud of and we were featured with Paula Rutherford and her Just ASK Mentoring in the 21st Century for this program. And what’s been valuable about this is that teachers are able to submit their form in Frontline—
Marguerite means Frontline Professional Growth, the system that Greece Central uses to manage professional learning and employee evaluations.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: —and have a focus for the day.
So they take a look at, what are your standards or benchmarks you’ll focus in on? What are the skills and areas you want to enhance? And then tying it back to our annual professional performance review. How does it meet that? And then all of our programs, they have to be tied back to our district goals and objectives.
And again, I’ll just pick a couple of them. One of them is, learn on health, wellness, equity, cultural responsive education and social emotional learning, or promoting mental, emotional, physical health. So ensuring safety and wellness can be one of their focus. It can be strong curriculum, instruction and assessment.
So they really look at the district goals that are tagged to our program and then the mentor teacher helps them to find someone who meets that criteria.
RYAN ESTES: You’re providing professional learning, especially through teacher mentoring, based not only on individual evaluation results, but also on district goals, is that correct?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: Yeah, absolutely. So everything we do is tied back to our district’s strategic plan, and it’s important for teachers to think ahead of time in terms of what they’re going to observe. And we do have a few forms that they can use as an option with their mentor teacher to jot down some notes and look at their area of focus.
Because you and I could be in the same classroom, I might be gazing off and looking at the bulletin board, but the mentor realized, “Hey, there’s some great SEL practices going on over here in the corner. Let’s have our focus here.” So by the two of them going together, the new teacher and the mentor, it really hones in on the practice and really focuses in on what’s essential.
You might be thinking, “That’s a complex process with 1100 teachers.” And that’s just teachers. Greece Central also has hundreds — or even thousands — of noncertified staff as well. I wanted to know how Marguerite and her team make sure that each teacher is getting learning experiences that align with individual goals as well as district goals. She said that it’s all about how they organized their catalog of professional learning opportunities.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: Actually, it’s not difficult at all. The way we have set up our system is that all of our professional learning that’s in our catalog gets tagged to our district’s strategic plan. So you can search for our professional learning based upon the strategic plan goal that you’re interested in. We do all the work ahead of time before things are put into our catalog. There’s a lot of thought and planning in terms of what professional learning are we offering, and how does it meet our specific strategic plan goals. And I do run reports for our superintendent and our Board of Education and we can track the number of hours and take a look at where we might need to add some professional learning.
Did all of that thought and planning result in professional learning that has actually moved their teachers closer to their goals? Is it helping new teachers progress? Is it moving the district further ahead on its strategic plan? And Marguerite said that one way they’re gauging that, as a district, is to see how well their professional learning meets the standards that the Every Student Succeeds Act laid out for effective PD. ESSA, you might remember, calls for professional development to be sustained, intensive, job-embedded, collaborative, data-driven, and classroom-focused.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: And in order to determine whether they’re meeting those criteria, Marguerite said, the first step is to define what those words actually mean. If 23% of teachers say that their professional learning was both collaborative and sustained, what does that really mean?
Because to me, all of our professional learning is collaborative, because when you work with another person you’re being collaborative, you’re not in isolation. Even our online courses have a collaborative component. So we added the word “sustained” and looked at our professional learning that occurs over more than three sessions, and we even took it a step further, more than seven sessions.
So we saw that instead of it really being at 23 percent, it’s actually up to I think it’s 42 percent now.
RYAN ESTES: Is that simply because you were able to define what you meant by “collaborative” and “sustained” and actually set the criteria there?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: Absolutely, so the first year we really were just looking at what makes sense in the system and getting that organized, but the second year I said, “I really have to look at a cleaner definition.” And by adding in that word “collaborative,” that’s something you can really track quite easily. How many of your sessions are one-shot deals, whether it is with your new teachers or your veteran teachers?
And really, I would ask people that were submitting proposals, “Is this truly in isolation, or is it a part of something else?” And so if it’s a part of another program, you can group that as an event and really show that it’s something that is sustainable. So it just had us rethink about how we were tagging, categorizing, and putting things into our system.
RYAN ESTES: I really like what you said about how the teacher mentoring program is helping you to offer job-embedded professional learning which is, of course, one of the criteria in ESSA, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about that. You said that your teacher mentors also teach, that they have a part-time release in order to do the mentoring and spend some time teaching. But talk a little bit more about how you look at job-embedded learning and how mentorship falls into this, plays into your strategy here.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: A large part of this is coaching. We have spent a lot of time in terms of just listening. We had Shane Safir here over the summer and looking at being a listening leader, and we are also looking at Jennifer Abrams’ Having Hard Conversations. So how to really be a better listener in the moment when you’re working with, whether it’s a new teacher or a veteran teacher, we all need support. And honing in on those skills with our mentors, so when they are in the classrooms, they’re not just sitting back and observing, but they’re probing and asking questions, providing supports for their new teachers.
So the job embedded is really occurring while the teaching is occurring. We’re not going to interrupt the teacher when they’re teaching, but we can find those ways to infuse the strategies. It may be that one of our mentor teachers actually teaches a portion of the class and the new teacher observes him or her. And then they can debrief about it afterward. Or if they are teaching the same subject, maybe the new teacher can go into the mentor’s classroom and observe a similar lesson. Or even if they don’t — I have a social studies teacher who is mentoring an English as a new language teacher.
But they could look at things such as instructional strategies. They can look at classroom management strategies. And so those are some commonalities they have, and they still could look at the mentor’s classroom and gain valuable insight.
Also our mentors are released during the day for professional learning, which is really important because we all have busy schedules, and the four to six model after school just really doesn’t work.
We still provide those, those still have a place, but we really need to meet teachers during the times that they can meet. That also means providing some online opportunities. We are really experimenting with micro-credentials, digital badges. We started a new online course for new teachers. We called it “Welcome to Greece Central, Now What?” with funding from the New York State Mentor Teacher Intern Program grant. I was able to meet with a dedicated group of mentors and to plan out a new teacher professional learning scope and sequence that’s going to provide flexible just-in-time professional learning with monthly themes, categories, and assignments, and really meet the teachers where they are.
RYAN ESTES: How has all of this been received, all of the teacher mentoring efforts been received? As you’ve heard from your teachers, what kinds of things have they said about how it’s helping their practice?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: We had a focus group in the springtime. We work with a program evaluator, Dr. Sheila Robinson, and she was one of my former mentor teachers, so she really knows the program quite well and we had a couple of graduate students from the University of Rochester help to facilitate those focus groups. We were able to ask the new teachers for their input or feedback areas for suggestions.
And it really was a positive. One of the feedbacks we did receive, because the new teacher program monthly was after school in person, and the attendance for that was starting to dwindle. Our new teachers are required to get a master’s degree. They’re very busy. So that was a challenge for them. So that’s why this past year we shifted that to an online platform and so far that’s worked well.
RYAN ESTES: What are the next steps for Greece Central? What would you like to see happen in the future when it comes to your teacher mentoring?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think continue to grow and to learn it’s always an adventure. You never want to be stagnant and do the same thing. So continue to learn and grow from the mentors. We meet twice a month as a group and I have a planning group of mentor teachers and really to ask them what their needs are.
We have a variety of resources. We’ve been using Paula Rutherford’s Mentoring in the 21st Century. We have a calendar of possible topics. I do get their input. One of the areas was, “How do you have those hard conversations when maybe things aren’t going well? So sometimes we bring in outside consultants like Jennifer Abrams, but other times it’s really just our own professional learning. Often the answer is in the room and we have a variety of resources that we can pull from within our district.
RYAN ESTES: My last question is this: if you could go back and talk to yourself as a younger person in this role who doesn’t have the benefit of the experience that you do now, what thoughts are words of wisdom would you give to yourself, or honestly for anyone who might be listening who’s looking to take their teacher mentor program to the next level?
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: I would say definitely just talk to your new teachers, talk to the mentors, and to find out what’s working, what’s not working, what are some ideas? And then have an open conversation with your administration. I know I’ve mentioned a few grants, and grants aren’t always an option, but there’s other low-cost things that you can do as well.
I know other districts have mentoring where the teachers teach full time and then they mentor outside of the work day, and that still has its place. You might be able to pull a teaching assistant, if that’s allowed, for a partial release and still do some shadowing. So there are some creative ways.
I’d also tell myself to reach out to other districts to find out what are other mentor programs and then take some of the best parts from them, and just to continue to learn and grow.
RYAN ESTES: Marguerite Dimgba is Director of Professional Learning at Greece Central School District in Greece, New York. Marguerite. As always it’s great to talk with you. You have fantastic ideas and I love hearing what you’re doing in your school district. So thank you so much for sharing your your insights here.
MARGUERITE DIMGBA: Thanks for having me.
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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline’s industry-leading software is designed exclusively for K-12, and is built to help school systems recruit, hire, engage, develop and retain their employees. For more information, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.