Teacher mentoring could be piece of puzzle in solving teacher shortages

WILLMAR -- A statewide teacher mentoring program could be a key to easing problems school districts have in recruiting some types of teachers, according to a Minnesota-based think tank report.

WILLMAR -- A statewide teacher mentoring program could be a key to easing problems school districts have in recruiting some types of teachers, according to a Minnesota-based think tank report.

Providing adequate funding so that schools can raise teacher salaries wouldn't hurt, either, said Minnesota 2020 board chairman Matt Entenza Monday morning in a news conference in Willmar.

Entenza joined Willmar Superintendent Kathy Leedom and kindergarten teacher Nichole Gleason at the Willmar Education and Arts Center.

Minnesota 2020 is a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on statewide issues with an eye toward their impact on rural Minnesota.

Teachers are hardest to recruit in the areas of math, science and special education well as teaching English Language Learner classes, Entenza said.


"Over the years we have seen a pretty steady decline in the number of applicants for these jobs," Leedom said.

And if they do enter the profession, young teachers may only stay a year or two before they are lured away by more lucrative jobs. The average beginning teacher salary in the state is about $31,000, but entry-level biologists can earn $73,000, and physicists earn $91,000, Entenza said.

"We feel we can reduce teacher loss with a strong mentoring program," Entenza said. "We would like to see the state step in and properly fund education."

Willmar has been fortunate in being able to hire some good teachers for its open positions, but often they come from smaller districts, and that leaves the other districts looking for new teachers, Leedom said.

Willmar has had grant funding for a formal mentoring program in the past, but that money is no longer available. The district does what it can with workshops for new teachers and informal mentoring arrangements.

Many veteran teachers offer help and advice to their new colleagues, she said, but a formal program with some funding would allow teachers time to work together during the day.

Willmar also works with the Community Education Department to provide continuing education classes through Willmar University, usually called Will U, she said.

Will U provides classes for teachers with all levels of experience, she said, and some of them are recommended for new teachers seeking tenure. Classes cover things like teaching strategies, use of technology in the classroom and childhood brain development.


Gleason, who is in her ninth year of teaching and her third year teaching in Willmar, said the Will U classes offered a good refresher for her. One that was particularly helpful for her was about diversity in education, she said, because it helped her understand her students from other cultures.

Many new teachers can be overwhelmed by the demands of managing a classroom, Gleason said.

"You're not always sure where to start," she said. "I've worked with other teachers who have helped me out a lot."

A mentoring program could help reduce the isolation for new teachers, particularly in smaller, rural districts, Entenza said.

Minnesota 2020's report on the teacher shortage suggests that a formal state mentoring and retention program could cost about $13,000 per teacher, not a small amount but less than the cost of continually recruiting new teachers, Entenza said.

The Minnesota 2020 report estimates that a comprehensive mentoring program can retain 88 percent of teachers over five years, compared to a national average of 56 percent.

The requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law can add challenges for smaller, rural districts by requiring that they have "highly qualified teachers" in all subject areas. Before, a smaller district may have one or two science teachers to "cover the waterfront" of subject areas, Leedom said. Now, they need to be specifically licensed in each area.

"That has been a real challenge for smaller districts, and it's even a challenge for districts like Willmar," she said.


Another challenge for Minnesota schools is a lack of state funding. Funding from the state has not kept pace with inflation for a number of years, and the increase for the 2008-09 school year will be 1 percent.

Entenza said studies have indicated that the state needs to spend about $1 billion a year more for education to close the gap between salaries in education and those in the private sector.

Leedom said many in education are asking the state to develop a comprehensive education funding plan that could be carried out over six to 10 years.

Asked if the political climate would allow for that, Entenza, a former minority leader in the Minnesota House, said he is hopeful that the governor and Legislature would consider implementing a mentoring program, if not a more broad-based solution.

"Teacher mentoring is not a partisan issue," he said.

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