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Growing Great Teachers

You’ve helped scores of students make their way through the years. But there’s still someone out there who could use your help—a new teacher.


By Greg Saitz

Sometimes, mentor Kathy Drehmel (right) simply tells student teacher Delana Hill not to get discouraged.

Photo: Brian Bohannon

As a student teacher, undergraduate Delana Hill is now wading into the somewhat intimidating waters of running a classroom full of children. There have been good days—and bad ones.

But after one particularly difficult session of student teaching, the senior at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, turned to her not-so-secret weapon: retired educator Kathy Drehmel, otherwise known as Hill’s mentor.

“She helped me dissect [the day] and we reflected, talked about what I could do differently,” Hill says of her post-classroom meeting with Drehmel, one of many conversations the two have had in the past year.

The discussion over coffee gave Drehmel, who retired in 2008 after more than three decades as a special education teacher, a chance to share her vast experience.

“This is normal,” the Louisville resident told Hill. “After 34 years of teaching, I still had those days and you’re going to have those days, so don’t get discouraged.”

Sharing insights and providing an attentive ear are just two of the benefits enjoyed by Hill and other Bellarmine students who are part of the Kentucky Education Association’s Intergenerational Mentoring Program. The system matches college students studying education with retired teachers serving as mentors.

Through that program and others across the nation, scores of retired members are doing their part to encourage, educate, and support the newest generation of teachers through mentoring. They play a vital role in preparing beginning educators to face the challenges of teaching, and help stanch the flow of teachers who leave the profession after only a short time.

Nationally, 46 percent of educators abandon teaching within their first five years, according to James Rowley, an education professor at the University of Dayton in Ohio and author of Becoming a High-Performance Mentor: A Guide to Reflection and Action. Coupled with a report issued earlier this year by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future that noted half of today’s teachers—1.72 million—could retire during the next 10 years, it’s clear retaining new educators is critical.

“Teaching is a very complex profession. It’s full of all kinds of subtleties and nuances. It’s something you learn on the job,” Rowley says. “If we’re going to be learning on the job, we know it’s important to have someone guide and direct us.”

That’s where mentors step in, counseling and helping new teachers through what is often an intense and bewildering induction into the job.

“They provide a mix of social and emotional support and instructional support,” the professor says. “Those two things are very important. Skillful mentors know how to do both.”

Thirty states require new teachers be assigned a mentor or partake in an induction program, according to the California-based New Teacher Center, a nonprofit group that helps schools design and implement mentoring programs. Ideally, a mentor will do more than just assist a beginning educator in locating more chairs or extra supplies for the classroom. As the mentor-mentee relationship develops and trust builds as each person learns about the other, a collaboration can emerge, Rowley says.

It’s what has developed between Hill, 22, and Drehmel. Hill says she and Drehmel just “clicked” after being paired together, and the two communicate often.

“She plays devil’s advocate with me and challenges me to think critically about things,” Hill says. “Professionally she’s helped me grow because she’s a veteran teacher. I think I might not be as prepared to deal with all the things that go on with teaching besides bookwork” if Drehmel wasn’t around.

For Drehmel, 61, mentoring allows her to continue teaching and gives her the satisfaction of working with and helping young people. Along with acting as a mentor, Drehmel also took over this year as coordinator of the Intergenerational Mentoring Program in Louisville, which had been run since its start in 2003 by retired educator Kathy Jo Pullen.

“So many times by the time we retire, we’re cynical,” Pullen says. “It’s been rejuvenating being with the students.”

The benefits Hill and other Bellarmine undergraduates reap from interacting with retired teachers/mentors in the program were not available to Drehmel when she was starting her career. “I was faced with doing it alone, just having my peers to talk to in the same situation. But having a peer is not the same as having a mentor. It’s a huge advantage,” Drehmel says. “When Delana and I get together, I feel I have the expertise and she can be open and honest with me in maybe a way she can’t with the professors at Bellarmine or the teacher she’s teaching under at the school…It helps her to be able to talk to somebody in the teaching profession who is not involved in assessing her.”

Like Drehmel, Juan Zúñiga didn’t want to stop teaching when he retired in 2006 after spending 20 years in an inner city school in Tucson, Arizona. A colleague thought Zúñiga would make a good mentor, and two years ago he decided to get involved with IMPACT, the Arizona Education Association-Retired’s Intergenerational Mentoring Program.

Elizabeth Gonzales say mentor Juan Zúñiga guided her, but still let her find her own way.

Photo: John Miller

But Zúñiga, 68, offers a different perspective than most other retirees to the education students he mentors at the University of Arizona. Teaching was a second career for him, which he embarked on after 24 years in the Air Force. Zúñiga says he and other retired educators can use mentoring to share their tremendous experience.

“Our job as mentors is not to teach them how to teach,” says Zúñiga, whose wife, Barbara, was also a teacher. “Our job is to be a sounding board. If we can provide them a little guidance, we will, but we do not interfere with them and their professors.”

The work makes him happy, he says. Zúñiga also gets satisfaction out of the idea “that maybe I’m helping someone to not look at teaching as a job, but as a way of life.”

One of the students he mentored at the University of Arizona, Elizabeth Gonzales, says she liked the dynamic of combining young college students with retired educators, or as she puts it “mixing old school with new school.” Gonzales, 24, now teaching elementary level students at a school in Tucson, has had other mentors as well.

“I definitely feel like mentors have helped me,” she says. “They let you find your way, but they give you guidance.”

Giving direction is one thing. Being removed from the daily politics of a specific school or district can also help retirees offer more objective comments to their mentees, they said.

However, the biggest advantage retired educators may have over active teachers in mentoring is a simple matter of scheduling: they generally have more time.

“The No. 1 problem mentors report is time,” says Rowley, the University of Dayton professor.

Nationally, eight state Associations have active intergenerational mentoring programs and five others—Florida, Michigan, Georgia, California, and South Dakota—are in the planning stages. Retired members are paired with students, from freshmen to seniors, and the pairing can last into an educator’s first year on their own. But that’s not the only mentoring program taking advantage of retired teachers’ knowledge and skill.

Jan Olson, who retired in May 2008 after 40 years as an educator, continues to act as coordinator of a mentoring program for Sioux City Community Schools in Iowa. Now employed as a consultant, Olson helped start the Enhancing Educator Excellence program in 2000, and since then it has trained more than 150 mentors to help beginning teachers.

The program has been very successful under her direction. Since 2002, only one new teacher has not made it through a two-year, state-mandated comprehensive review process. It’s no wonder, then, that Olson, 63, was named mentor program leader of the year in 2007 by the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa State Education Association.

She says the operation has thrived not only because it was designed by teachers for teachers, but also because the district’s administrators and human resource professionals all endorse it, too.

In the end, it’s not rocket science.

“When teachers are supported, they’re more likely to stay in the profession and student achievement will go up,” she says. “It’s kind of a no-brainer.”

But not just anyone can become a mentor. With her program, mentoring is a voluntary process. And while candidates must meet certain criteria, such as having at least five years of teaching experience and recommen-dations from an administrator, they also receive extensive training to become effective mentors.

“For me, a mentor has to love teaching, have a passion for it, a passion for kids,” Olson says. “I believe kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care. And beginning educators are exactly the same way as a kid in your classroom. So you must be able to show you care.”

Rowley has developed a list of six characteristics of good mentors. They are:

  • highly committed to doing the work able to accept the mentee as a developing professional
  • a reflective communicator
  • an instructional coach
  • able to model being a learner
  • able to inspire hope and optimism for the future.

Connie Richardson Smith seems to have all those bases covered. Smith, 59, has been a mentor in Olson’s program since its inception, but retired as an active teacher just two years ago. (Smith jokes that she had to retire to have time to continue doing all the other education projects she’s involved in.)

“I had some outstanding teachers who helped me when

I was first starting my career, and I don’t think I could have gotten through it had it not been for those seasoned professionals,” she says. “At the same time, we have to continue the standard I enjoyed when I started 30 years ago.

“I spent my life being an educator and I’ve kind of seen it all,” Smith says. “Although the paperwork is different than it was before, the kids are still the same. Some things just don’t change.”

Like overwhelmed and stressed-out teachers coming to her in tears. It’s all right, though. Smith knows how to handle that, too.

“We have to say, ‘It’s going to be okay. Take this step-by-step and let’s problem solve this,’” Smith says. “They can come to me and we can have a conversation and they know it’s going to stay with me. We develop relationships built on trust.”

Being able to confide in Smith was invaluable for Brenda Hansman. Smith was Hansman’s mentor last year—her first year as a special education teacher in

Sioux City, in a school that had just opened. Hansman says she felt comfortable turning to Smith for advice in dealing with a parent or student’s behavior without fear the discussion would somehow trickle back to the principal or someone else.

“She was somebody you could trust and get it off your chest,” says Hansman, 25, who is now a substitute teacher in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where she moved recently when her husband was promoted. “It was just nice to know she understood because she’s been there before.”

From the highs (My job is wonderful!) to the lows (Oh my God, what did I do?), Hansman says Smith was there. One time, when Hansman invited parents to read to the students and not enough parents responded, Smith and a friend volunteered so each child would have someone to read with. Smith also observed Hansman in the classroom and was able to give her feedback without the pressure of the scrutiny being an evaluation.

Without Smith, whom Hansman invited to her October wedding, “I know I would have made it through my first year,” Hansman says. “…But I wouldn’t have been as happy.”



Once the mentee, this Virginia teacher now guides other new teachers.


Trina Francis (at left) spent 12 years in the accounting field, but when she switched careers to become an educator, her first year in teaching was nearly her last.

Overwhelmed and unsure of herself in the classroom, the Hampton, Virginia, resident was almost ready to quit. But retired teacher Margaret Bundick wasn’t going to let that happen.

Bundick, a mentor with the Hampton Education Association’s intergenerational mentoring program, helped Francis with lesson plans, had Francis over to her house, and modeled teaching for her.

“Had she not done that, I probably would have quit,” Francis says now, nine years later. “She was like an angel for me.”

From her shaky start, Francis, 43, has blossomed. During her third year with the Hampton City Schools, she was named her school’s teacher of the year; is now president of the Hampton Education Association; and mentors new teachers as well as students from Hampton University.

The mentoring program was one of the first of its kind. Ruthann Kellum (center), a retired educator who helped start the program with Su Lively (at right) in 2000, says she and others asked, “Why not use people who just left the classroom to work with people who are just entering it?”

The flourishing program was recognized in 2008 with an NEA-Saturn/UAW Partnership award. Kellum says there have been a “number of times the mentors say these people were ready to walk out the door and we were able to talk them through the issues.”

—G. S.


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