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Cover Story: A Network of Sharing

As mentors, retired educators support the next generation of teachers

Kristen Loschert

Gloria Holland remembers well her first years as a middle school teacher. Unfortunately, those memories aren’t fond ones.

“The first few years of teaching were hell for me. I had no direction. I had no one to talk to,” says Holland, a retired English and social studies teacher in Salem, Oregon.

“I felt like I was thrown to the wolves. I was out there in this teaching world very alone.”

Despite feeling isolated and lost, Holland survived those early classroom experiences and had a successful 30-year career teaching junior and senior high school students.

After she retired, Holland wanted to make sure future teachers didn’t go it alone the way she did. So a year and a half ago she volunteered to mentor a student teacher at Western Oregon University as part of a new mentoring program organized by NEA-Retired-Oregon.

“It keeps you connected with the world of education, and I’m finding so much joy in it,” Holland says of her time as a mentor.

“When I’m with [my protégé], she provides me with the idealism that we all had when we first went into teaching. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time, the benefits are really wonderful, and it’s fun.”

The Oregon program is one of the latest to join the Intergenerational Teacher Mentoring Project, an effort launched by NEA-Retired in 2003 to pair retired educators with junior and senior college students studying to become teachers.

 The mentor-student pairs work together for three years, taking the aspiring educators through their student teaching and those critical first years in the classroom.

“The key to this whole program is to retain our young teachers beyond the five-year mark. Typically, that is when a lot of teachers leave the profession,” says Judy Nathe, a retired elementary teacher and coordinator for Oregon ’s intergenerational mentoring program.

 “If we provide a lot of support during those early years, then they will feel confident to stay on and move on in the profession.”

It’s a tall order, but research from organizations such as the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz shows that having a mentor can reduce a new teacher’s risk of leaving the profession by as much as 30 percent, while also providing a novice educator valuable support and greater job satisfaction.

But you don’t have to tell that to Stephanie Ehrick, a first-year English teacher in Chandler  , Arizona.

Even as a student at Arizona State University, Ehrick knew that a strong support network would make the difference between surviving and thriving as a new teacher. So as a junior, she signed up for the intergenerational mentoring program organized by the Arizona Education Association-Retired.

She’s been working with her mentor, retired English teacher John Campbell, ever since.   

“I feel certain that if I didn’t have John in my life, I would be talking myself out of teaching right now,” says Ehrick. “He has so much wisdom and knowledge, and he’s very willing to give insightful advice….In our profession, we are bombarded by so much stuff that we forget to ask for help and we drown. It’s such an amazing experience when you have someone in your life…who is always there for you.”

In fact, Ehrick feels so strongly about her relationship with Campbell  that she even invited him to her wedding. 

“The one thing I really like about the mentoring program is it lets natural relationships develop,” she says. “I just took to John and I have so much respect for him.”

Campbell  likewise has enjoyed his friendship with Ehrick. But being a mentor also helps him appreciate how hard today’s aspiring teachers must work to earn their certification and satisfy the teaching standards outlined by the No Child Left Behind law.

“It’s a neat way to give back to a profession that gave me a whole lot,” says Campbell. “I’m just glad I’m taking part in it. It’s keeping me young.”

Increasingly, NEA-Retired members nationwide say they feel the same way.

So far, teams from 28 states have received training on developing their own mentoring programs with help from Generations United, a Washington, D.C., policy group, and the Temple University Center for Intergenerational Learning—partners for the Intergenerational Teacher Mentoring Project.

States that complete the training can apply for up to $5,000 in grant funds to support their programs. The national project currently has 12 programs up and running and six others preparing for implementation.

“Ultimately, we want to have our groups start the programs and then have them institutionalized into the local school systems,” as has happened in Hampton, Virginia, and Jefferson County, Kentucky, says Todd Crenshaw, organizational specialist for NEA-Retired.

To help more programs get off the ground, NEA-Retired created a new Intergenerational Mentoring Toolkit loaded with information for developing effective mentoring programs.

The manual includes tips on recruiting, selecting, and training participants, as well as examples of best practices from existing mentoring programs. Every Retired and Active NEA affiliate will receive a copy of the toolkit, while college and university chapters of the NEA Student Program will receive copies of a companion CD-ROM.

Last year, NEA-Retired also trained six members as mentoring trainers who now can help other state Associations implement and enhance their own intergenerational mentoring programs.

Janet Kilgus, a retired math teacher from Illinois, was one of them.

“Just because you don’t go to work every day doesn’t mean you’re not an educator with experience, information, and fantastic ideas that can help kids and teachers in public schools,” says Kilgus. “You’re still an educator. You still got it, so share it.”

During the 1998–99 school year, Retired and Student members of the Illinois Education Association began planning the state intergenerational mentoring program,  Mentoring Educators for Tomorrow’s Success (METS).

The group piloted the program the following two years. METS now supports roughly 100 students mentored by about 75 retirees, like Kilgus and retired kindergarten teacher Linda Walcher.   

Being a mentor “makes me feel like I am still doing something worthwhile,” says Walcher, who also completed NEA-Retired’s trainer program. “When I retired I didn’t really retire from my love of teaching, and I just think it’s a really important thing to help these young teachers get a good start.”

Tammy Pullen, one of Kilgus’ mentees, agrees. “One thing I have gained from being in the mentoring program is self-confidence in my teaching,” says Pullen, a senior at Bradley University. “The program also has helped me learn how to network and how valuable networking is in education.”

Unlike the mentoring programs in Oregon and Arizona, which emphasize face-to-face meetings between mentors and students, the Illinois program uses technology, partly by design and partly out of necessity.

Most of the program’s mentors live in the Chicago suburbs, while the students attend school in the central and southern parts of the state. Consequently, mentors communicate with students primarily by phone and e-mail, which overcomes any distance barriers and has helped expand the pool of potential mentors.

“I have IEA retirees who live in Texas  and Florida who participate as mentors,” says Kilgus, coordinator of the METS program since 2004. “It doesn’t matter where you live. If you have the advice to give to students, that is all that matters.” 

And now Kilgus’ mentors have another platform for passing along their wisdom and experience. In February, IEA-Retired unveiled the Living Library Project, an online file system where mentors can store their best classroom ideas.

So far, 30 mentors have created virtual “file cabinets” filled with their favorite lesson plans, behavior management strategies, worksheets, and classroom activity guides ready and waiting for the student mentees to download. 

“It’s giving the retirees the chance to know they still are educators and still have a lot to offer,” says Kilgus. “And it’s giving the students frontline access to those years of wonderful experience.”

Plus, once students register with the Living Library, they can access it indefinitely, even after they graduate and start teaching, which provides them with an additional level of support, Kilgus adds.

She wants to target active teachers nearing retirement and encourage them to start their own file cabinets, which she hopes will keep them involved in the project once they retire.

The Living Library will not replace the one-on-one contact between mentors and their students, though, says Kilgus. Instead, she believes the project will enhance the METS program by offering retirees and

students another way to participate. Now retirees have the option of volunteering as mentors, creating file cabinets for the Living Library, or both, while students can choose a mentor, access to the online materials, or both, based on the level of support and involvement they need, Kilgus says.

“By working with my mentees I get ideas for what to put into the Living Library,” adds Walcher, who helped develop the project. “But it’s not just little capsules of mentors and mentees [anymore]. It’s a whole network of sharing.”

Nebraska : The Model Mentor

When NEA-Retired launched the Intergenerational Teacher Mentoring Project in 2003, the Nebraska State Education Association-Retired (NSEA-R) didn’t hesitate to sign up. Since then, more than 40 student-retiree pairs have participated in Nebraska  ’s program, which has become the model for intergenerational mentoring programs nationwide. 

That’s not surprising, given the program’s success rate. During the past four years, 43 students have enrolled in Nebraska ’s mentoring program. Of those, 18 are either teaching full-time or as substitutes, while 20 are still in school or completing their student teaching.

Nebraska’s program currently draws students from four universities—Midlands Lutheran College in Fremont, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, the College of St. Mary’s in Omaha, and the University of Nebraska at Kearney—and pairs them with retirees in the three college towns. But state organizers plan to open the mentoring program to NEA Student members at all of Nebraska ’s teacher training schools and recruit additional mentors statewide.

As the pool of mentors expands, organizers will conduct a yearly mentor training at a central location, while still providing mentors with monthly learning sessions at sites throughout the state. In the meantime, mentors and their students attend regular workshops together as well as a fall kick-off event and spring celebration picnic.

 This fall, NSEA-R also began a newsletter to help improve communication between the students, retirees, and the mentoring program’s planning team.

Being an Effective Mentor

If you think mentoring an aspiring teacher is for you, here are a few tips for building a successful relationship with your student.

Understand your role. “We don’t mediate. We don’t judge. We don’t evaluate. We’re just there for support,” says mentor Gloria Holland in Oregon  . Mentors do not supervise or grade a student teacher’s performance. Instead, think of yourself as a confidante providing helpful advice and a soft shoulder to lean on. 

Reach out. Don’t be afraid to make the first move and contact your student, says Ashley Evett, a junior at Illinois State University. Also, don’t worry if you don’t hear back from your student right away. Students often become overloaded with coursework and teaching placements and may struggle to stay in touch. A short e-mail checking on your student’s progress and frame of mind helps a lot.

Trust your instincts and experience.“Don’t worry that you don’t know what to say. The student will ask you questions,” says Linda Walcher, a mentor in Illinois. “Just put yourself out there and be open and warm. They really are just very young and very new and they can use any advice that worked for you.”

Tools of the Trade

Start-up state mentoring programs now have even more resources at their disposal! NEA-Retired released its Intergenerational Mentoring Toolkit earlier this year. The toolkit includes a manual with a step-by-step guide for planning and implementing local mentoring programs, worksheets, and checklists for monitoring progress.

Coordinators also will find helpful information on recruiting, training, and matching participants, including sample mentor applications and interview questions.

The toolkit also offers materials for evaluating a program’s effectiveness, tips on managing a budget, and a comprehensive list of print and online resources. For more information or to receive a copy, contact your state affiliate.

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