Showing teachers tricks of the trade Mentors lend a hand: Baltimore County considers expanding program that has experienced teachers at two schools helping newcomers adjust to classroom challenges.

November 18, 1995|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Lindy Mellendeck recalls two days this fall when she was ready to grab her car keys and run, leaving 29 kindergartners and her nascent teaching career behind.

"I got this class of kids that I couldn't even get to sit on a carpet or walk in a line," said Ms. Mellendeck, a first-year teacher at Scotts Branch Elementary School in northwest Baltimore County. Her students bounced all over the room "like popcorn," she said, adding, "I never imagined it would be like this."

But the 22-year-old University of Delaware graduate didn't walk out. And she wasn't as alone as many first-year teachers.

Scotts Branch is one of two county schools that began a mentoring program for inexperienced teachers this fall -- a program the county might expand significantly next fall to improve education in schools overloaded with young teachers.

So, at Ms. Mellendeck's side -- sometimes literally -- is former first-grade teacher Lisa Kushnir, one of Scotts Branch's three full-time teacher-mentors.

"Lindy wants nothing more than to teach," said Mrs. Kushnir, who whispers suggestions, videotapes lessons and works 12-hour days to help younger teachers. "She's one of the first ones here in the morning and she stays late in the evening.

"She loves kids. But, left alone, I think we would have lost her."

Ms. Mellendeck's situation is not unusual for first-year teachers, educators say.

"As a new teacher, you are overwhelmed," said Marilyn Maggid, a second-year teacher who works with mentor Susan King. "I felt a lot like Lindy last year. You are just trying to maintain control."

Scotts Branch, along with nearby Old Court Middle School, started the teacher-mentor program to overcome daunting challenges. With many students not ready for school and a student turnover rate of more than 40 percent during a school year, "we face so many more challenges here," said Principal R. Wayne Law.

"The nature of our students is that they come and they go. The kids who are most transient come to us with great gaps in learning," he said. "It's very difficult to work here. Experienced people prefer to teach elsewhere."

With inexperienced teachers and a high turnover rate, children often learn less, county school officials say. Reversing that trend is the underlying reason for the mentoring program.

The expansion would take the program into more than 20 other schools where the enrollment is at least 50 percent black. The average number of teachers with less than five years' experience in those schools is nearly 60 percent, said Associate Superintendent Michael Riley.

"Until we say we're going to deal with [teacher inexperience], we can do a little of this and a little of that," but it won't improve the quality of education in those schools, he said.

The Scotts Branch mentors are all experienced teachers, hired by Mr. Law not only for their teaching ability, but also for their enthusiasm and ability to communicate. Each of the three mentors has six to eight teachers under her wing.

"We're just there for them" -- observing, suggesting and showing, said Mrs. King, the mentor for fourth- and fifth-grade teachers. The third mentor, Joyce Albert, is on maternity leave but stays in touch by phone.

Mentors use audiotapes and videotapes of lessons, checklists of skills, self-evaluations by the teachers and lots of conversation.

They do a lot of trouble-shooting, too, said Mrs. King, who has been known to walk out of a meeting when one of her teachers sends for help. Because the mentors have no classes of their own, they can drop everything when they are needed.

Mentors began the school year by asking each of their teachers to comment on their strengths and weaknesses, such as communicating with parents, motivating students and managing discipline.

"I can't overstate the importance of videotape," said Mrs. Kushnir. "The teachers are really able to identify areas of weakness -- and strength."

After the mentor watches the videotape, she gives it to the

teacher. Often there's an assignment: "Go home with the videotape and practice rephrasing directions," for instance.

After watching a recent videotape of Ms. Mellendeck, Mrs. Kushnir told her: Speak in a quieter voice, explain a project before handing out materials, get the class' full attention before giving directions, have high expectations and express them at every turn.

Many of her suggestions are "common-sense kinds of things, but they don't happen naturally," she said. "I spend a lot of my time suggesting discipline strategies."

"She tells me what to do, and it works," said Ms. Mellendeck. Now, three months into the school year, "it's getting a lot better. I finally feel like I'm ready to start teaching," said the young teacher.

She conceded she was surprised recently when her students were all sitting on the carpet, facing her and listening to her. "I thought, 'Is this my classroom?' "

Without the mentoring program, she added, "I would still be chasing 10 kids around the room."

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