Mentors keep young PPS teachers focused on job, skills


State program helps Portland district protect investment

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Lane Middle School teacher Aukeem Ballard chats with students Jula Voytenko (left) and Dorina Paladiy in his communications class Tuesday. The school district's new teacher mentorship program gives support to new teachers like Ballard to boost their skills and stay on the job.
Aukeem Ballard began his teaching career wanting to make sure every student was heard. He just wasn’t prepared for them to speak all at once.

As a student teacher at Lane Middle School last fall, he was leading a class discussion among his eighth-grade social studies students.

He’d never made a hard-and-fast rule about hand-raising; he just let it happen organically.

At some point, the noise level got out of hand, and he had to make a choice.

“I was very reluctant to yell,” he says. “I don’t yell in my life.”

But then, a student made a derogatory comment, and “I felt I had to raise my voice in a stern way,” Ballard recalls. “All of a sudden it was as if a pin dropped. It cascaded across the room, and their heads craned and their jaws dropped. Then we had a discussion about it.”

The class came up with an agreement about how the students could balance their need for expression with the larger need for order.

Ballard had learned his first lesson as a teacher — one he was able to resolve rather than fester and that might have driven him away from the job.

Last year, Portland Public Schools saw a nearly a third of its new teachers (45 of 120) leave after their first year. That had the biggest impact on low-income and high-minority schools, because that’s where newer teachers are more often placed.

The district’s answer to that problem: a brand-new mentorship program this year for new teachers, including Ballard, to provide them with all of the support they need to be successful and improve on the job.

“There were many nights I stayed way too late, got there way too early, came home and bawled my eyes out early in my career,” says Gage Reeves, an 11-year teacher at Vernon School who is signed on this year as Ballard’s mentor. “There’s such a culture of isolation in teaching.”

The 120 new PPS teachers are taking part in the mentorship program, as well as 12 new principals. All are paired with veteran educators who share a similar background and are taking a year of leave from their positions.

Together, the mentors and mentees will meet, talk, email, text and train throughout the year about everything from classroom management to curriculum and assessment. The mentors will be sounding boards for ideas — people who’ve gone through the same trenches and want to help their peers succeed.

“Kids draw energy from their teachers,” says Reeves, a science teacher. “There’s only one way to feed that, and that’s to give it to them. That energy transfer is real. It is so exhausting. You can have 45 minutes with a group of seventh-graders and feel like you’ve just run the gauntlet. You’re completely taxed. You’re cognitively engaged 100 percent of the time.”

Managing expectations

In tight budget times, PPS is funding the $1 million mentorship program with $383,694 from the Office of Teaching and Learning, leveraged by a $659,980 grant from the Oregon Department of Education.

PPS was one of six Oregon districts to get the grant, along with Salem-Keizer, Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Tillamook and Woodburn. It’s the fifth and final year of the grant, and the second time PPS applied.

The first time, the district hadn’t been ready to modify its model, says Lynne Shlom-Ferguson, assistant director for new teacher professional development.

“We wanted to stay with what we’ve done before,” says Shlom-Ferguson, a 34-year PPS veteran who’s served as a teacher, principal and administrator, including her most recent 11 years as principal of Arleta Elementary. “There’s no panacea. But this is going to meet the needs of our teachers at a level we haven’t had before.”

The mentorship program, she says, “is like candy for me. ... It’s a full circle. New teachers are just full of energy, just want to do their best work.”

District and state officials will be tracking the program’s results, and believe it will pay off.

For each teacher who does not return, PPS loses an average $46,000 to $50,000 in salary, plus benefits and in-service training the district had paid for, Shlom-Ferguson says.

“It doesn’t take very long to see you’re losing,” she says. “Districts across the country are losing money because they’re not protecting their investments.”

Shlom-Ferguson and Reeves, the Vernon teacher, say they’ve seen firsthand the grief a school community experiences when a new teacher does not return.

They both believe the mentorships will make a difference.

Ballard, the Lane teacher, hopes so. Even coming into the job with experience in youth advocacy, his time last year as a student-teacher was an eye-opener.

“I felt like the biggest challenge for me was going to be managing a wide array of needs and wants, and at the same time keeping up with all the expectations from the students, their parents, administrators in the building and in the district,” Ballard says.

“Also, I had to think long and hard about whether I’m the best person for this job. I love education ... but I’m not shy to the fact that teaching’s not for everyone. I wanted to make sure I do the students justice.”