Teacher Challenge Mentoring Problem Teachers Seattle School Officials Say Program Can Avoid Costly Legal Battles
Cupboards overflowed. Shelves leaned precariously. Boxes lurked under students’ desks.
The snarl of Joyce Manson’s classroom at Seattle’s Highland Park Elementary School was, in Sally Christy’s kindest words, “a glorious mess.”
During the summer of 1995, Christy helped Manson tidy cupboards, deep-six shelves and throw out boxes. It was a start. Still, she would like Manson to give up a tilting three-tiered shelf stuffed with more than 20 games.
The Seattle School District’s $1 million mentor program, which paired Christy and Manson, symbolizes a new willingness of teachers unions to shoulder some of the responsibility for improving teachers’ classroom performance.
Unions, long tenacious defenders of their weaker members, now work in some school districts to weed out bad teachers and help others like Manson who just need a boost.
They join lawmakers, school officials, researchers and other players in the vast public school network who are searching for ways to reward good teachers and avoid the expensive, arduous process of firing bad ones.
The Seattle program saves taxpayers money by avoiding the sometimes high cost of firing teachers. And principals like it because they don’t have the time to give troubled teachers intensive help.
Manson entered the program with problems, including strained relations with other staff members, a history of pushing her health-food views at parents and a distinct apathy toward using computers.
“As a teacher, you’re supposed to know everything, and if you don’t, your peers wonder why,” Manson said. “No one tells you how you’re supposed to learn all that when you’re raising a family, too.”
The 3-year-old program works this way: Christy and 13 other mentors spend three years away from their classrooms observing, helping and assessing all new teachers. They help the district decide which new teachers to keep.
They also coach experienced teachers with problems.
One in four veteran teachers fails in the program. For them, it is another step toward probation and eventually losing their jobs. In those cases, the program helps the district build a bulletproof case against the teacher.
A mentor’s log of classroom visits and a teacher’s failure in the program can be used as evidence in a hearing if the teacher appeals.
“It makes it easier for principals to use the process,” said Ricardo Cruz, former Seattle School District personnel director. “The teacher can’t say the principal’s been out to get them all along.”
Often, a teacher’s failure to improve adds so much weight to the district case the union convinces the teacher to bow out gracefully - without appeal. One year, Seattle schools saved $90,000 in legal costs.
“The union was on our side,” Cruz said.
New agenda for unions
A similar program began on a smaller scale in Spokane this year.
Unlike their Seattle counterparts, the 15 Spokane mentors also work regular classroom jobs. Substitute teachers take their classes when mentors are called to work with teachers having problems.
So far, mentors have worked with three teachers, said Mark Anderson, district personnel director.
“It’s a little early” to tell whether the program works, Anderson said. “We want to make it a safe place for teachers to ask for help.”
The district plans to spend $20,000 for the program in the 1996-97 school year.
Programs like Seattle’s require unions to change their priorities, said Linda Darling-Hammond, a Columbia University professor who studies ways to improve teaching.
“The leading-edge unions are moving from negotiating conditions of teaching such as hours and pay, to negotiating responsibility for making decisions about teaching.”
In Seattle, the district and the union negotiated the program in 1991, basing it on one in Columbus, Ohio.
The Seattle School Board saw it as a way to improve teacher accountability, Cruz said.
“The board said, ‘We want something that gets poor teachers out of the classroom and does it so we don’t spend $50,000 per case.”’ Union leaders say the program is the first sincere help offered by the district for problem teachers. Better yet, the help comes from highly regarded teachers.
“When a teacher is put on probation the principal writes a plan for improvement, but there is no mechanism to make sure there is that improvement,” said Verleeta Wooten, Seattle Education Association vice president. “The principal doesn’t have time and there is no person to call for help. People go into the (mentoring) program knowing they will get help.”
Still, many veteran teachers are skeptical, several mentors said. Getting them to be less defensive is difficult.
“They tend to be blase and pooh-pooh the whole thing,” Christy said. “Sometimes you have to get up right in their face with a baseball bat and say, ‘This isn’t a joke.”’
Manson was such a case. It took her months to realize Christy wasn’t the enemy and could help her with problems the principal was concerned about. Now she said she considers Christy her supporter.
New teachers improve faster
Veteran teachers are a small part of the Seattle program, only 6 percent of the mentors’ caseload. Most mentors’ time is spent with the 250 new teachers the district hires each year.
Kent Ferris, who last year was a first-year teacher, was skeptical before he got to know his mentor, Eva Mehaffey.
“The third or fourth day of school there’s this message in my box from Eva. I’m thinking, ‘Who is this person? I’m trying to stay out of the steamroller’s wheel. Just let me do my job.”’ By the end of the school year, Ferris said he valued Mehaffey’s help. “They’re teaching us to think on our feet rather than just be survivalists,” he said.
One day last spring, Mehaffey watched Ferris teach a lesson on Japanese culture to his class of gifted elementary students. The children paired up to work on 14 different activities, from eating with chopsticks to calculating with an abacus.
Afterward, Mehaffey questioned Ferris: “How did you handle that?” “Do you know why that worked?”
The questioning approach helps teachers learn to solve their problems, Mehaffey said.
Intensive work with new teachers is the most valuable part of the program, Cruz said. Districts can’t count on new teachers having enough real-classroom experience, even with student teaching.
“It makes our new teachers better faster, and we can let go those people who are marginal,” Cruz said.
When given the chance, teachers tend to be harder on colleagues than principals, said Columbia’s DarlingHammond.
In a Cincinnati program similar to Seattle’s, teacher-mentors gave 10.5 percent of new teachers unsatisfactory marks. Principals, meanwhile, gave only 4 percent of the new teachers unsatisfactory marks.
Those numbers show teachers can make tough decisions for the benefit of children and their profession, Darling-Hammond said.
Christy has no trouble getting tough when she believes children suffer. “Last year, I successfully coached three people into leaving,” she said. “They quit.”
One of the three who quit, an experienced preschool teacher, couldn’t handle third-graders.
“The kids had basically taken over the classroom. Kids were crawling under desks, talking right through her,” Christy recalled. “I suggested she raise her voice, use a commanding tone. She’d say, ‘I don’t believe in violence.”’ Principals must be willing to share authority with mentors. The shift was obvious in a conference among Christy, Manson and Principal Jim Oftebro last May.
Christy explained that, in her judgment, Manson succeeded. That meant the mentoring program was officially over for Manson, although Christy would stay in touch.
Christy offered Manson summer help to get ready for this fall’s students.
She glanced at the tilting three-tiered shelf.
“This class is going to be swinging next year,” she predicted.
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