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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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In response to teacher shortage, Spokane Public Schools ramps up hiring, mentorship

Dr. Shelley Redinger Superintendent, Spokane Public Schools visits with 6th grader Aden Akin during lunch on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Dr. Shelley Redinger Superintendent, Spokane Public Schools visits with 6th grader Aden Akin during lunch on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Responding to a teacher shortage, Spokane Public Schools is changing how it hires and retains teachers – focusing more on mentorship and early recruitment.

“We know more and more what it takes to be successful,” said district Superintendent Shelley Redinger. “We have to go out and recruit. We have to get what we need.”

The teacher shortage is not unique to Spokane or Washington state. Schools across the nation have struggled to fill positions, especially in areas like special education. Spokane has 10 unfilled positions this year, mostly in special education.

Additionally, the district is short between five and 10 substitute teachers a day, said Mary Templeton, the director of certificated personnel.

In an effort to backfill these shortages and provide support for new hires this fall, the district received a $521,000 state grant, via the state’s Beginning Educator Support Team. Last year the district received the same grant, but only for $89,500.

“I think we have the opportunity to be world changers, and I want to make sure we keep people in the profession so they have the opportunity to do that,” said Kim Harmon, the director for talent quality initiatives.

The BEST grant money will help expand a teacher mentorship program for first-year teachers, said Tennille Jeffries-Simmons, the district’s chief human resources officer.

This year there are about 140 new teachers in the Spokane district. Each is paired with a mentor teacher who checks in with them throughout the year.

The additional grant money allowed the district to hire three more veteran teachers into mentorship roles, add another day of orientation training, and pay for monthly professional development, Harmon said.

Each of the six mentor teachers works with about 20 first-year teachers. They schedule class observations, critique lesson plans and debrief classes.

At a school board meeting last week, three first-year teachers addressed the board of directors and explained the benefit of the program.

“As you may know teaching in your first year is super overwhelming and nerve wracking,” said Rhianna Grossman.

Grossman, who is a content specialist at Lincoln Heights Elementary, said having a mentor teacher helped her settle into the new job.

Sean Mallon, a teacher at Ferris High School, echoed Grossman. He said the mentoring program helped him learn practical skills – lesson planning and classroom management – but also gave him emotional support.

“My first year, it was kind of lonely in a lot of ways,” he said. “The opportunity to have somebody who was just invested in me … was really a huge thing.”

The extra support is partly aimed at increasing teacher retention, Jeffries-Simmons said. Nationally about 18 percent of teachers leave the profession after five years. Spokane’s five-year retention rate was 85 percent. Last school year the retention rate was 95 percent.

“There is turnover,” Jeffries-Simmons said. “It’s not unique to us.”

In addition to working on mentorship and retention rates, the district is upping its recruiting efforts. In the past it hired only in the spring. Now it’s nearly a yearlong effort, particularly in hard-to-fill areas like special education. The district started hiring for the 2017-18 school year a week ago.

“Because of the increased competition for our local talent pool we’ve needed to become more aggressive by hiring earlier,” Templeton said.

The district can now hire teachers on the spot, sign letters of intent and offer pay incentives to substitutes in classes difficult to cover.

Additionally, the district has started paying more attention to student teachers. According to a study, Spokane Public Schools hires nearly 30 percent of its student teachers. In response to that, the district is being more intentional about placing student teachers with teachers who have strong classroom management skills and an interest in mentoring.

Broadly the changes reflect an increased focus in data-driven decision-making, Jeffries-Simmons said.

“We really need to be careful about how we are maximizing our investment in new staff,” she told the school board last Wednesday.

However, there is a personal element to the work. As a first-year principal, Harmon was handed the keys to her new building and sent on her way. That was a completely overwhelming experience. Other administrators saw she was struggling and mentored her informally.

“For me it’s just about giving back to a profession that has given so much to me,” she said.

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