I was lucky when I started teaching in 1993. I was accepted into a master’s program at the University of New Mexico called the Resident Teacher program. In it, I was a licensed teacher in my first year of teaching – but I was also a graduate student at UNM and taught at Bel Air Elementary School in Albuquerque. I both attended graduate classes and had a mentor teacher assigned to me during the entire year. This mentor teacher worked for the program and was responsible for helping four new teachers. She visited my classroom once a week, brought me materials, and talked to me in depth about my lessons and curriculum. We also met weekly as a group, which may have been the most valuable piece of the program. Our group of four new teachers and our mentor discussed best practices and any challenges that came up during that week. It was an experience I have not had since, and one that molded me as an educator. The Resident Teacher program is no longer in place, which is unfortunate.
Helping us become effective teachers was my mentor teacher’s only job that year. At the time, New Mexico didn’t have mentorship programs. If I had started my first year differently, I would not have had this essential help and guidance. In 2007, New Mexico established requirements for mentoring programs for new teachers, but the programs are very inconsistent throughout the state and not effective for many new teachers. While teachers are required to have a mentor the first year they are teaching, it is up to the districts in how they implement these requirements.
Because districts are held to minimum standards for the current mentorship law’s implementation, there is no standardization of mentor selection, training, compensation or caseload. The result is that we have no idea if this is working or not. We don’t know if new teachers are actually getting better and becoming more effective in their classrooms.
Until we standardize the best practices, new teachers will not receive the help they need in order to become good teachers. We need to ensure we are selecting the best mentors and that we compensate them for their work accordingly. We now have an opportunity to get this right under The New Mexico ESSA plan, which stipulates that the state develop a mentorship framework that is aligned with teacher effectiveness ratings.
One way is to adopt the best practices of New Mexico’s Teachers Pursuing Excellence program. This is a two-year program aimed at improving teacher performance as measured by NM TEACH, specifically through targeted mentorship and support for Minimally Effective and Ineffective teachers provided by Highly Effective teachers. This program has been highly successful in the districts where it has been used. The performance coaches this model employs could become part of our mandatory first-year mentorship program. If we give teachers this help and support on the front end, we will have fewer people needing the TPE program after several years of low evaluations.
Early experiences as a teacher often determine the type of teacher you become or whether you remain a teacher at all. I am not sure what type of teacher I would be today if I had not had the support I did my first year of teaching. Teachers should not only receive good mentoring and coaching if they are lucky, or just happen to be in a district that has better practices. Every teacher should have the help and support they need to excel. We need to make sure our mandatory mentoring program is held accountable to standards that meet our ESSA plan. Our teachers and students deserve no less.
Ruth Gallegos is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Policy Fellow.