By Christopher Sun, Writer
British Columbia School Trustees Association
Barely a month into her first teaching job, Kaitlyn Freer wrote her resignation letter.
The Victoria-native received her teaching degree from Vancouver Island University in the spring of 2013 and started her first teaching position soon after in Chetwynd. Excitement from moving to a new place and starting a new career soon turned into shock, self-doubt and depression. She had a rambunctious Grade 6 and 7 split class with 10 of the 28 students on the extreme end of unruliness.
“For the first couple of months I thought I was not cut out for this,” Freer said, recounting the behavioural problems that affected one-third of her students. “I was asking anyone and everyone to please help me. I [figuratively] had a help wanted sign outside my classroom. I was crying for help and I wasn’t getting any. I didn’t have the experience, I felt in over my head; I was done.”
Freer handed in her resignation letter in October and received a phone call the next day from a union representative, telling her she should not have quit. A meeting was soon held, the resignation letter was withdrawn and Freer started getting some help, but it wasn’t enough.
“I had people come in from the school district thinking they can get through to the students and they didn’t,” Freer said, explaining a person who came in for just one day. “They came in, realized how difficult it was, said good luck and that was it.
“Having somebody there on a regular basis would have been very helpful.”
Freer was embarrassed and felt like a failure professionally for having an unwieldy class. A class that on-call teachers dreaded teaching. She was somewhat comforted when experienced teachers said it wasn’t her fault, acknowledging that she had a lot of exceptionally challenging students. A retired teacher working as a TOC approached Freer near the end of her first year teaching about a provincial new teacher mentorship program. When he offered to mentor her, she jumped on it.
“I said sure, that’s exactly what I’ve been needing,” Freer said, now teaching middle school in Fort St. John and entering her third year in the profession. If it wasn’t for the mentorship program, I wouldn’t be [currently] teaching.”
The New Teacher Mentoring Project began in 2012, with the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, UBC and BC School Superintendents Association collaborating together, with a four-year grant of about $1.5 million from the Ministry of Education. The project aims to provide sustainable support to new teachers, standardize new teacher mentoring in the province, and also bring in mentoring programs in districts that didn’t have them and strengthen them in others. Project co-ordinator Alison Davies said 34 of the 60 school districts now have some kind of mentorship in place and her goal is to see it in all of them.
“We’ve never had, in B.C., a cohesive, provincial approach to help support new teachers,” Davies said. “Mentorship has grown in different school districts but it has taken off mostly in the Lower Mainland in the last 10 years.”
Mentorship involves matching a new and experienced teacher together, and it’s not a one way, top-down structure, Davies explained. An experienced teacher can provide advice on how to deal with classroom problems, prepare report cards and offer professional support. In return, a new teacher can teach the experienced colleague about social media and current technology. Mentoring requires release time so teachers can observe each other’s teaching style in their respective classrooms, which costs school districts money and resources. However, Davies said this is a small investment to keep teachers.
“Teachers already meet informally but we do know a more formal program makes a huge difference to how effective the mentorship is,” Davies said. “One thing that makes the biggest difference in the quality of education is the quality of the teachers. We really need to support our teachers.”
The provincial grant has allowed additional funding for districts interested in the mentorship project and in its first year, the project focused on schools outside Metro Vancouver and on communities that may not have the budget to do it. In the first year, Haida Gwaii, Kootenay-Columbia and Kamloops/Thompson school districts were chosen to participate in the mentorship program. This later expanded to Sooke, Sea to Sky and Peace River North the next year and then Stikine, Vancouver Island West, Peace River South, North Okanagan-Shuswap, and Revelstoke in year three and four. There are now 15 people sitting on five regional teams, offering new teacher mentorship resources to school districts throughout the province.
Kevin Fadum is a district principal in Surrey and is charged with hiring new teachers. B.C.’s most populous school district cost shares new teacher mentoring with the teachers’ association, 50-50.
“We believe you don’t learn everything you need to know in teacher training,” Fadum said. “A university can’t teach you the cultural difference between teaching in Bella Coola and in the city.”
Fadum said 90 per cent of the new teachers he interviews asks him about what kind of mentorship opportunities Surrey provides and he’s proud that his school district puts a large emphasis on it. The mentorship program also helps in recruiting the best teachers.
“It’s a competitive edge,” Fadum said. “Mentorship does cost us money but it helps us build capacity and keep talent in the school district.”
While only a few school districts in B.C. are currently seeing growth in its student population, a teacher shortage is in the forecast, making the competitive edge even more important.
“We are at the bottom of the decline in student population and we are now starting the incline,” Davies said, adding teachers retiring will also cause a spike in hiring. “We anticipate that across B.C., there will be a demand for teachers and we need to ensure new teachers can move into those positions.”
Studies have shown that anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of new teachers leave the profession after five years, and Fadum feels having a mentorship program would help lessen the disillusionment that many new teachers experience.
“Teachers are highly educated and their skills are valuable in other professions,” Fadum said. “Mentorship programs will help keep them in teaching.”
Provincial funding for the New Teacher Mentoring Project ends in June 2016. Fadum and Davies hope the Ministry of Education will continue to provide funding for the program, while Freer would like to see it both continued and expanded.
“Right now, mentorship is only for new teachers in their first two years,” Freer said. “It should also be available to teachers who change teaching assignments.
“In Chetwynd and in Moberly Lake, I was teaching Grades 6 and 7, but in this new assignment in Fort St. John, I’m teaching middle school. It’s a total change.”
Freer hopes to continue participating in the mentorship program, even though she is now in her third year of teaching. She found a colleague at her new school who is teaching the same grade level is in a neighbouring classroom, and is willing to mentor her. However, if they can’t formally participate in the mentorship program, they may try figuring something out between the two of them.
“Mentorship definitely saved my career,” Freer said, adding she loves what she does and things are extremely better now than three years ago. “I don’t know what I would be doing if I left teaching.”
For more information about this story, contact Heather McKenzie-Beck at email@example.com.