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$4,000 'No Gift'--They're Working Hard for It, and Like the Pat on Back It Represents : Mentor Teachers Passing the Test

July 07, 1985|ELAINE WOO | Times Staff Writer

Some of Joan White's fellow teachers in the Pasadena Unified School District told her they "wouldn't do it for all the tea in China."

But White, who has been teaching since 1950, said she was "thrilled to death" to serve as a mentor teacher.

White has a demanding, full-time job teaching fourth grade at Henry W. Longfellow Elementary School. But last year she assumed additional duties when a committee of her peers and administrators elected her to be a mentor, a state-funded position created by the 1983 education reform law as a way to reward superior classroom instructors. Like other mentors, she received a $4,000 stipend.

She helped give a workshop for substitutes and coached new teachers on everything from classroom management and discipline to where to find room decorations. She also produced materials that were useful to more experienced teachers, sharing "ideas you know as a good teacher but, like a good recipe, you put away," she said.

It was hard work but she found it deeply satisfying.

"In any field, people need a little pat on the back sometimes," said White, who has taught in the Pasadena district for 17 years. "When the teachers ask for you, it means so much. . . . It is quite an honor."

White was one of 5,000 teachers in the state who participated in the innovative and controversial program which, in part, is intended to give superior teachers "a little pat" on the back. The mentor teacher program, according to state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, was designed to give some extra money to the best teachers and to allow them to "have more impact within the system" by coaching other teachers and improving the quality of instruction.

"Everyone benefits," Honig said. "It's a win-win idea."

Some Complaints Listed

But has the program succeeded? Although their enthusiasm runs high, many mentors in Los Angeles County have complained that they are overworked and worry about neglecting their classes. Some districts have had trouble attracting applicants, which has caused some teachers to wonder if the program is as selective as it should be.

"I mentored during lunch hour, recess, before school, after school, in between, you name it. It's like having another full-time job," said Florida Hyde, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who was transferred from Kester School in Van Nuys to 59th Street School in Southwest Los Angeles to be a mentor. "It's more work, and the extra $4,000 is not enough."

State guidelines set general criteria for the program, but districts were free to establish other requirements.

In the Long Beach Unified School District, for instance, mentors are expected to spend 170 hours a year helping other teachers by coaching them and through other activities. For Barbara Cantor, a fourth-grade teacher at Gant Elementary School, it was too much to handle. She resigned from the program.

"It is very hard to do all those things that mentors are supposed to do and not neglect your class," Cantor said. "We do need mentors, and it's terrific of the state to pay for it. But the time came out of my classroom and I didn't want to do that. I love my class--that's why I became a mentor."

Reports Are Positive

Although he agrees that the program can be improved, Honig believes that in general it is working well.

"The reports I've gotten are very positive," he said. "Initially, some teachers were very antagonistic. They thought it was merit pay in disguise, and they were afraid of favoritism. But those people are some of (the program's) strongest advocates now."

The education reform law says that up to 5% of the teachers in a district can be mentor teachers. However, state budgetary restrictions have prevented full funding of the program so far. Last year, the $30.8 million the governor budgeted for the program allowed about 3% of teachers to be chosen; for the coming school year, the mentor program has been allotted $44.7 million, which will allow between 4.2% and 5% of teachers to serve as mentors.

The funds provide school districts with $2,000 per mentor to cover administrative and support costs, in addition to the $4,000 stipends. Sixty-two school districts in the state managed to start mentor programs last year; this year 740 districts, or 72%, participated in the program. There are 850 mentor teachers in Los Angeles County alone.

For many teachers, the program is attractive because it takes a step toward improving salaries and career opportunities while allowing good teachers to stay in the classroom.

Career Recognition Wanted

Nancy Lander, a mentor at South Gate Junior High School, applied for one of the 400 positions offered in the Los Angeles Unified School District last year because of a desire to help other teachers and because, she said, "I think I'm a fine teacher." But she also wanted recognition of her skills--and she wanted it to be shown in a material way, an impossibility in a system that does not have merit pay.

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