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Teaching Teachers : With Hard Work, Mentors Seem to Be Passing the Test

July 07, 1985|ELAINE WOO | Times Staff Writer

For Barbara Banner, a veteran Santa Monica teacher, the school year was hectic but also deeply satisfying.

Last year, a panel of her peers and administrators made her a "mentor teacher," a job that occupied "half of Christmas vacation, half of every weekend, all of Easter vacation" and countless hours after school.

She assembled a "traveling museum" of paraphernalia--including microscopes, the skeleton of a whole horse and assorted live, dried and petrified specimens--and carted it to different schools for daylong training sessions on how to teach science to youngsters.

At each session, she gave teachers a 45-minute "pitch" about teaching science. Then every half hour different teachers came in with their classes for a demonstration lesson. And at the end of the day, Banner said, "I would stagger home," tired but happy.

For her efforts, she received a $4,000 stipend from the state, which began rewarding superior teachers with extra pay--and extra responsibilities--two years ago.

But Banner said the money was not the only reward.

"I made new friendships. People would come up to me and give me presents. They'd say, 'You've got to have this,' a set of worms, different kinds of sea pods, a tree fungus from Mt. St. Helen's. I got a new lease on life."

In her view, the teaching profession gained something, too.

"Teachers teaching teachers is better than someone from the central office coming out and telling us how to do things," said Banner. "It's us helping each other, and that is going to have a long-term effect."

Banner was one of 5,000 teachers in the state who participated in an innovative and controversial program created by the 1983 education reform law that, in part, is intended to give superior teachers a 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 example, 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

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