For Nancy Lander, a veteran teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the past year has been hectic but also deeply satisfying.
Last year, a panel of her peers and administrators made her a "mentor teacher," the teaching profession's equivalent of a coach. She helped new teachers at South Gate Junior High School by giving demonstration lessons and lending advice on everything from classroom management to lesson planning to "mundane things" such as how to take roll.
At the same time, she taught a full load of sixth-grade English classes at South Gate, a year-round school.
For her efforts, she received a $4,000 stipend from the state, which began rewarding superior teachers with the extra pay--and extra responsibilities--two years ago.
But Lander said the money was not the only reward.
'A Lot of Satisfaction'
"I made a lot of good friends with new teachers and got a lot of satisfaction out of seeing their growth," said Lander, who has been teaching since 1966. "Teachers in general are isolated; you get isolated in your own classroom. But by mentoring, I've been able to visit other classrooms and communicate with other teachers, which we don't do enough of."
Lander 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."
But has the program succeeded? Although their enthusiasm runs high, many mentors in Los Angeles County have complained they are overworked and worry about neglecting their classes. And 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 school district, for instance, mentors are expected to spend 170 hours a year helping other teachers through coaching and 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."
Although he agrees that the program can be improved, Honig in general believes 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.
Lander 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.