MARQUETTE - During the work day, Mindy Longton can be found in her classroom at Superior Hills Elementary School, teaching her kindergartners the academic basics.
But she's not just teaching 5- and 6-year-olds. She's also mentoring a fellow educator, Superior Hills kindergarten teacher Ashley Nicholas.
The concept of formally forming mentoring relationships was introduced to public education through the Michigan legislature in the 1990s by Public Act 335.
Superior Hills Elementary School kindergarten teacher Mindy Longton gives a presentation to the Marquette Area Public Schools board in November with the help of Superior Hills student Lachlan Plescher. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
It requires teachers to have a mentor for the first three years of their employment in a new school district.
The relationship is meant to help new teachers feel more comfortable in their role as head of the classroom, a role that is often more difficult than people realize.
"When you first start teaching, it's very overwhelming, all of the things you need to accomplish. It's all very new," Longton said. "When you go through student teaching, you're supervisor teacher is telling you what to do. There's a lot of things you can't do as a student teacher. When you get your own classroom you have to do it all ... The burnout rate is really high in the first three years of teaching. Usually if teachers can make it past the first three or four years of teaching, they'll stay in it. I think they're finding if they're unsupported, teaching is too hard."
Mentors are required by law to meet with their mentees for at least two full work days. Often, teachers are given half-days by their schools to meet somewhere off campus and discuss any problems a new teacher may be having.
"A mentor teacher is just there to be an ear for you," Longton said. "You come to them for advice - I'm having this situation, what do I do? That teacher can talk with you, share some answers they've had and problem solve it. The problem before they had mentor teachers is, I think (new teachers) often felt lost and didn't know where to get the information from."
Mentor teachers are not restricted to only meeting their mentees for those two work days. Longton said she has a unique relationship with Nicholas, because while Longton has more experience, with 12 years of teaching under her belt, Nicholas has been teaching for a few years as well. That means that Nicholas doesn't need some of the same help a new teacher would. It also means she can teach Longton a thing or two about the classroom.
"It's a little different if the teacher is in their first year," Longton said. "Ashley, this is her third year. It's not as intensive. When you have a mentor and mentee program, for the first year, communication is a huge thing, making sure parents know what you're doing and how to handle those things appropriately. The first year and the third year are two totally different things."
Longton and Nicholas spend a lot of time together with other kindergarten teachers at Superior Hills, working together on weekends to plan lessons, share ideas and discuss how best to move through the curriculum now that the Marquette Area Public Schools district has switched to all-day kindergarten.
"Every moment we have (we spend together), before school, after school," Longton said. "And not everyone is like that, but I'm very fortunate to work with people who want to do that. We find it's easier. They have great ideas and I have some ideas to share.
Sometimes, in bigger districts, people are already doing what they're doing, and they don't meet with you. They're just kind of left to figure it out on their own."
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.