Becoming a Teacher: Finding a Mentor
You're most likely familiar with the phrase "sink or swim." As the start of your first school year approaches, anxiety may be increasing as you picture yourself dropped into a challenging situation—difficult classrooms, quick orientation on school policies and procedures, confusion over school curriculum— with little preparation or help. Enter the teacher mentor.
As a beginning teacher, you often will need someone to turn to for immediate answers. Who should you approach, and who should you trust? Your administrator can point you in the right direction and help you find positive role models who are doing a good job and are successful in the classroom. Asking for help in identifying a mentor can only enhance your performance, and it helps you establish a relationship with the administration—especially if you follow their suggestions. Once you are in the building for a while, you can add to that cadre of advisors.
Increasingly, many districts are working with teacher associations or universities to establish mentoring programs for new teachers, veteran teachers in new assignments, and teachers in need of remedial aid. Experienced teachers are paid a stipend to assist the newest faculty members, and time is set aside to plan and to review specific lessons and general plans. More than half the states now require teacher mentors for new teachers. In Missouri, for instance, this support system is mandated by law; individual districts also may formalize such a plan. The teachers selected to be mentors have been judged by administrators to be outstanding teachers. In other districts, retired teachers are hired to observe the classrooms of the new teachers and to assist in the development of lessons, instructional groups, and behavior modification programs. Again, master teachers are worth listening to.
When you feel established in the school and have gotten to know your colleagues, you'll be in a better position to choose your own mentor. To start, work with whomever your principal recommends or your district assigns. You need someone who can give you answers when you need them. If your assigned mentor isn't a perfect fit, look for someone whose style or personality better matches your own after you become more established.
Making the Most of Your Union
In the United States, there are two major national unions that work with teachers to assist and guide them during their career and sometimes into retirement: the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Membership in one of these associations can be useful in your career.
How the Union Works
You may have very little contact with the national level of AFT or NEA; the local or state affiliate affects your daily life much more than the national organization. If you decide to join a union, you join the "local," just like any other union worker. Each local association gets information and advice from the state and national levels of the organization.
In some school districts, both organizations are represented in one school. In that case, each teacher chooses whether to join one or the other or neither. In other districts, only one of these two organizations is represented on the staff. Some districts are "union shops," which means that every teacher hired must join the organization. In that case, dues are deducted automatically from your paycheck, and you become a union member as soon as you become a staff member. Some districts may not belong to a national organization but have one or two state and local groups that provide a service for you.
Whether the AFT or the NEA dominates and whether you are under obligation to join varies within districts, counties, and states. When you have a choice of organizations to join, find out the benefits of each. If everyone in your building belongs to one organization, though, it is smart to go with the crowd. You do not want to stand alone on issues, and differences may arise later that you cannot predict now. You will jeopardize your ability to fit in to the culture if you are the solitary member of a national teacher organization in your building—or if you are the solitary non-union member.
What the Union Does for You
In some districts, one organization negotiates and handles your contract. Elected officials such as a president and vice president represent your interests and the interests of all the teachers in the school community. The local officials bargain for a contract and work with the board of education to determine your salary, health insurance benefits, and working conditions.
Working with Union Representatives
Local union representatives may be valuable sources of advice. After all, they were elected by the other faculty; they must be respected by their peers. They often are knowledgeable senior staff members who can help you answer questions and handle problems that arise when dealing with issues within your school and district. They can help you navigate the maze of confusion that comes with being a new teacher. Unions are very helpful and provide information and assistance about some of the following areas:
- opportunities for professional growth
- your retirement system
- your health plan and/or options
- group insurance for your household
- legal assistance (at a group rate)
- understanding your contract (if you are bound by one)
- filing papers to go on leave or retire
- opportunities to purchase at a discount
- solving problems in a large bureaucratic system
Unions are designed to assist you and enhance your well-being. It is up to you to make the most of the opportunities they offer.
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