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NEA:National Education Association

Great Public Schools for Every Child

New Teachers Help One Another Through First Year
How Do You Support Students Whose Parents Are Getting Divorced?
The Goal: National Board Certification
What Do You Do When the Administration Doesn't Back You Up on Discipline?
How I Did It | Idea Exchange

Learning: Problems & Solutions
New Teachers Help One Another Through First Year

This Missouri district doesn’t believe in a sink-or-swim philosophy.

Photo by Mary ButkusAndrea Rable, left, mentors new teacher Cari McDougal.

Recruitment and retention of teachers is as much a problem in Missouri as it is nationwide. So in 1993, when Chris Guinther transferred from teacher to curriculum and instruction facilitator for the Francis Howell School District, helping new teachers survive their first year became a top priority for her.

Impressed by a neighboring district’s Beginning Teacher Network (BTN)–– sponsored by the local NEA affiliate—Guinther convinced her district and local Association to co-sponsor a similar program. Now in its seventh year, the resulting Francis Howell Beginning Teacher Network has provided more than 400 new teachers with new ideas and strategies for success.

“First-year teachers have told me that it is the isolation of their job that is so demoralizing,” says Guinther, who’s also president of the Missouri Staff Development Council. “They need a support system that’s ongoing, a place where they can talk confidentially with other new teachers.”

Guinther reaches out to beginning teachers as soon as they’re hired by the district. She sends the new teachers a greeting letter, inviting them to join the network.

“I tell them that we want them to be successful in their first year,” explains Guinther, “and that the Beginning Teacher Network is an addition to the state’s mandatory program of mentoring by an experienced teacher.”

Beginning Teacher Network meetings, adds Guinther, offer “a safe place where teachers can ask for help or say, without fear, that they don’t know what to do next or even ask next.”

This year, about 50 new teachers are participating in the year-long program, which will be evaluated by both new teachers and their BTN mentors. With the evaluation work, says Guinther, “we can modify the focus of the program as we go along.”

For Cari McDougal, the monthly Beginning Teacher Network meetings provide a solid source of “support, inspiration, and information.” The program, says this first-year teacher at Becky David Elementary in St. Charles, has taught her how to manage her time and her students’ behavior.

The Beginning Teacher Network, McDougal adds, has even helped her with parent conferences, teaching her how to begin exchanges with parents on a positive note before stating any problem.

First-year teacher McDougal also followed the network’s suggestion to call parents within the first week or two of school. Parents were “surprised but pleased” to be contacted.

“I found out more about my students—their allergies, who they shouldn’t be sitting next to,” McDougal says, “and it was all very helpful.”

“First-year teachers go into their classrooms and think the challenges and stresses they face are unique,” notes Guinther. “They’re frustrated and overwhelmed, and we let them know, through our activities with experienced teachers, that they’re not alone and that all teachers feel this way from time to time.”

Topics at Beginning Teacher Network meetings range from motivating students and prioritizing tasks to mainstreaming special education students. Sessions teach both classroom survival skills and life skills such as financial management, says Guinther, who brings in a speaker from the NEA Member Benefits program each year.

Teachers attending the Beginning Teacher Network sessions get plenty of refreshments—and have fun, too. They compete for door prizes, everything from books like Harry Wong’s First Days of School to Dr. Seuss ties, “school bus” bookends, desk organizers, book bags, bulletin board materials, and games for indoor recess.

The program’s refreshments and prizes are funded by the Francis Howell NEA local and the school district’s Professional Development Committee.

Natalie Lacey, a first-year fifth grade teacher at Central Elementary, says that the best part of the Beginning Teacher Network program has been learning how to keep her students under control.

“I don’t know that I would have known to do this,” says Lacey, “if it wasn’t for the Beginning Teacher Network.”

For second-grade teacher Amy Nichols—now a second-year teacher––the program has “lessened the isolation and helped me know that the stress I feel is not because I’m not good at my job. It’s something others are also going through.”

The best way to sum up the success of the Francis Howell Beginning Teacher Network? Guinther likes to share an anecdote from a BTN teacher whose friend quit teaching after her first year.

“The difference of what I had and my friend had was a support network,” the member noted. “If she had had what I had, maybe she’d be back teaching.”

Recommended Reading

bulletBright Ideas: A Pocket Mentor for Beginning Teachers, by Mary C. Clement (NEA Professional Library, Item #2153-3-00-WEB, $4.50 for NEA members).
bulletThe First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher, by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong (Harry Wong Publications, $29.95).

For more, contact Chris Guinther at

How Do You Support Students Whose Parents Are Getting Divorced?

I try to listen to what they’re saying and how they feel. If they want my opinion, I offer it. I believe they need to share how they feel and to know their teacher cares. They also need to be reassured that everyone—including their mother, father, and teacher—still loves them.

Mary Heil-Allen
High school teacher
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

I teach high school and have had numerous students whose parents were going through a divorce. Some students have come from homes where abuse has taken place, others where drugs and alcohol have been a major factor, and others where families have been abandoned.

It’s never easy to deal with children who are suffering, and sometimes they don’t want to tell you what is really bothering them. Many withdraw and want to be left alone. Some want to talk and vent their feelings. Others are angry and exhibit hostility. Virtually all are very deeply hurt and just want someone to listen, show concern, and care.

I try to do what I can by making a special effort to reach out and talk to them each day when I am aware of family problems. I also encourage them to talk with a guidance counselor or a friend.

Marjorie Rios
High school teacher
Livingston, Tennessee

Don’t take sides, but hear what they have to say. You might try to get them involved in a phase of your classroom work so that they have some organization in their lives during this period.

Carl Witte
Retired high school teacher
Harrison, Michigan

Children tend to blame themselves when their parents separate and divorce. Listening to them and allowing them to talk about their frustrations is important. Connecting them with another student who has gone through a similar situation also may help. Like adults, they need to know that they are not alone. Talking to someone their age validates their feelings.

Most times, one of the parents will speak to me about the impending divorce. That’s the perfect time to remind them to talk to their children. I stress how important it is to constantly let children know they are loved by both parents and they are not to blame for the divorce.

Ann Paoletti
Sixth grade teacher
Port Orchard, Washington

I try to reassure the child that there are other students at school who have experienced the same thing and that divorce is an adult problem having nothing to do with a child’s behavior.

We explain that both parents still love their child but find that they can’t comfortably live together anymore and that there’s nothing the child can do to change that. We talk about ways the child can still see both parents, even if one is moving far away. Some children find it helpful to make a little journal where they can write and/or draw their feelings about the divorce. I then encourage them to share their journal with both parents so they can talk further about it.

Kathy Miller
Elementary school counselor
Brookings, South Dakota

Learning: Problems & Solutions
The Goal: National Board Certification

Two veteran Ohio elementary teachers seek the teaching profession's top hallmark of quality.

Photo by Ken LoveChuk and Beki Dorka, both veteran teachers, earned their National Board Certification--an arduous but rewarding process.

Fewer than 5,000 teachers across the country have so far met the rigorous requirements for National Board Certification.

That's not surprising. Becoming nationally certified takes lots of study, honest self-evaluation, and a high tolerance for stress.

It's difficult enough for one teacher to undertake the voluntary national certification process, even with the support of understanding family and colleagues.

In Mansfield, Ohio, teachers Chuk and Beki Dorka decided to double that difficulty. In 1996, they both started down the road to national certification, together.

Today, more than three years later, Chuk and Beki have finally achieved their goals, and their experience can help any educator considering the national certification process.

Chuk and Beki each have over 20 years teaching. To them, the virtues of national certification are self-evident.

“National standards are really about what constitutes excellence in teaching,” says Chuk, who's 48. “Every teacher can benefit from a process with this kind of focus.“

The cost of applying for national certification, fortunately, was not an obstacle for the Dorkas. Ohio pays the $2,000 fee for the certification process--and rewards each nationally certified teacher with a $2,500 yearly bonus.

Their first obstacle turned out to be the sheer volume of the work required to become nationally certified.

After filing their applications, the two received the box of materials necessary to complete the process. Chuk, a sixth grade teacher at Dowds Elementary in Shelby, was overwhelmed.

"I wasn't expecting the kind of depth the process demands," he remembers.

As a first step, Beki posted a giant calendar in the basement with self-imposed early deadlines.

"I have to have everything all lined up," laughs Beki, a 49-year-old fourth grade teacher at Ranchwood Elementary. "Chuk has piles."

One big part of the national certification process involves putting together a professional portfolio. Each portfolio needs to include videos of classroom lessons, self-evaluations of these lessons, logs of professional development activities, and much more. It all amounts to a huge writing job.

"If you're honest," says Chuk, "you can find something about your teaching in the video that needs improvement."

Doing the self-evaluations for the portfolios demands that candidates" come to grips with what the kids see everyday," adds Beki.

The self-evaluations Chuk did led to direct changes in his teaching style.

"There's so much to do, so much to cover, that I think I'd become too intense," says Chuk. "I saw places on the tape where I wanted to put more joy back into what I was doing, not to be on such a steamroller. We do less now, but we do less better."

During the months-long process, Chuk and Beki argued, read everything the other wrote, and tried not to lose their senses of humor. But things sometimes got too intense.

"Then Chuk would go do laundry, and I'd do stained glass," says Beki.

At Beki's insistence, Chuk ended up redoing his first videotape. He had taped a lesson where he wore antlers in the classroom.

"Beki thought that people who didn't know me would think I was performing just for the tape," says Chuk, who once ate worms to help demonstrate the various sources of protein.

In the end, Chuk passed on his first attempt at national certification, in the early adolescence generalist field. Beki made three attempts, finally becoming certified as a middle childhood generalist last November.

On her second attempt, Beki missed becoming certified by only a point.

"We cried for two hours," says Chuk.

Fortunately, the certification process is divided into several parts, and participants are given four years to "bank" their strongest areas and redo only weaker sections. That flexibility meant that Beki did not have to repeat the entire process all over again.

"Students and parents were part of this process," says Beki. "It was hard to go back and tell them I didn't do my job well enough. They all felt bad. Now I can say, I told you I could do this. I didn't give up."

For more information: See the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Web site. To apply for National Board Certification or to request more information, call 1-800-22TEACH.

What Do You Do When the Administration Doesn't Back You Up on Discipline?

When administrators do not back me in discipline situations, I write a grievance. My teaching contract calls for support in these situations, so that I can perform my primary duty--teaching students!

Mary Boulanger
Secondary science educator
Holt, Michigan

From the first day of school, I set rules with strict consequences for students. I set my consequences as if I did not have the backing of administrators.

To show students I mean business, I don't give them many chances between warnings and the consequences. I also send my rules home to parents, who have to read them to their children and sign and return them to me.

Parents who do not agree with my rules can set up a conference with me. I let parents know that this does not mean I will change anything, but I am willing to work with them and listen to their ideas.

I also involve parents in the disciplining of their children. My parents know that if I call or send them an E-mail, the matter at hand needs immediate attention. Their child cannot participate in any class activities until we have met and solved the problem. When I do this, I send my administrator a copy of my discipline plan, along with copies of papers with parents' signatures on them.

Debora Garrick
Elementary school teacher
Westlake, Louisiana

Your discipline plan should be well planned, thorough, and consistent--and not dependent on an administrator. It also helps to have good lines of communication with parents.

Your classroom operates much more smoothly when your students know the buck stops with you.

Tracie Callos
Middle school teacher
Tok, Alaska

If an administrator doesnt back me up, I tighten up the way class is run. Giving students more restrictions and fewer comfort zones is certainly less enjoyable, but it is necessary, especially if I know my principal isn't going to back me up in potentially difficult situations.

Michael Yeakey
Middle school teacher
Cheraw, Colorado

Organize! Organize teachers in your building, teachers in your district, and parents who want safe schools. And demand statements in your contract that make faculty responsible for changes to discipline codes and demand that administrators support those codes. But be sure to make codes that serve justice and good education, not revenge and anger.

Kent Spring
High school math teacher
Portland, Oregon

Often, when administrators don't back teachers, it's because they lack information. If teachers follow their discipline plans and engage in all the steps leading up to a student being sent to the front office, most administrators will ultimately back them up.

Be specific in your referrals and let administrators know exactly what procedures you have attempted before sending a student to them.

Margaret Mitchell
Elementary school teacher
St. Petersburg, Florida

How I Did It

Bonnie Barber
Special ed teacher
San Jose, California

I’ve worked with the developmentally disabled, both in and outside the classroom, since I was a teenager. I’ve also coached basketball, track and field, bowling, and soccer for the Special Olympics. But it was a first for all involved when a soccer team I coached represented the United States at the 1999 International Special Olympics last June in North Carolina.

Our team consisted of 15 young adults, from ages 18 to 23. Most of them were either in or had graduated from my special education class at Pioneer High School.

After winning two qualifying games, we tied with three other teams for the chance to play in the international games. So officials put our names in a hat and drew ours.

Special Olympics paid for most of our costs, but we had a lot of community support. A health club let us work out in their gym every week with their personal trainers, the local soccer team taught us warm-up techniques, and Pioneer’s most avid soccer-playing students gave us pointers.

Our students learned so much at the games, and everyone earned a participation medal. They had to follow directions, live independently and interdependently in dorms, and work with unfamiliar authority figures. Seven Olympians are graduating this year, and I see lasting effects––namely increased self-esteem––in them.

Idea Exchange

Student Slates
Our maintenance department is replacing all the old chalkboards with 4' x 8' tile board. I asked the maintenance department to cut one of these boards into 12" squares, which gave me 32 new white board slates. Now students each have their own slate to use when we practice math facts, do math visualizations on the overhead, and practice handwriting.

To ensure that we always have enough white-board markers, I occasionally send a note home to parents explaining that were running low. To solve the problem of passing out an eraser for each child, I collected old clean socks. My students keep their markers in the socks and when we need to use the slates, everything is in their desks and ready to go.

Debi Beckman
Asheville, North Carolina

Baby Books
My high school class created books about child development and literacy for families with new babies to take home from the hospital. Students researched and wrote sections on the importance of reading to young children, immunizations, toy selection, and developmental stages. First graders created the cover illustrations.

Our project educated new parents--and increased my students knowledge of the importance of good parenting.

Judi Raasch
Greenfield, Iowa

Wallpaper Backgrounds
I use wallpaper for backgrounds on my bulletin boards. Its fast to put up, doesnt fade, and doesnt show staple holes. In the summer, I look for wallpaper on sale and put wallpaper on my bulletin boards first thing in the fall.

If I want a different background later, I just put it over the wallpaper. Then, when I take the special background down, the wallpaper is ready to go.

Jill Irey
Lake City, Michigan