Ask fourth-grade special education teacher Ashleigh Scott what her mentor means to her and she doesn't hesitate.
"Without her I'd be lost," the first-year Johnstown Teachers Association member said. "I really love the fact that I have a go-to person whenever I need advice or feedback."
Though she previously worked as a special education teaching assistant at Johnstown High School, Scott has repeatedly turned to Karlene Peck, a veteran special education teacher, for advice on everything from how to write student progress notes to strategies for communicating with parents.
"The first year is so intense, so overwhelming," Scott said. "I can't imagine going it alone."
That's exactly what Johnstown TA President Beth Brower had in mind when her local and district used a state teacher leadership grant to build a multi-year induction program to support new members.
"Our mentor program had been sliced and diced over the years and we knew there was a great need to bring it back in a powerful way," Brower said. "Our new teachers didn't feel supported and we had constant turnover. Now we're supporting them with a four-year program to get them all the way to tenure."
Ongoing support and mentoring programs are proven ways to lift schools and the entire teaching profession, NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino told about 150 new teachers attending three regional events sponsored by NYSUT's Capital District Regional Office.
"I know this is a challenging time for you," Fortino said at the Amsterdam mid-year event. "You worked hard to get where you are and you're excited and anxious at the same time."
Fortino is a big believer in mentoring programs because her own entry into teaching was guided by a union chapter leader who supported her personally and professionally.
"When I told her my special education students were not getting the services they needed, she said 'I'm going to be with you, Catalina,' and we took it up with the administration," Fortino said. "That was my 'aha' union moment ... and it's also why I'm such a strong advocate for mentoring and induction programs."
Fortino said the state needs to do more than simply require that teachers are mentored during their first year. The state needs to back that up with meaningful funding — and recognize that teachers need ongoing support in years two, three, four and five.
As lawmakers prepare next year's state budget, NYSUT is calling for the state to significantly increase funding for mentoring, induction programs and teacher centers, which provide professional learning opportunities around the state. "At a time when people are worrying about teacher recruitment and retention, that's how you grow and retain educators," Fortino said.
NYSUT is also working to expand professional learning activities through the union's Education & Learning Trust and informal networking opportunities like the regional new member workshops. "We want you to know we're here to ease the transition into your new career," said NYSUT Capital District Regional Office Director Jeff Hartnett. "In fact, these get-togethers are proving to be such good networking and learning opportunities we're planning to expand this to members in years two and three and four."