Mentor program eases new teachers into job

By Jackie Sharkey

When first-year teacher Gordon Southam signed his teaching contract with the Ottawa-Carleton school board, they presented him with an over-sized ruler with the phrase “Mentoring Matters” imprinted on the side.

“I have it on my desk back home. I don’t bring it to school, but I am reminded of it each and every day,” Southam says.

Southam teaches Grades 9 and 10 French immersion students at the Glebe Collegiate Institute.

The school paired him with a mentor when he first arrived in the fall.

He says his mentor helped him wade his way through the paperwork at the beginning of the year, and sort out his priorities.

“When you first start teaching, everything is critically important and it’s sometimes hard to see what is ultra critically important, and what is maybe less important because it all seems equal,” says Southam. “So you learn a little over time, and the mentor helps you decide, what is ultra ultra critically hyper important as opposed to what is maybe a bit further down the line.”

While the Ottawa-Carleton School District has had a mentoring program for several years, the provincial government is just starting to catch on to the trend.

It introduced the Student Performance bill in early March, which will set up a province-wide mentoring program for first year teachers.

“Our board has been very proactive in developing a mentorship program,” says Walter Piovesan, principal at Glebe Collegiate.

“The board has been finding money within its own budget to provide mentorship.”

Joan Spice, trustee for the Somerset ward, said that 2005-2006 was the first year the board received any money from the provincial government to run its mentoring program. It was given $800,000.

“Additional resources make a big difference,” Spice says. “We’ve always had to do (the mentoring program) because it is an important thing to do, but additional resources make it a much better program.”

Piovesan says the board’s mentoring program helps bridge the gap between the theory-based teacher’s college and the real teaching experience.

Southam agrees. He says his mentor gave him tips that could only have come from an experienced colleague.

“She advised me to organize a buddy system, so if a student is sick, the buddy has all the handouts for that day — instead of having to run back to a folder and trying to find everything and worrying about if there’s enough photocopies, which can be a huge waste of time, Southam says. “Stuff like that I never learnedS in university.”

While in teacher’s college, teachers-in-training only get six weeks of in-class training, often broken up into two-week segments.

Piovesan says this just isn’t enough.

“While they go to teacher’s college and they have the placement, that isn’t necessarily real. They are in a classroom being supervised by a teacher the whole time.

“So when they get here, they have a lot of theory and a lot of great ideas but the practical piece just isn’t there.”