Alexandra Castellanos Smith: How we can help teachers succeed during COVID

Teachers need support from mentors and the community to succeed.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Logan Hall, left, Salt Lake School Distirct Peer Assistance Review supervisor, meets with one of the program's mentor teachers Pat Draper at Bachman Elementary in Salt Lake City. The teacher mentoring program has boosted staff retention rates but recently lost its state funding. The district plans to continue the program internally. Draper, a teacher with 40 years of experience mentors Daniel Mills as he teaches his fourth grade class.

Teaching can be a lonely job. While you have a classroom full of students, there are few opportunities to network, share best practices and learn from your peers.

Before the pandemic, there was compelling research about how mentors can help to blunt teacher shortages and job dissatisfaction. One in three new teachers without a mentor leave the profession within five years but that ratio dramatically changes for the better when new teachers have colleagues they can count on.

Now, as we enter the third year of COVID, we must see mentoring as essential to our schools’ operations. Administrators, teachers, parents and the community at large should immediately embrace mentoring’s value as a powerful tactic to help fix some of the biggest challenges in Utah’s classrooms.

During the pandemic, teachers in our state have left their jobs, which has made the existing teacher shortage of 1,600 even worse. Envision Utah says we need another 500 new educators every year just to keep up.

Federal data show that the education field has seen an increase of 20,000 job openings between 2020 and 2021. RAND’s American Teacher Panel found that African American teachers were more than twice as likely as others to say they planned to leave, which will hurt our efforts to diversify the profession.

My own journey highlights the power of mentoring. My mom was my first teacher, taking time every night to show me the alphabet, basic arithmetic and to teach me how to read in Spanish. I still remember the way she would draw a swan out of the number two to teach me numbers.

Later, when I was sorting out what to do with my college degree, my sister encouraged me to join her as a teacher.

Our district has a relatively new mentorship program, which paired me with a master teacher who checked in weekly and gave me advice and curriculum support. Participating in every aspect of the training made me a better teacher with a sense of self that has influenced the way I view my chosen profession. I credit it for helping me become one of only five recipients this year of the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation.

These days, I share my projects and lesson plans with my colleagues. I help translate materials, brainstorm with our AP teachers and highlight professional development opportunities. I also have created a guidebook for teachers about how to best support our English language learners.

Experts report that mentorships are particularly effective when the mentors are well trained and use strategies. This can include helping a new teacher dive into student data or watching a new teacher at the front of the classroom and providing feedback.

Students benefit as well. Researchers have found that when new teachers are part of a high-quality mentorship program, their students saw an additional two to four months of learning in reading and an additional two to five months of learning in math.

Advocating for mentoring might come as a surprise to some of my students. That’s because they know my favorite book is “Wuthering Heights,” a gothic novel about awful characters who often do awful things to each other. It’s been described as a story of “cruelty, inhumanity, and the most diabolical hate and vengeance.”

But literature is a window to help us understand human behavior.

With “Wuthering Heights” we can read and learn what happens when we don’t care and empathize with our fellow man. Our choice, at this time, must be to take a different path and supporting teaching mentoring is the way.

Alexandra Castellanos Smith

Alexandra Castellanos Smith is the NEA Foundation Horace Mann Awardee for Teaching Excellence and a Spanish/English as a Second Language educator, Sand Ridge Junior High, Roy.