Shirley Dickerson stood in the back of the room and watched as Kacey James taught subtraction to a class of fourth graders.
When it was time for the students to work on a few math problems, Dickerson, a full-time mentor for the Durham Public Schools, walked around and helped a few students figure out the answers.
James, 26, a fourth-grade teacher in her second year at Holt Elementary, is one of Dickerson’s 106 mentees, or beginning teachers, at 10 schools. The more experienced educator helps James adjust to the challenges of a being a new teacher.
Dickerson says she tries to give teachers who need the most help the most time. But that can sometimes get difficult when one mentor has more than 100 beginning teachers.
Now DPS plans to expand its teacher-mentoring program as well as create a new principal coaching program next month. The goals are to decrease teacher and principal turnover and increase academic achievement.
Stacey Wilson-Norman, deputy superintendent of academics, said the district will hire 20 retired teachers who have at least 10 years of experience.
The three-year teacher mentor program currently has six mentors in a district serving more than 600 beginning teachers. It pays mentors a flat rate of $250 per day.
Teacher mentors are a temporary, year-by-year position, but the intent is to maintain the same mentor-beginning teacher relationship for all three years as much as possible, Wilson-Norman said.
The mentors observe beginning teachers and give feedback, help with planning, support when needed and advice on managing a class and dealing with parents and students.
With the new hires, each mentor will average 26 mentees.
“It’s more manageable for our mentors and will better suit the needs for teachers to be able to get more contact and support,” Wilson-Norman said.
Dickerson said she was pleased that the district will expand the program.
“I think it’s wonderful, because I’m stretched between 10 schools,” Dickerson said. “If I have three schools instead of 10, I really can spend more time in the classroom with the teacher, provide more feedback, I can get back to them quicker.”
She explained if she can’t see a teacher after her observation, it can take a day to get back to the teacher.
“Immediate feedback is the best because we all know we’ll forget things the next day or the next week,” Dickerson said.
The program was larger, with one mentor for 15 beginning teachers, before the recession forced the district to eliminate the program. Last year, the district was able to hire six mentors
Many teachers have left the state in the past couple of years for higher-paying jobs. DPS’ teacher turnover rate for the 2012-13 school year was 20.16 percent, according to the state Department of Public Instruction, 6 percentage points higher than the state average.
“Supporting a beginning teacher is the simplest and easiest way to keep (a teacher) in the classroom,” Dickerson said.
During James’ planning period after her class, Dickerson sat down with her to review things she had noticed.
They talked about some of the accomplishments that James has achieved, as well as areas that needed some improvement. James asked Dickerson how to deal with certain challenges in and outside of the classroom. Dickerson taught her how to better approach those situations.
The challenges for new teachers include such things as being an effective teacher, dealing with students who have behavioral problems, dealing with students who speak English as a second language, organization or even understanding the terms teachers use.
“The feedback that (Dickerson) gives me is the only thing that I go off of,” James said. “As much as she can give me I just take it all in. Good, bad, you have to take it in and learn from it. That’s letting me know how I’m going to get better.”