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Blue Valley Expands New Teacher Mentoring, Other Kansas Districts Forced To Cut Back

Kyle Palmer
New teacher Mike Besler gets a full-time mentor in his new job at Blue Valley West High School.

Mike Besler is a former Kansas state high school champion quarterback and a member of the Blue Valley West High School Hall of Fame. But he still needs a coach. 

"When I first heard, I was kind of like, 'I want my own space.' But now that I've seen how resourceful it is, it's made a world of difference," Besler says. 

No longer on the field but now in the classroom, Besler (who is the younger brother of Sporting KC star Matt Besler) is still getting expert guidance from a seasoned coach. Besler just began his first year as a sophomore history teacher at his alma mater Blue Valley West. And Trevor Goertzen is now his mentor. 

At a time when many Kansas districts are struggling to fund supports for their new teachers, Blue Valley is making what district officials call a "significant commitment" to its first-year educators. 

'Shoot me straight'

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
Trevor Goertzen will meet with Besler and 13 other new teachers at least a dozen times this year.

Goertzen taught nine years in the Blue Valley district before transitioning to his new role this year. He is one of two new full-time mentors the district employs, along with 18 part-time mentors, all of whom will coach the district's new teachers. 

For his part, Goertzen remembers when he was a new teacher and how much he wanted to appear like an expert.

"There's a part of you that wants to give off the impression that you know what you're doing, that you're in control of everything. You want to say, 'I know what I'm doing', when in reality, you don't," he says. 

Besler, though, says he has no problem admitting when he needs help. This former football star still seems to appreciate a hands-on coaching approach. 

"Shoot me straight," he says. "I have thick skin. Tell me what I'm doing wrong because I want to get better."

On a recent morning, Goertzen visited Besler's class for the first time this year. He stood at the back of class, observing and taking notes. The students were taking their first exam of the semester. In a meeting before class began, Besler had asked Goertzen to assess how he was managing student behavior during the test.  

This process of meeting and observation will occur at least a dozen times over the course of the year. Goertzen will do this for Besler and 13 other new teachers in the Blue Valley district.

'Constant support' needed for new teachers

The nonprofit New Teacher Center reports nearly half of all states, including both Kansas and Missouri, now require school districts to formally mentor new teachers in some way. The Center's CEO Ellen Moir says the best programs are the ones like Blue Valley's, that dedicate staff members full-time to mentoring. 

"You need someone in the new teacher's classroom giving them rich feedback and opportunities for learning, looking at student work and analyzing data. You need the constant support in class every week for new teachers," she says. 

Moir says Kansas is "going in the right direction" by requiring that new teachers have some kind of support in their first year. But at the same time that the state has mandated new teacher mentoring (a law since 2012), it has also cut funding for districts to pay mentor teachers stipends. 

Mentoring 'short circuited' by funding shortages

While the importance of mentoring new teachers is widely accepted, multiple metro districts in Kansas have indicated state funding cuts have directly affected their new teacher mentoring programs. Kansas City Kansas Public School officials say they paid retired teachers to come in part-time last year to mentor new teachers. This year, the state moved to a block-grant funding scheme for schools, which KCK officials say has forced them to cut back on some programs, including mentoring. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
A former high school quarterback, Besler says he appreciates a coach who 'shoots me straight'.

"This year, our new teacher mentors will be full-time classroom teachers," says Eva Tucker-Nevels, a district official helping to oversee mentoring in KCK. "This is not to say those veteran teachers don't have the expertise to mentor, it's just a matter of time."

Indeed, Ellen Moir with the New Teacher Center, says districts still often don't invest as much as they can or should to mentoring, sometimes because it's not a district priority but more often because funding is an issue. 

"If you short circuit new teacher mentoring by using classroom teachers, you don't get as much bang for your buck," she says. "Fellow teachers have so much else do in their own classrooms that they cannot devote the attention needed to their new colleagues." 

Scott Myers, the Director of Teacher Licensure with the Kansas State Department of Education, points out that many districts have been able to make it work. 

"Many districts do pay their people to mentor," he says. "It's something they've prioritized." 

KCK is not the only district having to make sacrifices. Officials with Olathe's teacher union also say their district has moved to a "less formal arrangement" for mentoring new teachers because of budget concerns. 

Brett Parker with the Olathe National Education Association says his group has crafted a plan to pair each new teacher in Olathe with a veteran in their building who can "answer questions, relieve stress, and generally be a trusted person to turn to for help." 

However, those veterans will not get paid for their work. Olathe NEA officials say they are working with the the state teachers union to get grant money to pay for meetings over coffee once a semester.

'Call or text anytime' 

At Blue Valley West, however, Trevor Goertzen plans to give as much attention to Mike Besler and his other new teachers as they need. He says he has told his mentees to call, text or even Tweet him when needed. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
Goertzen and Besler meet before class to go over what Besler wants his mentor to look for during this day's lesson.

"It's great that this is my full-time job," he says. "They are all such different people with different needs, it's so interesting to get to work and push all of them." 

As for Mike Besler, he seems to have transitioned well into his new job but admits the first month has been hectic. Not only does he teach sophomore history and is also responsible for prepping an AP World History course, he also is an assistant coach for the football team. 

"It's been great to have veterans around to show me the ropes, call me down, share resources," he says. 

Though this former quarterback may like to call his own plays, it seems he also likes having a good coach to help him when he needs it. 

This story is part of KCUR's 'Teaching It Forward' project, which looks deeply at the changing nature of the teaching profession in the Kansas City metro. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated Olathe's new teacher mentoring program was a district-sponsored initiative. In fact, the Olathe NEA had a primary role in crafting that plan. Further details have been added about this initiative in the latest version of this story. 

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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