Being a new teacher is hard. Having a good mentor can help
Updated May 19, 2023 at 8:22 AM ET
Outside Chevak School, in western Alaska, the lake is ice, and the snowy tundra unfurls to the Bering Sea. But that doesn't stop new, first-grade teacher Amelia Tulim from trying to lighten the mood with an outdoor egg hunt. Inside the colorful plastic eggs: small, animal-shaped erasers.
Tulim grew up in Chevak, an Alaska Native community and home to the Cup'ik people. It's here, in the same school where she now works, that her third-grade teacher first inspired her to become an educator.
"She made learning fun," Tulim says, smiling. "I remember sitting in my desk and looking right at her and telling myself, 'One day, that's going to be you. You're going to make learning fun.' "
And she is. But being a new teacher is also hard, she admits.
The long hours of grading and lesson-prep can be exhausting. Poverty is also a challenge in Chevak, as it is in so many districts across the U.S., and often requires that teachers do far more than teach. There's also the long, snowy winters, though Tulim's used to those.
"We only have three cars here," she says, "the rest are ATVs and snowmobiles."
For many Alaska teachers, this math adds up to burnout. The state's rural communities are hit hard by teacher shortages, losing roughly one in four teachers every year.
Tulim, though, has a few advantages. She's teaching in the community where she grew up, and shares the Cup'ik culture with her students. Research shows teachers who were trained in Alaska, as Tulim was, are less likely to leave the classroom than outsiders, a trend that's also been seen in other communities, and that's fueled an explosion in grow-your-own teacher training programs across the U.S.
She also has Ed Sotelo.
The 70-year-old veteran teacher pops into her classroom, greeting the children as they return from their egg hunt – as if he'd simply walked across the hall.
In fact, Sotelo's journey required three plane flights, one of which was delayed because of volcanic ash from Russia, and a snowmobile ride across that frozen lake – all to serve as Tulim's mentor. His goal: to support a new teacher, and make her more likely to stay.
U.S. school districts have been struggling to staff classrooms, and that's especially true in isolated, remote places like Chevak. But years of research have found that high-quality mentoring – the kind Sotelo provides – can help new teachers feel better about their work and make them more likely to stick around. Not only that, it can also demonstrably improve their classroom skills and, as a result, increase student achievement.
Mentoring teachers in remote Alaska takes commitment – and a sleeping bag
Sotelo is one of fifteen retired teachers who now work as mentors for the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project (ASMP). The program began 20 years ago, through the University of Alaska, and later survived being gutted by statewide budget cuts; seeing the impact the mentors were having on their teachers, school districts themselves stepped in to keep the project funded.
Sotelo was, himself, once a young teacher hired to fill a hard-to-staff job in remote Gambell, Alaska. He and his family moved from Arizona in 1984, and he taught in some of Alaska's most remote schools for the next quarter-century before retiring, though in reality he's far from retired.
For the past 14 years he's worked as an ASMP mentor and is currently helping four new teachers, including Tulim. Once a month, he takes three planes from his home, in Homer – to Anchorage, then to Bethel and finally to Chevak – to get to Tulim's classroom.
Sotelo travels on a shoestring budget, packs his own food and spends almost all his time in the schools he visits.
"I sleep in the library," he says. "I've got a pad that I take everywhere and a little sleeping bag that goes down to below freezing."
Adding local culture (and animals) to classroom lessons
On these monthly visits, Sotelo does all sorts of things, including observe Tulim teach and offer constructive feedback.
"If you were to do that class over again, the one we just did, how would you do that differently?" he asks after one recent lesson she taught making puppets.
Tulim considers, then offers that she'd like to have her supplies just a little more ready next time. They also talk about her strengths. Like the third-grade teacher who inspired her, she loves putting her children at ease – as a way of winning their trust and earning their focus.
"Making them laugh. I like to dance up there," Tulim says, mimicking a bit she does that the children playfully protest. It doesn't take long, and makes the learning more fun.
Tulim and Sotelo also talk lesson-planning, classroom management and her least favorite subject: grading, which she admits to doing a little later than she'd like.
Some of the rookie teachers Sotelo works with are outsiders, like he was. But some are homegrown, like Tulim. He encourages those teachers to work the local culture they share with their students into their lessons. One example: Tulim's reading materials mention farming.
"They include cows. Do we have cows around here? No we don't!" Tulim laughs.
So she asked her students: What animals do we have around here?
Suddenly, they were engaged: Ducks, said one. Moose! said another.
Sotelo also encourages Tulim to reflect on her practice. Sometimes, she tells him, she worries about how important first grade is and getting her children on the path to reading and writing.
"Some days it's stressful," she admits, but then "you see their smile, you hear their laugh. You see that little a-ha – you see that little light bulb go – that makes it worth it!"
Sotelo reassures her. She's done well this year. Tulim says his visits have really helped.
"I was nervous at the beginning," she admits, as the school year comes to a close. "But towards the end, not only our relationship grew, but I feel like so did my teaching."
After his visit, Ed Sotelo packs up his sleeping bag and rides a snow machine back over the frozen lake to the airfield, where he catches a plane to another remote village. He'll spend the next 24 hours there, with another new teacher, sleep in another library, then head home.
It's a lot of coming and going, but worth it, Sotelo says, if he's the only one doing the leaving.
Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Visual design and development by: LA Johnson
Audio story produced by: Lauren Migaki
Audio story edited by: Nicole Cohen and Steve Drummond
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