‘An exemplary educator in every classroom:’ Blue Valley’s Mentoring program uncovers new educators’ strengths, develops compassionate teachers
When Greyson Woerpel started as a first-year teacher at Blue River Elementary School, she felt like many new-to-the-field teachers: nervous, overwhelmed and lost. But from the beginning of her career in Blue Valley, she wasn’t alone.
Woerpel met Mary Jane Weishar, a Blue Valley instructional design coach and veteran educator, and the pieces started falling into place. Woerpel went to Weishar when she had questions, needed someone to review her lesson plans or work through daily stressors.
This relationship between Weishar and Woerpel wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for Blue Valley’s mentoring program, a state-approved program that provides beginning educators the opportunity to work with district mentors to ensure students receive the best education possible.
The two-year program, focused on relational learning and personalized mentoring support, is meant to uncover teachers’ strengths and develop reflective, compassionate and emotionally resilient educators.
The program currently supports 245 mentees, of which 137 are first-year educators and 108 are second-year educators. There are 80 mentors who hold positions in Blue Valley, such as teachers, instructional design coaches, reading specialists and administrators.
Cade Chace, Cedar Hills Elementary principal and a former mentor, said the district’s mentoring program is an experience unlike any other, and an opportunity for educators to model to beginning teachers the importance of establishing effective relationships.
Mentors are there for the mentees when they need guidance or someone to listen. Because mentoring isn’t part of the evaluation process, mentors can offer mentees authentic and unbiased feedback.
“You get a vantage point of all of the changes someone truly goes through in a year,” Chace said. “You get to see the initial excitement, and in the fall, we start to kind of dip a little bit because that first year in a new role, whether you’re a veteran or not, it’s kind of like a roller coaster.”
Mentors can help guide those teachers through the bumps and turns and instill confidence in them that they are capable of leading a classroom and establishing themselves as a professional.
Chace said the mentor program has evolved into a personal experience where the mentee can build a comfortable and supportive relationship with their mentor. Whether it’s a professional or personal matter, mentors can serve as a safety net for new educators and a safe space to share concerns or ask questions.
Every mentor has the freedom and is encouraged to individualize the support, within the program’s state-approved framework, so they can accurately meet the mentee's needs.
Kyle Braden, assistant principal at Prairie Star Middle and a former mentor, said serving as a mentor is comparable to teaching. The first step is getting to know your mentee and determining what they need to learn to succeed.
“You’re given a mentee, and you have to get to know them and figure out their strengths and weaknesses,” Braden said. “What do they want to be good at? What is their teaching style? Then you start to tailor the conversations you have with them toward growing in those areas.”
Being a mentor was a rewarding experience for Braden as he had a first-hand seat to watching teachers grow. Now, as an assistant principal, he has the chance to see the growth in his new educators.
When educators have the opportunity to partake in a mentorship program, those who benefit are the students.
“The ultimate goal of the mentoring program is to have an exemplary educator in every classroom,” Braden said. “The better our teachers are at teaching, the better opportunities we’re going to be able to give our students to help them grow as people and learn.”
An integral part of the mentor program is having the new educators set goals through a self-assessment. The mentor and mentee then evaluate the assessment and outline goals for the mentee to achieve. At the end of the year, the mentor and new educator reflect on progress made toward those goals and what adjustments can be made to continue reaching those targets.
At Blue Valley West High School, new educators have an extra opportunity to connect and learn from their peers. Blue Valley West principal Katie Bonnema created a building-level mentor program last year that focuses on educators learning about the school’s culture and building expectations. The program is open to all teachers new to Blue Valley West, not just those in their first year of teaching.
Blue Valley West educators serve as mentors for the new teachers who may have questions about homecoming spirit week and what data to bring to family conferences. Overall, the mentor program is a safe place for new teachers to voice any issues they may be experiencing or concerns they have about their new role.
The program’s goal is to ensure new staff members don’t feel isolated, stuck or embarrassed when they have a question.
“One of the best things that I love about our model is that we’re really intentionally creating a cohort of new hires to establish connections with each other,” Bonnema said. “I think that ability to make those connections beyond your hallway or your PLC team, that’s really impactful. At West, we talk all the time about how we’re a family, so building those connections across multiple staff members is really critical.”
There is a lot more to being a good educator than just having teaching skills. In order for a teacher to be able to support their students, they need to feel supported. Teachers need to know they are heard and whether they are dealing with a personal or professional problem, they have the ability to talk through their issues with someone.
“I think students don’t always know what a teacher is juggling as they’re presenting a lesson," Bonnema said. “They’ve got several balls in the air at any given time. I hope that through both the district and our unique building efforts, we are equipping teachers with answers, with support and just with a sense of comfortability.”
The district’s mentor program identifies every single person as an individual.
“It gives you that opportunity to have that authentic relationship with someone who is truly there to support and help you grow,” Chace said. “That person isn’t necessarily your boss or even your teammate. It’s somebody who can come from the outside and give you a different perspective and be that constant support that can help you grow in the long run.”