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Frontiers
Mentoring in Montana: Teachers Get Early Career Help

February 1997

The first few months in most teachers' careers are often a whirlwind of excitement and something approaching shell shock. In Montana, trained mentors are helping beginning math and science teachers get off to the strongest start possible, thanks to funding from NSF. The Montana project is one of 13 NSF Collaboratives for Excellence in Teacher Preparation (CETP).

The Montana Systemic Teacher Excellence Preparation, or STEP, program is a statewide alliance of public school districts, state universities and colleges, tribal community colleges, and state teacher organizations. The project is dedicated to improving teacher training throughout the state and to serving as a model for other rural areas with large minority populations.

STEP's early career (EC) mentoring project is the second phase of a program that began in 1993 with the comprehensive reform of math and science education curricula in Montana state and tribal colleges. As students, prospective teachers work with lead teachers who are also part of the STEP program.

Once hired, STEP graduates are matched with mentors identified through a statewide application process. "Rather than just sending our students off into the world, we continue to support them as they try to put new ideas into practice," says Elisabeth Charron, associate professor of science education at Montana State University in Bozeman and director of STEP.

A primary aim of the program is to increase the number of Native American students who choose science education careers early on at tribal community colleges and then mentor them into teaching careers both on and off reservations. By June of this year, 21 Native American STEP participants will have graduated and entered math or science teaching, more than quadrupling the number of Native American math and science teachers in Montana two years ago. In addition, 68 more Native American students are in the teacher pipeline, currently completing the first two years of math or science teacher preparation.

This year the program has 50 mentors and 80 EC teachers, many working in remote school districts where they are the only math or science teacher. Because of the vast distances involved, some of this year's group of EC teachers did not meet their mentors in person until an October gathering of state teachers. There, the EC teachers were given "survival kits" containing books, software, laboratory supplies and other teaching equipment. Most mentoring is done via e-mail on a state education Internet service, METNET.

Telementoring has hidden benefits, says Charron. Many new teachers have reported that they are more comfortable seeking advice outside their districts. They get help in solving problems but still maintain their autonomy.

NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education funds each of the CETP projects for five years. After 1998, STEP will be run by the Montana teacher organizations.

 


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