Mentors Strengthen Classrooms | Eastern North Carolina Now | Thriving mentorship program helps advance teachers, students

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The author of this post is Ronnie Woodward.

Dr. Archana Hegde talks to statewide evaluators and mentors during a 15-year celebration of Early Educators Support at the ECU Main Campus Student Center. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

    East Carolina University's implementation of a statewide mentorship program has benefitted prekindergarten teachers and their students in nonpublic school settings for nearly eight years.

    The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction began the standards-based professional development system 15 years ago as a pilot model. ECU and UNC Charlotte were added as partners in 2014, providing an influx of available mentors, evaluators and professional development opportunities. Locally, many of the teachers served are completing their birth through kindergarten degree while they work as lead teachers.

    "I definitely don't think I would be as strong and as confident of a teacher, today, without the services of ECU and (mentors)," said Chelsie Pastor, a teacher at Care-O-World Early Learning Center in Winterville. "My first year I was very reserved and shy. ... I would get nervous before evaluations every single time. I knew they were coming in and I would get nervous, but last year, I got less and less nervous because I became more confident. That was from the mentors and the evaluators."

    ECU serves as the eastern hub for the Early Educator Support program, employing mentors and evaluators who focus on various regions of eastern North Carolina.

    ECU's lead investigator is Dr. Archana Hegde and lead project coordinator is Jennifer Whitted, both with the Department of Human Development and Family Science in the College of Health and Human Performance. Former HHP faculty member Barbara Brehm was instrumental in developing ECU's role, along with current HDFS chair Dr. Sharon Ballard and others.

    For the mentors, seeing teachers develop professionally is an intrinsic benefit.

    "As a mentor or evaluator, you really help a teacher to pick apart and understand why things are considered standard and why things are considered high-quality education for children," said Charity Bouren, who has served as a mentor and evaluator for ECU. "Once they understand the why, it becomes second nature to them. It becomes a moment where they realize it's not just another check in a box, but I'm doing this because it benefits my students in this way. So I think, to me, that is the most powerful thing to see. Then I know each year that teacher might have 18 students, and if they connect that way every year, they are going to impact 18 students exponentially."

    Teachers who have learned from mentors and evaluators agree about the long-term benefits of critical thinking in prekindergarten education.

    "They help tremendously to see things from a different perspective and show how things should be done in a classroom," said Teresa Clayton with Care-O-World, which also has a center in Washington. "It's things like writing their name out and how to have pictures with everything, I learned those kind of things through this program. My mentor taught me that when children come into your classroom, they don't automatically recognize their name, so you need a picture. When she told me that, it was like a lightbulb just went off. It made me think more on the child's level. ... It was always the why part and all about reflection."

    A 15-year celebration was held in early September, bringing representatives from ECU and UNC Charlotte - which serves as the Early Educator Support program's western hub - together at the ECU Main Campus Student Center to reflect on their successes and continue to plan for future opportunities.

    Amanda Vestal, UNCC's lead project coordinator, presented specific numbers about the program's growth. Since 2007, nearly 800 teachers have been added to the program thanks in part to university support.

    "In 2007, this program was only implemented in Mecklenburg County, Wake County and Wayne County," Vestal said. "It was three counties and a handful of people to support it, so we started with 25 teachers in 2007 as a pilot program. In 2014, the first year administering mentoring, evaluation and professional development support services from the hubs, we were contracted to serve 583 teachers. This year, we are contracted to serve 815 teachers."

    Ballard said the collaborative program produces multiple layers of impact for teachers and students.

    "It has been such a joy to see this program grow and the difference it makes in the community," Ballard said. "The difference in the lives of the teachers, the children, the families is astounding. I'm really proud that HDFS is part of this work."

    Hegde has presented at state and national conferences about the program, emphasizing regional transformation and the research she is conducting. She said mentors and evaluators are vital team members when working with teachers.

    "We are not only helping them achieve their goals, but also maintain them in the nonpublic school setting," Hegde said. "This research is very applicable and very meaningful. Part of our work is also to professionalize the field, so we have created career ladders for mentors and our evaluators. Some of these people with a bachelor's (degree) now have a master's through our online program, and some of the students have also gone on to study abroad. These are nontraditional students and first-generation students. Student success is a big thing for ECU, so truly this is service, research and teaching. It is such a holistic grant."

    Whitted has visited participating sites in Pitt County, Beaufort County and elsewhere in the state. During a recent visit to Care-O-World in Winterville, she was proud to witness high-quality interactions between children and teachers.

    "I see professionals who are very dedicated to the children they serve," Whitted said.
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