#232 – Mentoring Beginning Educators, with Annie Kirking

Unpacking Education November 1, 2023 44 min

In this episode, we are joined by Annie Kirking, PhD, a high school teacher and Washington State Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) mentor faculty and induction coach. Annie helps us unpack ways to support beginning educators. She acknowledges, “Teaching is really hard, and it’s especially hard in those first couple of years because you’re doing everything for the first time.” Through mentoring, we can support these new educators and increase both success and retention rates.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

What we do for teachers, we do for their students.

Marcy Yoshida, Program Coordinator, Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST),
Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

Learn, Grow, and Succeed

A mentor role is unique and is not evaluative. Instead, Annie explains, “The mentor’s only goal is to help that new teacher or new educator learn, and grow, and succeed.” Because the first years of teaching can be so challenging, this support can be a critical service that not only improves teacher efficacy but also improves retention by providing a safe space to process the challenges and successes of this new career.

Annie says, “It’s important that that relationship between a mentor and a new educator feels like a safe place where they can ask questions, where they can take risks.” In this type of supportive environment, teachers will have their best opportunity to learn, grow, and succeed. The following are a few highlights from this episode:

  • About Our Guest: Annie Kirking, PhD, is a high school teacher and Washington State Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST) mentor faculty and induction coach. She currently teaches at an alternative high school in Spokane, Washington.
  • The BEST Program: BEST stands for Beginning Educator Support Team and is a program facilitated by the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Among other services, the program provides information and resources for early educators and supports them through induction coaching. The goal is to improve teacher quality, reduce turnover, and improve education for all students.
  • Not Feeling Alone: Because teaching is a difficult profession with lots of turnover, new educators can benefit greatly from mentor support so that “they don’t feel alone.” Annie says, “It’s easy for someone early in their career to feel like everyone else has it all figured out and that they are alone in not really having it all figured out.” She adds, “It’s always been an interesting paradox to me because I think teaching is such a social career within its nature, and yet, somehow it can feel really isolating. And so having a mentoring support system in place helps make sure that new teachers, new educators, don’t get isolated, don’t get off to themselves and feel all alone.”
  • Authentic Community: Annie shares, “New teachers need to feel that sense of belonging in that they’re part of a community, like in a real way and not just, ‘We all have the same staff T-shirt, right?’ but ‘There are real humans in this building that I connect with and that if I have a question, I not only know who I can ask, but I feel okay asking.’”
  • Positive Affirmation: Mentoring allows a veteran teacher to establish relationships with beginning educators “that get to focus on nothing else besides the teacher’s learning and growth.” Annie points out that it is important to “notice and honor those things that are already going really well, but then help them build on them.” She adds, “That mentoring relationship provides the opportunity to slow down, and to reflect, and to feel that relationship with someone, but also that having someone reflect back to you what’s going well so that you can feel like you’re in the right place and you’re making a difference.”
  • Unique Challenges: The events of recent years, especially the disruption caused by COVID, have added unique challenges to those entering the teaching profession. Many of these new teachers either student-taught, completed education courses, or began their teaching career in remote learning environments. Annie points out, “When kids came back that following fall [after remote learning], it was like a whole new job, and you’re like brand new all over again.”
  • Added Stress: Annie says, “Myself, being back in the classroom, kids and their families, and my colleagues and teachers, are so much more likely right now to have been through some pretty significant personal hardships, and I think that’s really important, too.” Relationships with mentors can help. “It’s just never been more important,” she says.
  • Not an Evaluation: The roles of mentors and administrators are very different. Even though both might mean that an adult enters your classroom and provides feedback, a mentor is there to support, while administrators—because of their defined roles—are there to both support and evaluate. Annie says, “The most important difference, I think, is that the mentor’s only goal is to help that new teacher or new educator learn, and grow, and succeed.” She feels it’s important to call out this difference, saying, “Things need to be made explicit. And so I will say, ‘This is different from the evaluation process and, importantly, everything that we talk about is confidential.’”
  • Benefits to Coaches: Veteran educators need to evaluate their personal capacity to be a coach. If you have “enough left over in your basket to share with a new educator,” you can not only provide value to the new teacher by being a mentor, but you can also grow yourself. Because mentoring has allowed her to see so many other teachers in action, Annie says, “Working as a mentor has been the best professional learning that I’ve ever gotten, bar none.”
  • Advice to Herself: If she could, Annie would offer this advice to her new-teacher self. “My seasoned self, I think, would tell my younger self, ‘The arc of learning—learning anything, but especially teaching—is long, but that’s okay. You’re not going to get everything right all the time, and that’s okay. As long as you’re learning, you’re doing what you need to be doing.’” She adds that there will be inspiring and amazing times, “and then there are times that feel much, much harder, and in all of those times, I would tell my early career self that ‘I am enough,’ and in all of those times, I would remind myself that I would feel so much stronger and so much more secure if I was surrounded by people I knew had my back, so forming that community—cultivating those relationships—so that you have them there to sustain you, I think, is really important.”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What unique challenges do beginning educators face?
  • How have the last few years, including the COVID pandemic, compounded the challenges faced by beginning educators?
  • What programs of support are in place in your district to help new educators?
  • What are the advantages of teacher mentors?
  • What can your school system do to improve support for beginning educators?

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