New Grant for New Teachers

NSEA Pilot Program Gets Lift from NEA via Three-Year Grant

Just weeks into her first year of teaching, Chelsi Christensen admits she was a “little freaked out” when she received an email, and later a text message, from Maureen Nickels.

“I wondered ‘who is this woman? How does she know me?’” said Christensen.

Seven months later, Christensen is more than pleased to have answered the message from Nickels. So, too, are Jordy Duer and Jill Kimbrough, also early-in-their-career teachers at the Grand Island Public Schools.

Nickels’ outreach was an invitation to the three to join a pilot project designed to mentor and support teachers who are just getting their professional careers under way – early career educators, in Association-speak.

The NSEA pilot project grew from an NEA pilot program designed to show support for early career educators by assisting them in improving their practice and enhancing student learning. The method was simple: gather interested teachers in a casual setting, get to know each other. Then meet through the wonders of technology on a weekly basis to talk about common teaching and learning issues and concerns.

Nickels would organize locally, and then join an NEA-appointed “virtual coach” as consultant and sometimes moderator of the weekly discussions. The weekly discussions would cover any teaching subject and would ultimately serve to give the new teachers the support and advice they craved.

Teachers would see their network of supportive colleagues grow, be encouraged to stay in the profession for a longer period, and develop a stronger bond with their local association.

To say the program is a success is an understatement for Christensen, Duer and Kimbrough. All are enthusiastic about the support they’ve received. More on that later.

The really good news is that the pilot program will soon expand. NSEA and the South Dakota Education Association have received a grant from the National Education Association’s Great Public Schools Grant Fund to grow the program. The return on your dues investment is enormous: The grant will provide $450,000 in programming over three years across the two states.

The bulk of the grant monies coming to Nebraska will fund professional development supports, instructional coaching and mentoring aimed at early career educators – those in their first 10 years of teaching. The funds would encourage small early career educator projects across rural Nebraska, where teacher retention is weakest. Thirty percent of Nebraska teachers leave the profession in the first five years.

“This is but one example of NEA dues dollars coming back to Nebraska to help Nebraska teachers and, ultimately, Nebraska children,” said NSEA President Jenni Benson.

“The benefits from this grant will reverberate through our teaching corps and will benefit Nebraska students for years.”

Weekly Meetings

Nickels’ bona fides are well-known in central Nebraska. She taught for nearly 30 years in Grand Island, then spent another 16 years as an NSEA organizational specialist for south central and central Nebraska. Today, she is unopposed for a second term on the Nebraska State Board of Education.

She jumped at the chance to coordinate the Grand Island pilot project. She organized a core group of five young teachers, met with them to get acquainted and to introduce them to their NEA-appointed “coach” – Kathleen Christensen, a teaching veteran from Wyoming.

Christensen, too, has a good track record.  A National Board Certified teacher in her 33rd year, she taught upper elementary and has been a full-time mentor for 12 years. She is now mentoring 92 teachers in their first three years of teaching.

Once organized, they met on most Wednesday evenings via a Zoom Virtual Communications networking program. Their discussions would usually last less than an hour. The five met through the end of the semester; two were pulled away by other commitments for the second semester.

“Our coach had all kinds of things to give these teachers, and those teachers absolutely loved it,” said Nickels.

The teachers might spend the first 20 minutes of the hour talking about their school day, before Coach Christensen would ask “‘what is something that happened in your class this week that I might be able to send you something to read, or answer a question, or help in some way,’” said Nickels.

Topics covered included group strategies, behavioral strategies, what’s important in reading circles, different ways to approach planning – anything a first-year teacher might require in terms of assistance.

“Kathy just really gets it,” said third-grade teacher Christensen. “She understands that our time is valuable. We talk about our day, and then talk about how we might have done something different, another way. And she won’t go back and tell our principal.”

Duer, a first-year teacher like Christensen, and a fourth-grade teacher, accepted Nickels’ invitation as a way to network within the district. She finds the program rewarding, with credit to Coach Christensen.

“I think she is good at what she does (coaching) because that IS what she does,” said Duer.

Kimbrough is further along in her career – she’s in her fifth year and is a 21st century literacy teacher at the middle school level. Kimbrough cited sound timing interest as her reason for participating.

“Every veteran teacher I’ve talked to says the first four years are very formative. The first year, you’re treading water. The next three years you figure out who you are as a professional,” said Kimbrough.

‘Loved the Connections’

The long-term goal of the NEA grant monies is to build teacher retention, primarily in rural areas of Nebraska where retention is extremely challenging.

“New teachers in these geographically isolated areas often feel disconnected from other teachers their own age,” said Cindy Copich, an NSEA organizational specialist and the Association lead on the grant project.

“Professional supports for early career educators build teacher leadership, engagement in union matters, and connections with other educators,” said Copich. “Those factors all ensure greater retention of teachers in the profession, as well as deeper engagement of rural educators in their association.”

Thus far, the process seems to be working.

“To know that there are others in my school district, in my situation, that I can go and talk to… I really appreciate that fact,” said Christensen.

Duer agreed. “I have really loved building these connections,” she said.

Like that first call from Nickels, making those connections works.