Quinn Reno in her second grade classroom at Cordata Elementary School

This time of year we are thinking a lot about endings—but for our new teachers in Bellingham Public Schools, this was just the beginning.

All year long, our first- and second-year teachers are mentored through Beginning Educator Support Team (BEST), a grant-funded program sponsored by the state of Washington. Facilitated by veteran  teacher Andrea Quigley, the program includes regular meetings focused on the learning typically needed by new teachers, as well as on-site support for new teachers in their classrooms.

Quigley is a veteran teacher who knows what it takes to be successful in the classroom, and as an experienced mentor she also knows how to anticipate and meet the needs of new teachers.

Each individual school’s leadership works to welcome their new staff members and strives to be supportive and helpful. The mentorship program provides an additional avenue for support to those for whom everything is new, and who may feel nervous asking “too many” questions of their new colleagues. 36 novice teachers and 23 teachers in their second year participated in the 2018-19 cohort.

First grade teacher Jake Silva was the only novice teacher at Happy Valley Elementary School this year, and he found the mentor program to be a wonderful complement to the help he received from experienced colleagues. He felt his year went about as well as a first year can go, but he couldn’t imagine what it would have been like without a mentor like Quigley.

“Having a mentor is very equalizing,” Silva said, noting that it meant all the new teachers received similar support across the district.

He appreciated Quigley for her flexible support, helping him learn new curriculum, find resources and supplies, and even help write sub plans when he became ill with bronchitis. “I had everything I needed, but without being micromanaged,” Silva said. He especially appreciated getting out to see other teachers, which helped him refine his own teaching practices and learn from his colleagues.

“Andrea (Quigley) would say, ‘You don’t feel like you’re fine, but you are—now let’s go watch some other people teach,’” Silva said.

Silva will remain at Happy Valley next year, where his soon-to-be-second-grade students will be right across the courtyard, and he will be able to see them daily and stay connected to them.

“I will remember each one of my kids and who they were as an individual,” Silva said.

Quinn Reno just finished her first year as a Cordata Bobcat teaching second grade. Reno student-taught at Northern Heights Elementary School and Shuksan Middle School. Originally committed to teaching middle school, her time at Northern Heights made her reconsider. “The amount of growth students make (in elementary school) is amazing,” Reno said. “You can really make a huge impact as a teacher.”

Even though Reno had more experience than some novice teachers, having taught English in Thailand, she found that experience to be very different from Bellingham and American public schools in general. Her Thai experience was great, she said, in part because it made her stronger and more self-aware, and confirmed her love for teaching.

During her first year, Reno appreciated The Bellingham Promise and what it stands for, as well as her school’s forward-thinking and trauma-informed practices. Being a new teacher, is overwhelming, though—you have to learn everything that is second nature to the veterans. The mentorship program established a sense of community for new teachers, Reno said, and helped her normalize her experience, swapping ideas and stories with others. Knowing it was someone’s job to check in and respond to questions made her feel even more confident about asking for what she needed. Quigley helped Reno with “a random smorgasbord of things,” from grant-writing to lesson planning to help setting up reading groups and observations of other teachers.

“I felt very validated, supported and coached,” Reno said.

Michael Bechkowiak relied even more than other new teachers might on the mentor program. Bechkowiak just finished his first semester as culinary arts teacher at Sehome High School, a job that began mid-year right along with the opening of the new building, in a new Culinary Arts classroom, part of Sehome’s expansion of Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs.

Bechkowiak is entering the teaching profession through the CTE certification program, which provides a pathway for professionals to enter the teaching profession from industry, bringing their experience with them into the classroom. His experience in the restaurant and food service industry prepared him for the cooking side of his work in the classroom, but he had some holes to fill in learning to plan lessons and navigate the world of education. His Sehome colleagues went out of their way to meet and engage with him, which he really appreciated, and Quigley got him the resources to help him fill in the gaps to teach his semester-long course effectively. “She was nothing short of fantabulous,” Bechkowiak said.

Quigley even served as a guest judge along with other Sehome personnel and local restaurant professionals, for his class’s crowning moment: for their final in June students reenacted the television show “Chopped,” competing with each other for who could make the best street tacos using their available pantry foods and the four mystery ingredients, revealed to be chicken breast, sweet potato, red cabbage and a can of mango nectar.

Bechkowiak’s support network helped him successfully navigate his first semester, and he looks forward to coming back next year, when he will go from one section to multiple. He reflected that, for him, moving from the industry to the classroom meant going from a “soul-sucking to a soul-feeding industry.”

“I was amazed by how engaged and engaging the students could be,” Bechkowiak said. “I’m lucky that it’s a class kids want to take.”

At their final meeting of the year in May, the Bellingham High School drumline came to serenade the new teachers and send them off in style. Congratulations to all our new teachers on your amazing work as part of the team here in Bellingham Public Schools! We look forward to reporting on your successes for years to come.

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