Battle Creek

Mentoring programs boost teacher retention rates at Battle Creek Public Schools

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

BATTLE CREEK, MI — Shelby Sanchez DeLeon wanted to be a teacher for as long as she could remember. To avoid the stress and burnout causing her fellow teachers to leave the profession in record numbers, she is welcoming all of the resources available to her, including a mentorship program offered through Grand Valley State University.

On day one as a first-grade teacher for the 2023-24 school year, Sanchez DeLeon participated in the Early Career Teacher Mentoring program (ECT) through GVSU's College of Education and Community Innovation. Her mentor, Dana Creevy, was a teacher and administrator for 19 years with Vanderbilt Charter Academy in Holland and transitioned to being a Battle Early Career Teacher and Mentor in the ECT program, in addition to serving as an adjunct instructor at GVSU focused on student teaching.

Shelby Sanchez DeLeon“She was extremely helpful and my students fell in love with her right away,” Sanchez DeLeon says of Creevy. “If I needed a break she would read a story to my students. She also helped me prepare for twice-yearly parent-teacher conferences and how to communicate with parents. That’s what I was most nervous about, just being a young teacher and a first-grade teacher along with that.”

At the beginning of the year, Creevy would travel from her home in Zeeland once a week to provide support and encouragement to Sanchez DeLeon and other new teachers. Those visits, about 18 in total, typically taper off as the school year progresses. Her last visit to Battle Creek was in April.

Dana Creevy“I would get them going knowing that the beginning of the year is critical to set up classrooms and instruction. I would visit for two or three hours each time and was overseeing in non-evaluated ways and observing to support them. I’m not there to judge, but to support and discuss the needs for them,” Creevy says. “I could be working with students to model techniques or being a listener for the things they’re experiencing. My role can be observing, working hands-on, or listening.”

After their participation in the ECT program teachers can continue to receive guidance in the Professional Learning Community (PLC), a program for second- and third-year teachers.

The ECT and PLC programs are among 16 projects that GVSU is doing in partnership with BCPS. Funding comes through a five-year, $17 million grant from WKKF, says Mei Mah, Co-Principal Investigator for the WKKF BCPS Transformation which is a part of the Center for Educational Partnerships.

“The goal is to retain them in the district and build enough self-actualization for them to be leaders in the district,” Mah says. 

She cites two teachers in BCPS who participated in the ETC and PLC programs and have taken leadership roles.

Courtesy: GVSU University CommunicationsBCPS teacher Devan Washington has participated in the Early Teacher Mentoring Program through GVSU.Devan Washington, a fifth-grade teacher at Fremont International Academy, has been a part of the leadership team working on the curriculum for the Bearcat Blast summer school program. Like Washington, Lexus Baxendale, also a 2021 GVSU graduate, teaches biology at Battle Creek Central High School and serves as the school's science department chair.
“The reality is they’re not always going to need to be K-12 classroom teachers. We want to give them opportunities to try out other roles,” Mah says. “Some may want to write curriculum or be an administrator.”
Courtesy: GVSU University CommunitationsSarah Cox, visiting GVSU faculty of education, serves as a mentor in the program.Since the programs started, 97 BCPS teachers have participated. Sarah Cox, visiting faculty of education, serves as a mentor and said the programs are making a difference, adding that the retention rate among teachers in the program is 85% from 2019-2024.

Retention rates among BCPS teachers are increasing, Cox said, because she and other mentors provide individualized support and talk frankly with mentees about their classrooms and their lives as teachers.

"When you are a teacher intern, you understand the foundation of teaching but that's only one part of becoming a classroom teacher," Cox said. "They have to acknowledge that they will participate fully in the lives of their students. But then they take a breath and look at that classroom environment and ask, 'What does that mean?'"

The two mentorship programs are among the tactics supported by the partnerships of Grand Valley, Battle Creek Public Schools (BCPS), and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to positively impact education in that region. Established in 2019, the programs aim to increase teacher retention in BCPS. Nationally, nearly 40 percent of teachers leave within their first five years.

Not feeling supported is among the key reasons that this group of teachers leave, Creevy says, adding that pay also is not where it needs to be.

According to ThinkImpact, nationally teaching salaries between 2021 and 2022 decreased by 4% for teachers across the board with some schools increasing their days by 30 to 55 minutes a day without additional pay for the teachers.

Creevy says towards the end of her teaching career, pre-COVID she was noticing the overwhelming stress of dealing with classroom management and the confidence to approach those situations.

“A lot of students have emotional needs and outside factors and trauma we as teachers can’t control,” she says. “Teachers need to understand how to approach this and there’s not a lot of training in that in college. There are a lot of emotions and with that comes stress and that burns them out. There needs to be more of an emphasis on teaching ways to address this at all levels including in undergrad programs.”

However, working with these outside factors and traumas isn’t the only challenge teachers like Sanchez DeLeon face. DeLeon says a lack of parental support and engagement is also something she is trying to navigate.

“It’s hard to do what I’m doing in the classroom when there’s a lack of support from home from parents who don’t back up what I’m doing. I do have a lot of students tell me when I ask where their homework is that mom says she doesn’t have time or that I don’t need to do it.”

Equally as frustrating for her is not receiving calls back from parents when she is trying to get a better understanding of what could be done to ensure their child is being supported academically.

“My students are amazing,” Sanchez-DeLeon says. “I do think behavior issues could be limited if there was more parent involvement.”

Lexus Baxendale, a Battle Creek Public School teacher, participates in GVSU's teacher mentorship program.Creevy says she tells her mentees, “You can’t force a parent to be involved. You can only control the variables you can in this classroom. I encourage them to establish relationships so parents don’t feel threatened or defensive. Sometimes parents are working two to three shifts and the priority is feeding their family and putting a roof over their heads. Education isn’t a priority.”

Creevy says she’s concerned that the newest teachers are overwhelmed — as are some administrators.

“When you don’t get that full support, it can be a lot to handle. You start to lose those teachers because they don’t know where to go or who to turn to. If they’re not getting that daily support these teachers either sink or swim. The first three years are critical. A lot will step away in one to three years. By year five if they’re still teaching they’re going to make it.”

When teachers leave the profession early, it means the training that was put into them also is gone and school districts are left to start all over again, says Creevy, adding there needs to be more mentorship opportunities established to set teachers up for success rather than being reactionary.

“The ECT and PLC programs get ahead of the game to help those teachers feel supported,” she says.

Sanchez DeLeon says of Creevy, “It was nice for her to reassure me that I was doing a fine job and everything was OK and to give me breaks in the classroom. She was just always there to support me and uplift me.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.