KOKOMO, Ind. — Early in her teaching career, Ashley Hunt questioned if she had made the right choice.
“The stress got to me my first and second years, and made me question if education was for me,” she said. “Going into it, you’re always told you’re going to use what you learned in college, but it’s a totally different ballgame when you have your own classroom. I found that out quickly.”
Hunt, B.S. ’19, is not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years under normal conditions. Add in the stress and uncertainty of a global pandemic, and nearly 1 in 4 teachers were considering leaving their jobs, according to a survey in early 2021 by RAND Education and Labor’s American Teacher Panel.
She has hope, however, because she truly isn’t alone. She’s one of 11 early-career educators in the IU Kokomo School of Education’s Emerging Educator Mentor Network, which began with a self-care and resilience retreat on campus in June and continues to provide alumni veteran teachers as mentors throughout the school year.
The retreat, facilitated by trained educators and social workers, focuses on the importance of one’s own well-being and the impact teachers have on shaping their classrooms, students and families. The monthly mentoring curriculum includes a book titled, “The Onward Workbook: Daily Activities to Cultivate Your Emotional Resilience and Thrive.” Participants meet to discuss a chapter as well as their use of the practices and strategies outlined in the book.
Hunt, who teaches at Lincoln Elementary School in Huntington, receives support from Nicole McDorman, Kokomo Central Middle School, and retired Kokomo teacher Ann Millikan.
“It’s been so helpful,” the Wabash resident said. “It’s nice to be able to talk through what’s going on in my school and classroom, and bounce ideas off each other. Even though we teach different grade levels, we can talk about some of the stresses we’re going through. They’ve helped me figure out if I am stressing over areas that aren’t worth stressing over, and shared how they have coped with that as well.”
In addition to offering the support for the first three years of a new alumni’s career, lessons in stress management, mindfulness, and coping skills are being woven into the School of Education’s curriculum. This program pays particular attention to students from backgrounds that are underrepresented in teaching, so future graduates will be prepared for the challenges.
“We want to give these future educators the tools to be resilient, to be mindful, to have self-awareness to know when they are stressed, and coping skills,” said Cheryl Moore-Beyioku, lecturer in special education, who helped launch the wellness program with Dean Leah Nellis.
“We’re preparing students now so they can step into those careers with these strengths,” she said. “We’re also supporting our alumni during their first three years. We want them to know we are still here for them, and want to help them be successful in their new careers.”
Moore-Beyioku added that as teachers handle their stress appropriately, they continue to teach by modeling that action. “We’re investing in the future, in the wellness of our students and teachers. It is an investment that multiplies,” she said.
The School of Education provides guidance for the new teachers and their mentors, with wellness curriculum they work through in their regular meetings. McDorman, B.S. ’12, M.A. ’16, said while she’s been guiding Hunt, she’s also benefited from the program. “I don’t typically do self-care,” she said. “I just run at all cylinders until I crash. This is allowing me to pause and look at why I’m doing the things I’m doing, and making myself relax, so I can be calmer and less stressed when I go home to my family. I’m trying to build new habits from what we’ve learned.”
Millikan said teachers from a variety of generations working together benefits the students, because they can share ideas. “We can get new ideas from everybody, and make connections,” she said.
Hunt said it’s already making a difference for her. “I definitely feel like I’ve been able to handle my stress better using some of the tools we were taught,” she said. “The stress in education doesn’t really go away, but I don’t feel like it’s impacting my body the way it was or impacting my life outside of school anymore like before.”