|James Birch is the principal at Herriman High. He completed his administration certification in the School of Teacher Education and Leadership at USU.|
James Birch was recently named one of three principals of the year by the Utah Association of Secondary School Principals. He is one of two Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services alumni to receive that honor this year.
He received the award after opening a new, fast growing school: Herriman High. Faced with a large number of new teachers, he took steps to make sure they received the mentorship they needed.
“Almost 80 percent of our teachers have three years experience or less,” he said. “It’s great to have that youth and that energy but you need to provide them with the tools they need to be successful.”
He asked an experienced, board-certified, award-winning teacher named Donna Hunter to put together a program—and the Herriman Institute of Teachers began. It would offer tips on everything from classroom discipline to purchasing a lunch at school.
Don’t discount the importance of lunch, Birch added. New teachers feel uncomfortable around lunchtime on their first day, not just because they may not know know how to buy it, but also because they may not have a friend to sit by.
The institute brings new teachers in twice during the summer to participate in group activities. Each session lasts for three days. Experts come in to deal with a variety of topics: where to stand in a classroom, how to manage hall passes, ways to pose a question that encourages participation. The teachers are paid for the time they take to participate.
The meetings introduce teachers not only to best practices in the classroom, but also to each other. It helps them find other people to eat lunch with.
During the school year, institute members get together once a month for an open discussion of issues. (They call it the OK Corral.) “It keeps provisional teachers and those new to the building up to speed on what is happening,” Hunter said. “We also have a little workshop on a teaching strategy. … Jim pays for refreshments and makes sure we have administrative support. This helps teachers feel like they are in the loop.”
Hunter also goes into the classrooms to observe teachers. She then makes an appointment with them to evaluate what she saw. “I send Jim a report and he follows up on any problem areas, or commends those who are doing well.”
Birch said the observations work well because Hunter is a respected teacher but not an administrator. Teachers can learn from her without feeling like they’re in trouble.
Teachers also have the opportunity to go observe in other schools. “They always come back with ideas,” Hunter said. “Jim pays for the substitutes and encourages the reluctant to participate.”
These steps toward mentorship got the school off to a good start. “We did this the very first year we opened,” Hunter said. “Our teachers were friends, they looked out for one another. … We also have had teachers who started out as weak or lacking skills that have been nurtured along because they were willing to take advantage of what we have to offer.”
The meetings have been helpful to the new teachers, but Birch has also gotten feedback from a teacher who left for a few years and then returned to the profession. The mentorship program helped him feel comfortable getting back into school.
Birch said he wants to give young teachers—and all teachers—a kinder, more inclusive experience.
“Being a consensus-builder is something that I’ve learned to do well,” he said. “When you don’t include all of your school community, you might as well get involved in a land war in southeast Asia.”