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The Spark - January 2023

The Spark. A newsletter filled with information and inspiration for Colorado teachers.

Katy Anthes headshot during the Thanksgiving holiday message

Dear Educators,

Happy New year to all of you! I hope you all had a long break and were able to spend quality time with friends and family and recharge yourself for the rest of the school year. 

You may have already heard about this in the news, but I have a personal update to share with you. After nearly seven busy years as commissioner of education, I’ve made the decision to step down in July. 

Serving as education commissioner has been the honor of my life. I continue to be inspired and humbled every day by the dedication and expertise of Colorado’s educators. One of my greatest joys in this position has been seeing your work firsthand and the service you provide to Colorado’s children.

In this position, I get to see the dedication you pour into supporting your students and the innovative approaches you take when faced with challenges. My teacher’s cabinet also provides me the opportunity to have meaningful conversations about what is happening in the state’s classrooms. And every day I am deeply moved by the sacrifices and incredible work you do under sometimes difficult circumstances.

I think you all know that serving as commissioner has been incredibly demanding – it’s night and day, weekday and weekend work. As I know you all do in your roles as educators, I’ve given this job every ounce of energy I’ve had, and now I’m going to take a little break and explore my next professional phase.

I’ve mentioned to you all that we have additional members who have been elected to our State Board of Education in January. With new leadership, it is an ideal time for a new commissioner to step in with fresh ideas and fresh energy to lead the department and the state through the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Through this newsletter, I will keep you informed of the board’s progress with hiring a new commissioner. I look forward to continuing to watch your work and marvel at your accomplishments – even after I am no longer the commissioner.

With deep gratitude,

 

Katy

 

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Hello and Goodbye from Colorado's Teachers of the Year

The Spark asked the outgoing 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year Autumn Rivera and the incoming 2023 Teacher of the Year Jimmy Day for their reflections on the past year and the coming year. Ms. Rivera provided us with a look back and Mr. Day gave us a look forward.

Photo of 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year Autumn Rivera

Autumn Rivera

SPARK: Did you have fun as Colorado’s Teacher of the Year? What were some of the highlights? 

Rivera: I have had such an outstanding time during my year of service as the 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year. My year was filled with so many key moments: Being named a National Teacher of the Year Finalist, meeting so many wonderful educators around Colorado, traveling to the White House twice, and meeting with many different government officials to advocate for education in Colorado. However, the part that was unexpectedly wonderful was getting to know the other 2022 State Teachers of the Year from around the country. In just a year I have met 55 strangers from all the different states and territories and now have 55 new family members. I don't know where I'd be without them!

SPARK: After serving as a spokesperson for Colorado’s teachers, what do you think the main issues are for the state’s educators and what are some of the solutions you propose to education leadership?

Rivera: One of the main issues for education in Colorado is the lack of funding. Teachers in Colorado are having to do the same jobs as teachers in other states but for far less pay. With the high cost of living being Colorado, it is often difficult to live in the same community where you teach. Until we stop balancing the state budget on the backs of Colorado students, this will continue to be a challenge we as educators will face. However, money isn't the only issue. We must also look at lessening the teacher workload. What is expected of teachers has always been tremendous, but in the past few years, it has become almost impossible. We need to reevaluate our educational system to figure out how to best support students and teachers.

SPARK: What is your parting message to the state’s teachers?

Rivera: I am so honored to have been given this time to serve you all this year. Each teacher I have met, whether virtual or in person, has inspired me with their love for their students. Teaching is hard right now, and Colorado’s teachers are some of the hardehardest-workingators in the country. Thank you for what you do every day!

SPARK: What advice do you have for Mr. Day as he starts his stint as Teacher of the Year?

Rivera: Colorado is so lucky to have Jimmy as our 2023 Colorado Teacher of the Year! My advice is to share his story far and wide. It is only by sharing our stories with others will that we begin to humanize education. I know he will enjoy his time with his cohort, and I cannot wait for all of you to hear what he has to say! Good luck Jimmy!


Photo of 2023 Colorado Teacher of the Year Jimmy Day III

Jimmy Day

SPARK: Congratulations on being named Colorado’s Teacher of the Year! Can you tell us about yourself and why you applied for this?

Day: I’m the band director at East Middle School in the Aurora Public School District and have been teaching instrumental music for 14 years. I’m in my sixth year as an APS employee. I was nominated for this award back in May and it was a huge honor. Because I believe it’s important to highlight the amazing work that can happen in music classes, I decided to submit an application and give it a shot.

SPARK: What do you hope to accomplish over the next year as the state’s spokesperson for teachers?

Day: I hope to show the benefits of having music in our schools and be a living testimony of the power of music education and what it can do for students if invested in properly. Music education allowed me to be taught by individuals who were very influential in my life. “There is no success without a successor.” Music education provided me with opportunities that I possibly wouldn't have attained if I were not a musician. Because of music, I was taught leadership skills, teamwork skills, work ethic, and how to give and receive constructive criticism. Through music education, I was able to build my confidence and musical skill and receive a music scholarship as a senior in high school.

SPARK: What are the biggest issues you see facing Colorado teachers this year and how do you hope to address them?

Day: Our biggest issue is recovering from the effects of the pandemic and finding what normalcy is in our classrooms. This pandemic has had a negative effect on some of our students as well as their families emotionally, financially and morally. I address these situations by being very transparent with my students and their parents. I continue to keep high expectations for my students and always encourage them to do their best and be their best. My philosophy is discipline. I explain the importance of having it, and in addition, show them how success comes from having it. When there is no discipline in the classroom, little to no learning takes place.

 

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ESSER III Teacher Mentor Grant helps provide support to novice teachers 

Photo of first-year Poudre School District teachers Jenna Sloan, left, and Ashley Michelena participate in a class exercise during the second Teacher-Mentor Training held November 30 at Poudre School District's IT Center.

First-year teachers Jenna Sloan, left, and Ashley Michelena participate in a class exercise during the second Teacher-Mentor Training held Nov. 30 at Poudre School District's IT Center. 

Reagan Kissel, left, and Morgan Smith, far right, are mentored by Poudre Webber Middle School teacher Lora Bundy.

Reagan Kissel, left, and Morgan Smith, far right, are mentored by Webber Middle School teacher Lora Bundy at the Poudre Teacher-Mentor Training.

 

This is the first article in a series about how ESSER grants are helping novice teachers through the Teacher Mentor Grant. This article will talk about work being done in Poudre and Boulder Valley School Districts. Next month, we will look at Mesa County Valley School District. 

Colorful fidget toys – a mini-Rubik’s Cube, a squeezable globe, spinners in a variety of shapes and sizes – are strewn across the table, along with small bags of M&Ms and other sugary snacks. Students sit dutifully at large seating pods created from smaller ones pushed together, chatting amongst themselves until the instructor asks everyone to settle down and pay attention.

“OK, let’s get started,” instructor Natalee Jacobson says, flashing a big smile and waving an arm toward the big screen at the front of the room. “We have a lot of ground to cover here.”

Just like the average third-grade class, it takes a few minutes for everyone to get quiet. Water bottles thunk to the floor, backpack zippers whiz open and closed, candy wrappers crinkle. But this isn’t third grade: It’s a dark and chilly November evening at Poudre School District’s IT Center in Fort Collins, where more than two dozen first-year teachers have joined their mentors and a group of mentoring coaches to learn more about topics such as how to manage a classroom, best practices for equitable grading, and knowing when and where to seek out support when the going gets tough.

Because these are beginning teachers hoping to succeed post-pandemic, the going is almost guaranteed to get tough. That’s why when Congress passed the nearly $2 trillion American Rescue Plan Act in March 2021 – from which the third round of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, known as ESSER III, originated. 

Colorado earmarked a portion of the funding for a Mentor Program Grant to help ensure novice teachers could receive critical mentorship and coaching support to better navigate the transition into the in-person classroom.

“Long before the pandemic, we were looking at how to more effectively address the high rates of teachers leaving the profession,” says Kristin Kipp, educator development specialist with the Colorado Department of Education and the program manager of the Mentor Program Grant. “The pandemic certainly made things worse across the board, but it particularly affected student teachers who suddenly found themselves navigating their programs remotely, which is a completely different experience. All of a sudden, they get the rug pulled out from under them when COVID shut everything down. When things opened back up again, now you have new teachers trying to manage something completely different from their expectations. And so the next thing you know, a lot of these new teachers are already considering leaving the teaching profession because it’s so incredibly stressful, and they hadn’t been able to acquire the skills and tools to deal with it.”

This past January, CDE hired Kipp to oversee the Mentor Program Grant, but prior to that, she had been a teacher for years, and so she understands the profession’s challenges. 

“Suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar classroom setting with few resources, some probationary teachers began to question their career paths,” Kipp explains. “These teachers in their first three years, their anxiety and stress levels are already extremely high because there’s a lot thrown at you very fast. But add in an interrupted experience like the pandemic, where teachers couldn’t get their field hours in or they were managing things remotely, and you’re going to lose a lot of really good people before they even get started.”

The Mentor Program Grant uses $9.5 million from ESSER III for Colorado districts over a two-year period (starting with the 2022-23 school year and continuing through 2023-24) to develop and implement a comprehensive program for teacher induction and retention. In addition to the 26 grant recipients, another 24 districts are benefiting from the program through professional development outreach and workshops.

“It’s appropriate to use the funds to support programs statewide, and so we are digging deep to try to figure out what actually makes a good process for this,” Kipp says. “It’s one thing to say this is what we’ll do with the fund, but it’s another to have real teachers in front of you and try to figure out how can we best do that.”

Mentor Program Grant funds can be used for things like supplies and materials needed to create and manage the plan, district FTE employees to develop and facilitate related programs, the cost of substitute teachers filling in for mentors and mentees, and technology such as video recording equipment for workshops.

For instance, Poudre School District split its $903,247 in funding in half to cover both school years, putting the majority of each portion toward hiring four mentoring and retention coaches.

“There’s a reason we decided specifically to call them that,” explains Susan Steinmark, a teacher for more than 30 years who has taken over the role of coordinator for mentoring and educator effectiveness for Poudre’s Mentor Program. “We know that there’s a correlation between a strong mentoring program and retaining both new teachers and keeping veteran teachers engaged. The experienced teachers who participate in these programs definitely show a renewed interest and passion for the profession, and they pass that passion on to their mentees. It’s a win-win for everyone, really.”

The district had already begun implementing a mentoring program several years ago, but Steinmark notes that it was “focused more on problem-solving rather than being people-driven, and so our main mission has been to strengthen our existing program to emphasize reciprocal growth for both new educators and the veteran teachers who serve as mentors.” 

For the 2022-23 school year, 110 beginning teachers have been paired with mentors, and Steinmark says the second year of the grant will see 86 new educators receiving mentoring.

Lora Bundy, a Poudre middle school teacher who participated in November’s workshop – the second of the quarterly sessions the district will offer each year – to spend quality time with her team of beginning fifth-grade teachers, says she feels reinvigorated by answering their questions and seeing them connect with others who are embracing the “labor of love” that is teaching. “Events like this workshop really help the first-year teachers understand that there are others in this with them, and that they are supported,” Bundy says.

In addition to mentoring beginning teachers, Mentor Grant Program funding can be used to support alternative licensure candidates, which allows school districts to hire teaching candidates who already hold an undergraduate or advanced degree and have expertise and knowledge in specific subjects. These candidates can teach while they complete the training to meet Colorado Teacher Quality Standards for becoming licensed teachers in the state.

“The ability to address alternative licensure candidates really deepens the available mentoring programs,” Kipp says. “These are people who maybe never considered becoming teachers, but who are feeling the call to put their considerable experience and education toward the classroom. Being able to match them with mentors who can help them navigate what it’s like to be in a room full of students is a real game-changer.”

 

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Education preview of 2023 legislative session 

Photo of the Capitol for The SPARK

The new year also brings a new legislative session. As always this year, education will be a top issue during the legislative session. Here are some education-related topics to watch: 

Chalkbeat Colorado pays close attention to education issues at the legislature. Here is Chalkbeat’s legislative guide.

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Interim report released on how to integrate work-based learning opportunities

Workforce Development Photo

Last year, Colorado lawmakers, hoping to make it easier for high school students to enroll in postsecondary courses, passed House Bill 22-1215 to find ways to expand and align programs that integrate secondary, postsecondary and work-based learning opportunities throughout the state.  

A task force met from July to November and released an initial report in December that identified areas the state could work on to untangle the web for students who now choose between nine different programs to earn college credits and quality credentials in high school. The task force determined that the current postsecondary and workforce readiness system should be wholly and thoroughly reexamined. A final report of recommendations will be issued in December 2023.

The task force explored a vision for a comprehensive and aligned future system with the following long-term goals:

  • Supporting Colorado learners to graduate with a high school diploma and a postsecondary or industry credential that leads to a good job and the ability to pursue additional education and training.
  • Transferability and portability of credentials and skills in education and the job market.
  • Seamless access to individualized, exploratory learning centered around meaningful career pathways that lead to specialized pathways based on interest, ability, and the job market.
  • Holistic learning experiences and programs that support not only workforce readiness but also learner health and wellness.
  • One centralized, multi-agency, easy-to-use data system that can clearly demonstrate short and long-term programmatic outcomes.

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Additional news and resources

book logo

TEACH Colorado Resource Guides

Do you know a future educator? Over the past year, TEACH Colorado has expanded its list of comprehensive guides to help aspiring educators explore licensure options, prepare for content exams, find financial aid and more. Be sure to share these resources with future educators in your community!

Visit TEACH Colorado’s Reports and How-To Guides webpage for more information.

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