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Great Beginnings, Brilliant Outcomes

Developing World-Class Educators Fuel Student Growth and Success

While great beginnings are a given for students at Catalina Foothills School District come August, teachers new to district schools have had their own great beginnings since the summer of 2014. The Great Beginnings: Systems for Success teacher induction program will welcome its next cohort in July.

“Studies have shown that the number one school-based factor affecting student achievement is teacher quality. Our program leverages professional learning to improve planning and instructional practices and increase teacher self-efficacy and retention,” said Leah Glashow Mandel, CFSD’s Director of Professional Learning. “An investment in our teachers is an investment in our students,” she added, noting that teachers learn the skills to have the greatest impact on student achievement.

Great Beginnings, Glashow-Mandel said, is largely focused on making visible what is typically invisible. “We guide new teachers to unpack the relationship between what happens in the classroom and the infrastructure beneath the surface. We like to tell new teachers that there is no ‘magic’ teacher and no ‘magic’ students — that every engaging and effective lesson is the result of a skillful teacher's deliberate planning and implementation.”

Kailey Sammons, a third-grade teacher at Manzanita Elementary School, was new to teaching when she participated in the program and said Great Beginnings was a guiding light through the challenges she faced. “Having an experienced mentor by my side offering valuable insights and observing my classroom practices, was invaluable. Her guidance equipped me with essential tools and strategies, transforming my teaching approach and bolstering my confidence,” Sammons said. The key takeaways from the program were immensely valuable and included learning to, “actively utilize available support, seek answers by asking questions, and embrace both positive feedback and successes. The program emphasized the importance of celebrating the good moments while also giving myself grace during challenging times.”

Anthony “Tony” Gerrettie, an English teacher at Catalina Foothills High School who participated in the program in July 2023, said he felt immediately at home when the program began. “The Great Beginnings program was instrumental to my success as a new-to-the-district teacher,” said Gerrettie, who came to the job with 15 years of experience in education. “I learned my values aligned with the district’s in ensuring all students are given the opportunity to learn. The program is important as it offers strategies to increase student engagement, a vital component of the high school’s (and district’s) overall success.”
Gerrettie said that what he is most looking forward to now is “incorporating the best of what I saw with my skills and with what the Great Beginnings program and my colleagues have taught me. Those unique experiences help me to be the best version of myself in the classroom.”

Beth Jurgensen, a Learning Support Specialist since 2015 who started her teaching journey at CFSD in 2006, said that her primary mission in this latest role is to facilitate professional learning for teachers in their first three years in CFSD. She noted that this is done through interactive seminars and coaching. “We use the Cognitive Coaching model, which emphasizes mediating thinking through questions designed to prompt teachers to think deeply about their practice and shift their perspective to make more effective decisions,” Jurgensen said. “One coaching cycle consists of a planning conversation to determine the goal and strategies to reach it, a classroom observation where we collect information the teacher would like to analyze, and a reflecting conversation to process successes and determine next steps,” she added.

Melissa Taylor, a first-grade teacher at Sunrise Drive Elementary School — the same school she attended as a child — came to the district in 2016 with 12 years of experience in education. She said she received more support in the beginning stages of her new role at CFSD than she did in the time she worked at another area school district. Since going through the Great Beginnings program, she has become a teacher mentor as well as a curriculum design expert. “As soon as someone is needed to represent first grade in curriculum design, I am always the first one to volunteer. Being on all these design teams is a lot of work, but it also helps me be a better leader. Being a teacher is a very hard job and when you add in all these new changes, it makes it even harder. If I can help make their job easier by learning firsthand and helping the transition process, it makes me feel like I am making a difference.”

While the levels of experience vary greatly among Gerrettie, Sammons, Taylor, and Jurgensen, they all agree on this: the Great Beginning teacher induction program provides invaluable tools and resources for a successful journey; the rewards of teaching a diverse student population with different needs, stressors, and learning styles far outweigh the challenges of being a public school teacher in this day and age.

As first-grade teacher Taylor put it: “When I go into my classroom every day, I pretend I am an actress trying out for the biggest role in my entire life. I try to make everything a fun game while still teaching them the knowledge they need. I want those kids to feel like a family. I want them to have fun. They are little and shouldn’t have to grow up so fast….we are learning but our learning is fun and exciting. Those little smiling faces come into the classroom needing love, structure, and a safe place and it is our job to give them exactly what they need and deserve.”

"Her guidance equipped me with essential tools and strategies, transforming my teaching approach and bolstering my confidence."