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Mentors mold teacher leaders


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  • Arizona K12 Center

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For some, the impact of mentorship extends beyond the first few years in the classroom. If lucky enough, educators may be encouraged to accomplish a task they never would have dreamed of doing—such is the case for Audra Damron from the Tolleson Elementary School District.

Imagine moving from Ohio to Arizona, obtaining a new teaching position, and being tasked to work with a veteran teacher for two years. Upon being hired to teach second grade at Desert Oasis Elementary School, Damron recalls being assigned to work with Arizona Master Teacher Ana Zarate.

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Arizona Master Teacher Ana Zarate (right) mentors beginning teachers in the Tolleson Elementary School District, directing them to pursue leadership opportunities and improved practice.- AZ K12 Center

Feeling unsure, Damron, who was later named a Rodel Exemplary Teacher of Early Childhood, recalls thinking the idea of a mentor-mentee relationship was abstract.

“I never experienced anything like it in Ohio and I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like. My first year teaching in an Arizona public school was ground shaking. You go through college thinking you have a grip on what teaching is, but once you’re in the classroom there’s so much you couldn’t have been trained on,” says Damron.

While she was initially unsure, the Bowling Green State University graduate says she’s grateful she had Zarate ‘in her corner,’ as she adjusted to ‘teacher life.’

“Ms. Zarate was always available to answer questions. She would model lessons, use cognitive coaching to build on my reflective thoughts, and help me with differentiated instruction for my students. At times, when I felt like a failure, she would just focus on the positive and how to make things better. She’s been a huge advocate for me and my successes,” Damron explains.

Since completing the mentor and induction program, Damron began the National Board Certification process and switched from teaching second grade to preschool. According to Zarate, the grade-level change revealed Damron’s natural gifts.

Last month, Damron attended the Baltimore Teach to Lead Summit, where she and district teammates were given the chance to share their ideas on parent engagement with U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Jr.

While the early childhood educator says she seeks out personal opportunities for leadership, she acknowledges the comfort and encouragement of her teacher mentor, which has remained steadfast.

According to Andrew Ward, the Master Teacher Director for the Arizona K12 Center, the duos’ mentor-mentee relationship surpasses what’s required. While Damron is currently in her fifth year of teaching, the support remains.

“Ana utilized the New Teacher Center’s training to mentor Audra during her first years of teaching,” Ward says. “Though the two completed the formal mentor and induction program, Audra gives credit to Ana for pushing her toward leadership opportunities and helping her become the award-winning teacher she is today.”

Currently, Zarate mentors 23 teachers in the Tolleson Elementary School District. Although her caseload has increased over the years, she says she’s incredibly grateful for her position because the opportunity allows her to help develop beginning teachers into professionals.

“I consider myself very fortunate to be in this role. Just as teachers see students blossom, I see these teachers flourish in so many aspects of the profession,” Zarate explains.

Zarate admits she does not have a formal mentor of her own, but she’s constantly working to better her craft.

“I also consider myself lucky because of the learning I get to do. I’m always looking for feedback. For me, the Arizona K12 Center trainings are some of the best, no matter what topic it is. You’ll get extremely valuable information that you can take back into your campus and share immediately.”