"I am here for you."
With those words, 11-year veteran teacher Woodrow Samuel helped launch a new era in Hillsborough County.
He was one of around 50 mentors appointed this year to help support and evaluate beginning teachers, part of the district's $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Speaking to a small group of his charges this week during the three-day orientation program for new teachers, Samuel said it would be his personal mission to help them succeed. He said he would be there or all of the problems rookies face — paperwork, stage fright, the challenge of misbehaving students and a flurry of state requirements.
"I plan on being at your school site to help you set up your classrooms, if you want me to," said Samuel, 37. "I will be with each of you at least once a week."
Such work lies at the heart of Hillsborough's seven-year reform effort with the Gates Foundation, which aims to develop a new teacher evaluation system and tie teacher pay and job security to student performance. New teachers will face a higher bar for earning tenure, and veterans may face calls to improve or find a new job if they don't measure up.
But both groups will be evaluated and supported by fellow teachers along the way. And new teachers will get a "significant" raise on their $37,014 starting salary when they earn tenure after three or four years.
"We are on the cutting edge of making great things happen in education, and you're a part of it," superintendent MaryEllen Elia told over 500 new hires on Wednesday.
"You're going to be part of a system that's going to change the delivery of education in our country," said deputy superintendent Dan Valdez. "Everyone is looking at us."
All told, around 120 teachers have been taken out of the classroom to serve as mentors, or as or peer evaluators for veteran teachers — a costly proposition that might never have happened without the Gates support.
The Hillsborough teachers' union backed a similar plan in the 1990s, but couldn't find the money to carry it out.
It's a strong departure from traditional practice in most districts across America, where beginning teachers are thrust before students with little support or training — instant CEOs in their own classroom.
"No other profession does it — doctors don't, lawyers don't, " Elia said, urging the new teachers to take advantage of their mentors' support. "Because that is what a true professional does."
The new teachers in Samuel's group seemed to need little urging, peppering him with questions and thoughts on their new careers.
Matthew Wiseman, who majored in math at the University of South Florida, will soon teach that subject at Middleton High.
He loved tutoring and mentoring students in college, and once opened and ran a successful pizza restaurant.
But to him, nothing approaches the complexity of being a good teacher.
"Administrators were talking about how often they're going to be coming in to evaluate us," said Wiseman, 40. "To me, who has never taught before, it was very overwhelming."
Jessica Copeland, who will teach special-needs and agriculture science classes at Middleton, spent part of last year as a temporary teacher in east Hillsborough.
The 24-year-old said she learned the hard way not to take on too many optional duties during her first year.
"It about killed me," she said.
"That's the illusion, 'I can do it all,' " said Samuel, who previously taught language arts and led the eighth-grade team at Sligh Middle School. "Well, no, you can't."
Natalia Iarmoch, who will teach math at Middleton, said she was setting her sights high.
"The first thing that came to mind was (achieving) a 100 percent passing rate in all of my classes," said Iarmoch, 29. "I don't know how doable it is."
"It does seem lofty, but what if you shoot for that and 96 percent pass?" Samuel asked. "That's awesome. You will work insanely to achieve it. But if that's your goal, run with it."
He told the group it would take a special effort to keep their spirits up, teaching in an inner-city neighborhood where many youngsters — particularly young men — fail to graduate.
"Surround yourself with positive people," Samuel advised. "Don't hang out at the water cooler with the teacher who hates his students and hates his life and he's been doing it for 20 years.
"You don't need someone bringing you down, talking about 'those kids.' I hate those two words. They're our kids."
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.