SEFFNER - At a young-looking 46, Cherry Shim-Baisden doesn't fit the mold for a first-year teacher. She takes her seat in the cafeteria of Armwood High School surrounded by fresh-faced, wide-eyed rookie educators fresh out of college, embarking on their new teaching careers.
Shim-Baisden is starting her second career. She's left the banking industry for the true love of her life: making impressions on inquisitive young minds. It took a while to become a teacher, but she's as eager as the 22-year-olds munching salads all around her.
"I was always thinking of changing jobs," she says. "When I was given a chance to leave I took it. Teaching always has been a kind of love of mine."
She earned a teaching certificate and then a master's degree in reading education. After a year of substituting, she has landed a full-time job at Oak Park Elementary School.
"Education," she enthusiastically says, "is a pathway to great things in life. I've always felt that."
Shim-Baisden joined more than 800 new teachers and a couple hundred other teachers Tuesday during three days of orientation at Armwood High School. During the event, they become acquainted with the district investment and retirement plans, training in professionalism and ethics and the teachers' union.
Perhaps most importantly, it's a chance to be paired with one of a cadre of mentors who try to ease the paths for the teachers entering their new careers.
"How wonderful it is to have someone help you as a new teacher," Shim-Baisden said.
The orientation program also offers courses on how to be an effective mentor. The district has about 90 mentors.
Shelley Winterberg has mentored new teachers for four years, since the program began in Hillsborough County.
Mentors are experienced classroom teachers who gave up their students to take on the education of new teachers, she says. Each year, she helps about 15 new teachers chart their courses through their new jobs.
Mentors' duties run a gamut, she says, "from teaching to coaching to planning lessons. I observe classrooms and offer feedback." She takes new ideas from some teachers and offers them to others for everyone's benefit.
"It's my dream job," she says. "It's the job they made just for me."
She recalls one teacher she mentored a few years ago, who showed up with minimal confidence and "wasn't sure where even to start."
The two clicked.
"I told her: 'Let me help you do whatever I can to make this happen,' " Winterberg says. Years later, the two still keep in touch.
Over the past four years, she has mentored 65 new teachers, she says, and benefits go both ways.
"I learn as much from them as they do from me," she says.
The mentoring program in Hillsborough County was created because the district was having trouble keeping good teachers, and the main reason for the exodus was a lack of support from administrators, said Shannon Bogle, who is coordinating the orientation sessions. Now, each teacher with less than six months teaching experience is required to sign up for a mentor for two years.
The program stemmed the exodus of teachers almost immediately. Bogle said the program has bumped the teacher retention numbers from 76 percent four years ago to 94 percent today.
The orientation continues through Thursday. It was interrupted Monday when the air conditioning system at Strawberry Crest High School broke down and teachers were sent home. The orientation was switched to Armwood and an hour was added to the end of each day to make up for the lost time.
School for students starts on Aug. 20.