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Clara Sale-Davis, Director of Benwood Initiative for Public Education Foundation

Hamilton County elementary teachers guide their students toward broadening their minds, and this past school year some have guided other teachers, too.

Since last July, the Teacher Induction Program has offered support to 42 recent college grads through their first year of teaching at 12 participating Hamilton County elementary schools.

"They didn't just survive, they were highly effective," said Clara Sale-Davis, director of the Benwood Initiative, which funded the Teacher Induction Program. Benwood allocated about $150,000 for the program, which involved one-on-one mentoring and professional training.

For educators, the first year is the hardest, according to several people at the initiative's year-end celebration Thursday at the Chattanooga Choo Choo.

About 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first couple of years, Sale-Davis said. The program aims to keep some of those from dropping out by offering support, feedback and professional development opportunities.

The Public Education Foundation and Hamilton County Department of Education were partners in the initiative, in which fellow teachers would act as mentors to the young professionals.

"I wish I had a mentor when I first started," said Rebecca McKnight, who's been a teacher for about 22 years. "I was so lost. Sometimes I just needed a shoulder to cry on."

McKnight was the mentor for Alejandro Mendez, a recent Dalton State College graduate. Mendez said he was surprised by the seemingly endless paperwork.

"I always tried to stay in contact with her," Mendez said. "She would help me when I'd ask who I needed to talk to about certain things."

The Chattanooga Choo Choo was an ideal location for the train-themed celebration, "Full Steam Ahead: I Know I Can!"

New teachers -- beaming with accomplishment of surviving their tough first year in the profession -- were called up by Sale-Davis to receive certificates and a pocketbook version of "The Little Engine That Could" for inspiration.

"[The first year] is an extremely challenging one, but it's the most important," said Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation. "Any way we can help in that first year, we will."

The Teacher Induction Program continues next year, when a new batch of teachers will be taken under the wings of mentors. Those who went through the program this year also will continue it in the fall.

The experience and connections made with the mentors have a lasting effect, according to program member Jennifer Wilson.

"I think every teacher needs at least one full year of teaching to fully understand what it means to be a real educator," she said.