Sunday, September 28, 2014

From Beginner to Master Teacher -- year one -- the importance of mentors

1994, my first year of teaching, I had a two day orientation focused on school policies. I was given a text by my department chair and invited to ask questions if I had any. I had a wonderful faculty go to person (not a mentor) to help me understand school policies. What happened in the classroom was up to me. It was assumed (I guess) that since I had a PhD in history, I could teach history.

Elizabeth Green is just the most recent expert to talk about what new teachers need to thrive and grow into a master teacher. For our first year teachers we combine our New Teacher Seminar and regular support by supervisors with a mentoring program. The mentor program serves as the foundation of our system for taking promising young hires and helping them grown into great teachers. The mentor program, under the direction of two faculty leaders, pairs experienced teachers with our new teachers, includes a week of orientation before school starts, and holds retreats during the year. Most critically, mentors meet with their mentees regularly.

Most of our mentors have had training as mentors and peer coaches. Whereas peer coaches help their coachees find answers for themselves, mentors (especially in the first year)  answer questions--often in very directive even prescriptive ways.  First year teachers need a peer mentor, a go to person who is a safe, low bar resource for any and all answers. The mentors, as a group, meet with their faculty leaders to discuss supporting their mentees. This collegial system provides a forum for exchanging ideas and serves as important professional development for the mentors. Mentors are often the first to see when and where a new teacher most needs support. Last year, a mentor brought to a supervisor, a particular challenge a new teacher was experiencing. The mentor couldn't fix the problem but knew that the right administrator could. New teachers can come to their mentors with questions about pedagogy, class management, content, grading, really anything and know that they will get practical, timely answers. Mentors also become friendly class observers. Having a mentor observe you teach is much less stressful that having a supervisor observe.

Mentors are able to support our new to teaching teachers (and just new to Westtown) because they see themselves as being in partnership with other mentors, the new teachers, and administrators. Helping new teachers succeed becomes an extension of our school's mission and promise to our students.  While not the shokuin shitsu of Japan, our program incorporates the important element of teacher leaders taking on responsibility for the success of new teachers.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's your Freebird?

This past weekend my daughter played lead guitar on Lynryd Skynyrd's "Freebird" at Downingtown School of Rock's Southern Rock show. She assures me that along with "Stairway to Heaven" (which she has also played in a show), this song is one of the givens for aspiring guitarists. She learned she had the solo in late May. Along with preparing pieces for a touring show with the School of Rock All Stars, "Freebird" has been her particular focus all summer. After the concert she shared with me that she knew she had given it her all and that her two performances were true reflections of her effort, technical ability, talent and pleasure. Last week when she created her Facebook list of the ten albums that had most influenced her as a musician, "Lynryd Skynyrd" (and its song Freebird") was not on the list. For her the song was a right of passage more than an influence. (If you were wondering, her number one influential album was Tedeschi Trucks Band's "Revelator.")

We all have a "Freebird."

I asked my Independent Seminar students to imagine it is January 10, 2015 and they are reflecting back on their first semester work including their demonstration of learning. In essence I asked them to imagine the day after their "Freebird" performance. I wanted them to project forward and then backwards, to engage their imaginations in self-reflection. I wanted them to imagine what a successful learning process would feel like; how they would know they had achieved all that they could even if the final product was missing elements they had planned for in their Independent Seminar proposals. While some students struggled with the idea of looking backwards, they all understood that for each of them the process was more important that the product. Three examples of their thinking follow: Lili (creating podcasts) wrote "I have had practice doing what I hope to do with my life and I have seen if it is really the right fit for me. I have also found strength in myself to interact with my community and present this to them. I feel proud of myself for this and have learned much from those around me. I only accomplished this with the help and support of the people around me. I now know more about my priorities and goals and hope to continue to experience life through the lives of others." Joe (studying Game Theory) asserted "I tried my best throughout the semester. Although the phrase “try my best” is platitudinous and has different meaning to different people, I interpreted it as exploring my potential and having no regret for myself even when I failed to comprehend part of the material." For Margot (studying Beatnik Culture)  the tangibles were easier to project forward than backwards. "I find it intimidating to be so heavily reliant on self-direction, because I know that the effort and attention I put into this course will truly be reflected in the work I produce. I am fully accountable for every aspect of my own success, which is exactly why I am so determined to take up this challenge."

For each of our students there are both foundational influences and rights of passage. Independent Seminar attempts to create space for students to bring these two strands in their education together. Whether its a self-created recital for the student body, a portfolio of visual work, a forty page research paper on the Syrian Conflict, or an application of mathematical modeling, or a podcast of student life, the final product is more than the sum of its individual elements and the learning is as much about the process as the product.

Monday, September 8, 2014

summer curriculum grants

Today I have been thinking about her effort in relationship to the faculty reports of summer work I have been reading. Westtown has a program to support faculty professional development and curriculum development. Last spring teachers submitted proposals for summer projects, conferences and workshops. Early in September they submit a written reflection about what they have learned and where appropriate the new courses, projects, or units of study they have developed. Many of these reports reflect significant, extended focus over the past two months.

In deciding which proposals to submit, preference was given to those which supported Westtown's strategic initiatives and which brought teachers together in collaborative partnerships. Two religion teachers worked together to create a new 9th grade course in Quakerism. A group of middle school teachers created a cross disciplinary unit based on the book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. The 11th and 12th grade English program will feature two new electives "Classic Adaptations" and "Poetic Encounters" -- the first will look at Hamlet, Faust, and the Odyessey