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.

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