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Mentor Anecdotes — Volume 1
Past Mentor Stories
One of my first year teachers last year was very reluctant to accept my help. Throughout the fall as I emailed her and traveled out to work with her, she would consistently tell me that everything was fine. I continued to try to find ways to be of use by providing additional resources, asking questions to help her think about what was happening with her students, and offering ideas. In December, a time we know is difficult, I was on-site in her village. She was struggling and depressed about every aspect of the job and living in the small community. We spent hours and hours together that week. In fact, I delayed my departure an extra couple of days in order to have enough time for her. We cried, we laughed, we planned. Our discussions revolved around her professional and personal goals. We were able to do long-range planning and she was able to have a relaxed vacation. She came back after the break refreshed and ready. Earlier, I was unsure about whether this new teacher would last until the end of the year. After the vacation, she sent me a message and said she was so happy about the time spent together and was excited about being back at school. She finished the year successfully and is back for year two at the same site. She and her husband, also a teacher, even came back early so they could have time to enjoy more of village life.
Some days, when I step off the plane, the wind is howling and the thermometer is well below zero. On the ride to school I get chilled to the bone. Yet when I leave, my heart is warmed by the work we have done-and I'm smiling.
About the mentor project's impact on me:
I've realized in a concrete way the critical role elementary teachers play in the success of learning that will take place as the students move into secondary education. Through this learning, I have developed a very deep sense of respect for the work elementary teachers do, which I didn't always have in the past. In addition, I cannot believe how much I am learning about my own practice—the "why" some things were working and other's weren't. Even more, I'm learning how I can become a better teacher by implementing strategies used at the elementary level: to teach across the curriculum through one main content area; to teach students with their basic needs fulfilled first; to prevent rather than react to problems; and to ALWAYS have clear focus/learning goal for class time (I did this before, but until now, hadn't realized how much impact that truly has on student learning.)
About the mentor project's impact on a early career teacher:
Just the other day a early career teacher thanked me for "forcing" her to reflect on her practices and self-assess using the Professional Teaching Standards Continuum. This reflection did for her, in a way, what the program has done for me. She saw good things that she was doing "by accident" and those strategies became more concrete. She also saw areas of struggle in which the solutions were within reach. Overall, the reflection—the looking back—has inspired her to more forward.
Several of my schools have systemic and/or leadership issues. In one specific school the job of teaching is extremely difficult. During our first face-to-face meeting after the Christmas break, one of my first-year teachers from this school said, "The only reason I was able to come back here was because I knew you were here to support me. It was hard to leave home but I told my family I'd be okay for the rest of the year because I have a mentor who cares and is there to help me."
Each time I visited this particular early career teacher's site I see changes–little changes sometimes–but positive changes. When I began mentoring, the teacher seemed to disregard every new idea and rarely contributed to her own professional development reflection. Yet, each time I'd come back, there would be a change made from suggestions I made or discussions we had. The rules were posted after our discussion of classroom management and procedures. A rug and beanbags were set up in a reading corner after we talked about effective environment. A performance test on measurement was set up after sharing some formative assessment tools and an article on ways assess. Each time there is progress-one step at a time.
A second-year teacher was so excited last when we visited. She said, "My kids are so much further along this year than they were this time last year. I know from the tools we used last year and are using this year that I can do more with them and that its not only okay but I must expect more from them. Last year I was afraid of pushing too hard-and while I'm careful to pay attention to the assessments-I know I have to have higher expectations. I don't think I would have made these gains without your support."
Janice DeVore Littlebear
For the past 15 months, I have been on a journey learning how to become a mentor to novice teachers. Along the way I have picked up several nuggets of critical learning, all which will influence either my teaching if I return to the classroom or my practice if I continue working with early career teachers.
First it is absolutely essential to student success that teachers learn about the students' community, cultural values, and languages. Helping students connect learning to their lives is an essential piece of student academic achievement. We Can't Teach What We Don't Know, by Gary Howard, is one resource for explaining why this preliminary background knowledge step should be a prerequisite to teaching.
Second, I've learned that mentoring requires trusting relationships. Mentoring is a dynamic two-way journey where both mentor and teacher are learning. For growth and the development of best practice, there must be equity in voice and true collaboration. Mentor and early career teachers must always be willing to listen to each other to negotiate meaningful next steps.
The journey to effective mentoring for me has included ongoing and consistently high quality training and support. The strong foundation provided to me by the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project has given me the best-equipped vehicle to make this journey successful. Together with my 24 colleagues across the state and with our 380 early career teachers, we are making things better for Alaska's future generations.
I have a new teacher who said to me, "You have given me permission to try what I already know is good for kids."
After a visit to a village school, the participating teacher emailed that at first he was not wild about having a mentor, but he later realized that after each of our conversations he learned something that makes him a better teacher.
Being a part of the Mentor Project has given me much more than I've been able to give to the project. I've learned enormous amounts about teaching, coaching, collaboration, and leadership. I look forward to taking this back to the classroom, to my school and to my district. I only wish this had happened earlier in my career, rather than so close to the end!
One of the early career teachers I work with received a bad evaluation from her principal. She called me to share the experience and ask for assistance. She didn't know where to start. She felt panicked and overwhelmed at the prospect of revamping her entire program. We talked it through: What did she feel was going well? What were her challenges and concerns? What were her next steps to work on and how could I assist her in taking those steps? Together, we were able to narrow down the focus to a manageable plan for improvement.
Her principal told me how pleased he was at her progress over the year. He expressed his gratitude at having someone to work with her to facilitate and support her growth— something he didn't have the time to do. He told me that she could have been a casualty but he thought instead, thanks to the support she received, that she was turning out to be a credit to her profession.
One of my early career teachers had been bounced between two teaching assignments before finally settling into the third assignment two months into the school year. His confidence was almost completely eroded. Additionally, he had a very limited repertoire of teaching strategies. We set a goal that I would send him a new idea each week which he would act on. During my visits I modeled various strategies. By the end of the fist semester he had regained his sense of purpose and his confidence.
I work with a first year teacher in a small school where she is charged with educating grades 4-8 in one room. She has clear ideas about what an effective learning environment looks like and has been frustrated by the challenges of creating this vision in her multi-age classroom. Much of her direct instruction has been too advanced for some and too simple for others, creating a host of behavior problems. She wanted to change the structure of her class into more of a workshop format, but needed some support and ideas to do so. Through our work together, we identified some ways to move in that direction. This week during her math time she is introducing her first workshop. I am looking forward to meeting with her afterward to help her debrief and plan the next steps.
I worked with a early career teacher who was in her second year when our program began. She wanted a mentor for another year because she wanted two years of mentoring even though that would make her a third year teacher. She said it wasn't fair that she only got one year; she said I made her think about pedagogy in ways she never thought about before.
I love mentoring. It is a joy to work with and support 18 teachers across the state. I realize that a trusting relationship with teachers is critical in advancing teachers in their practice. It is especially an honor to spend time on St. Laurence Island. The bright smiles and "Hi, Bob!" greetings I get from the children in the lunchroom, hall, and class make me realize that as a mentor I still make meaningful connections to students. I am in my second year of mentoring, and I have grown more professionally in the past year and half than at any other point in my career.