In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders how to best support and mentor beginning teachers.
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Steve Barkley: Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading. Thanks for listening in.
Some thoughts on mentoring. Supporting beginning teachers. Mentors should focus on empowering beginning teachers. Years ago, I did a lot of work with William Glasser’s writing on control theory or choice theory for motivating kids in the classroom. Glasser described that we needed to look at the areas of survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun.
I often presented to teachers that if you could create a classroom where students’ survival needs are met, physical, emotional safety, and you created a sense of belonging and that’s part of where the relationship pieces fit in. With survival and belonging present, students would comply. If you wanted to move students to doing quality work, you really needed to create an environment where students found power, freedom, and fun in the learning that they were being asked to do. I was a big proponent of pushing for project-based learning and live event learning and student voice and choice, all those things, to build that power, freedom, and fun.
What I’d like to suggest that the same is true in looking at a mentor program for beginning teachers. Too often, mentor programs focus on survival. I don’t want to take away that survival is a critical issue for the beginning teacher. When do you have to show up in order to get something done on the copier, how do you get a break for the bathroom, what paperwork needs to be done by when in order to stay out of trouble. Those are all critical and important issues.
Important that mentors and the beginning teachers mentee see that they want to move from those survival needs being met to building a sense of belonging for the new teacher within the school, and then moving to the new teacher finding power, freedom, and fun within the profession that they’ve chosen. I think the place to look for power, freedom, and fun, is found in the mentor identifying where the beginning teacher finds his or her motivation to teach.
I’m going to suggest that I think for most teachers, the motivation to teach isn’t found in the standards that our students need to meet. Most teachers have a passion for something that they want their students to gain from working with them. They have an outcome. They have an attitude. They have a belief system that they want their students to develop.
Often the job of the mentor is to assist the beginning teacher in understanding how they meet the standards and achieve the important issues that are motivating them as a teacher. The standards suggest to the public that it doesn’t matter what teacher your child gets, because the standards are going to be met in any fourth grade classroom. The standards are going to be met regardless of which of the two biology teachers you take the course from.
That person who’s dedicated to being a teacher knows that a student taking a class from me, spending a year with me, is going to leave with something special. I’m afraid that the pressure that beginning teachers are often under from a curriculum standards testing-driven system can drive that power, freedom, and fun away from the beginning teacher.
Mentors might begin by sharing their own personal passions and beliefs about teaching and how they manage to deal with meeting the standards and achieving those additional pieces. Those additional pieces are often found in how I teach, or they may be found in the classroom environment that I generate. I sometimes handle this in my head with an understanding that the standards are in effect the cost to be a teacher. If I create an opportunity for kids to master the standard, then I have the opportunity to share the passion, beliefs, and attitudes and all of the reasons that are driving me to be a teacher.
Another area for mentors to look at is modeling coachability. At the start of a teacher’s career is the important time for the teacher to discover that making him or herself vulnerable to input from colleagues, is a career-long path that they want to be on. It’s critical that the beginning teacher not see the mentor as an evaluator, not see the mentor holding some measuring stick up in front of the teacher that says when you meet these criteria, then mentoring will be over. You’ll be accepted in the profession.
My suggestion is that mentors begin by having the beginning teacher coach the mentor. If I create an opportunity for the beginning teacher to be invited into my classroom, observe an area that I’m looking to grow on, and provide me with that feedback, I’m now modeling for the mentee the way they can use me as a mentor. Years ago, I worked with a district that was trying to decide how long a mentor program should last. Should mentoring be a one-year program, an 18-month program, a two-year program? I love the decision that they reached.
They said, mentoring was over when the beginning teacher threw open the doors of the classroom and said you can all come in. They realized that at that point, the teacher was now a full-fledged professional. Getting all the ongoing collegial support that they should, they were taking ownership of it. The job of the mentor was to build the beginning teacher’s skill level and confidence level to the point that they would be open to that coaching to develop coachability.
Mentors should consider that as the year goes on, the amount of time that the mentor spends with the beginning teacher is likely to increase. Now, that’s the opposite of what you find happening in most places. Most often, it’s seen that there’s this push at the beginning of the year for the mentor to spend time with the mentee, which is usually working on survival issues that are important.
If you think of it, as the year goes on, the issues that a beginning teacher is having to deal with are facing ever-increasing complexity. As the year goes on, I have to deal with parent communications. I have to deal with collaborating with my colleagues. I have to deal with grading. When I think back, I cringe at the thought that I actually put grades on a permanent record for students during my first year of teaching. I mean I would be so far from truly understanding at any depth, the assessment and the decisions that I was making at that time. Engagement of a mentor at that point would be very important.
Whose job is it to mentor the beginning teacher? I want to suggest here that the real job of mentoring the beginning teacher belongs to the entire system. At some degree, the job of the official mentor, that person named to be in charge as a mentor, might be mentoring the system or as I label it sometimes, mentoring mentoring. Is the beginning teacher getting the support that they should be receiving from administration, the curriculum office and colleagues?
How does a mentor take a step back and look at that support system that should be there for the new teacher and make sure that those opportunities are available and that the new teacher has the confidence to request those services that are available to support him or her? Lastly, I’d like to take a moment to think about why would someone invest in being a mentor, because it is a big step. It is a big commitment and the reality is that as a mentor, you gain in your own professionalism and skill development.
Some early research identifies that all the way back to the days of the blacksmith taking on an apprentice, mentoring extended the skills and the professional life of the mentor. As a mentor, when you’re having to explore why you do what you do and what it is you do with the mentee, it sharpens your perspective and your daily skill set. I have an example from my own background when I was serving as a cooperating teacher for a student teacher. Well into her year with me, was a special program where we got to work together for a year.
Well into the year with me, we had made a decision that while she was teaching that morning, I would be observing to give her feedback on maintaining momentum. What are the things she did and could do to keep the momentum of the lesson going and keeping the students engaged. We sat down for a little debrief over lunch and I gave her a list of the things that I had seen that she had done and she was really happy with the list.
I pointed out, “I would have one suggestion. Do you remember when Tommy jumped up out of his seat and you stopped right in the middle of that math problem you were explaining and said, “Tommy, sit down.”? One strategy you might try in an instance like that is just to keep delivering your conversation to the student, but walk back towards where Tommy was seated and your physical proximity may have moved Tommy back in his seat without breaking the momentum of the delivery of your lesson.” She looked at me and said, “Oh, that’s great,” and took all the notes down.
We finished lunch and we went back into the classroom and she was observing and I was leading an activity with the kids and it wasn’t five minutes into the activity, I looked back and said, “Tommy, sit down.” As I did, I glanced over to the student teacher and she flashed me a big smile and I smiled back at her and pulled that back into my head is that my consciousness was raised. I can tell you, the rest of that lesson, I practiced proximity to build my momentum and maintain my momentum with students.
As a mentor, you are being asked to give. You’re giving to the profession. I’d suggest to you, you’re giving to your school because the more successful a beginning teacher is, the greater the growth that those students will have that year and the more successful they’ll be the following years within your school. While you’re giving that, you do have the opportunity to build and strengthen your own skill set and to celebrate the whole concept of coachability.
Thanks for listening, folks. You might decide that this is a podcast worth sending out to people who are stepping into mentor roles within your building. Love to hear from you if you have any questions. Have a great day. Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.
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