Friday, August 06, 2004

A New Cast of Characters

One of the most exciting and scary challenges of the upcoming year is that I will be mentoring my school's two brand-new science teachers. Technically, I'll be the Science Dept. Chair (as opposed to the entire Science Department...). Hmmm. I still feel so new and inexperienced myself.

I tried to be a mentor to a new TFA teacher last year, but I didn't do too well. We met a couple of times and tried to meet on other occasions, but most of the time our schedules were both so full that we couldn't find time to get together. All the personal upheaval in my own life didn't help. I am definitely going to contact her and see if she needs or wants any help planning for the coming year, and will try to be available to her over the next few months.

I had two official mentors during my first year teaching. One was a TFA teacher who volunteered, much like I did, to mentor a new teacher. We met once or twice at the beginning of the year, and then I never heard from her again. I think she really wanted to be a good mentor, but got caught up in the Ph.D. program that she was starting that fall.

My district provided a mentor to every new teacher. Mrs. A. was an older woman who had taught typing for many years. She signed up for a paid position as a mentor and worked with several of the new teachers in my school. It was a farce. Although she visited my classroom once or twice a week all year, she gave me exactly two pieces of advice: Make sure all the chairs are down off the desks before you start teaching. Do more vocabulary. Both true and useful, but that's it??? In a whole year??? I was accustomed to TFA-style observations, where a colleague or Program Director would watch a lesson and provide a wide array of positive feedback, suggestions for improvement, people to watch whose strengths are your weaknesses, and outside resources to access. When Mrs. A. observed, I would teach what I knew to be a so-so lesson, only to hear, "That was a great lesson. I learned a lot." You see, Mrs. A. knew very, very little science, and even less about best practices in teaching science, and she found my lessons fascinating and educational. The last straw was when she interrupted me - in the middle of a lesson - to ask me to explain the concept to her, personally, in more detail!

This is one of those situations where the research said, "Provide mentors," so someone in the administration decided to turn research into practice, lots of money was spent, and I can only imagine they saw very little improvement. Is this because the idea was bad? Does this discredit the research? No, no. The mentoring program was poorly implemented. The mentors were well-paid and not well screened. I've heard many stories about bad mentors and only a few about good mentors. I never had an opportunity to evaluate her work as a mentor. Presumably, they hired her again the next year, with no feedback as to her effectiveness. It infuriates me, because programs like this one, which get no results, are used as evidence against spending more money on education. A few minor improvements - matching mentors and mentees by subject area whenever possible, providing opportunities for evaluation of mentors, and some form of rigorous screening of applicants - could have made this a wonderful program. I think the mentors ought to have been teachers who were still in the classroom at least part time; that way, we could have observed our mentors at work, and they would have been more in touch with the realities of schools as they are today.

That's my experience with official mentoring programs. I've also had unofficial mentors, teachers who provided advice, inspiration, and modeled good teaching over the last few years.

Which brings me back to my new science teachers. Looking back on my own first year or two of teaching, I was desperate for help at the beginning. I had my own ideas about good teaching, for sure, but I wouldn't have minded if someone who seemed sensible and good at teaching had said, "Here, try this, do that, use these things." So that's where I'm going to start with the new teachers. I met with the new sixth grade physical science teacher today. He's going to need a name in the blog, so let's call him Mr. Kelvin. I brought the Region's science syllabus, an extra copy of the physical science section for him to keep, teacher editions of the physical science textbooks that we use, and a book that I like a lot that provides a process for planning project-based science units. We talked about the topics he'd be covering, looked through the syllabus a little, and I answered a bunch of questions for him about how I've set up science in our school, what the state test is like, classroom management, and so on. I didn't want to overwhelm him - and told him that - but I liked the way he responded enthusiastically to the resources I gave him. I believe that he will take them home and look at them, so when we meet again in a week or two, he'll have some ideas and be ready to fine-tune them. As we left, I told him to bother me by phone and email with any questions or concerns, and he promised he would.

Another thing I've learned over the years is that units that I plan well in advance, in a thoughtful, organized way, are much more successful than units that I plan on the fly. I have never been the kind of teacher who writes out every lesson plan in detail, but I do make calendars describing each day's objective, activity, homework, needed materials, etc. Inevitably, after three or four days, I am already revising the unit calendar because the kids turned out to need more time on one particular activity, less time on another, and are really interested in something I hadn't even planned to include. My unit plans are working documents - but the more time I put into them before I start the unit, the better it goes in the classroom.

Based on my own need for planning, I've decided to ask the new teachers to provide me with some kind of unit plan a week before they begin each unit. I hope that this structure will help them make time for planning even when they get really busy and stressed out, and will give us a document to look at together, discuss, and revise if necessary. I hope to be able to look at their plans and say, "Oh, I have a great lesson for that objective, let me get it for you," and "I've done that activity - here's what worked and what didn't work," and "Okay, so you need x-chemical, I'll help you get that." I'm leaving the format up to them; if they want to turn in a full lesson plan for every day, more power to them, but I would never, never require that of another teacher.

Partly as an artifact of the programming process, partly because Ms. Principal and Mrs. Dean - the administrators doing the programming - are smart, I have one period a week in my schedule for observing the new teachers. They each have at least one period set aside for observing me (or other teachers) at work, or meeting with more experienced teachers. I know how hard it is to make time for observations when you're teaching full-time, so I'm excited to have that built into my schedule. Several other teachers, new and experienced, also have built in observation time.

Sometime next week, I'll meet with our other new teacher. I interviewed him in June, so I know a bit more about him than I did about Mr. Kelvin. Let's call the 7th grade Earth Science teacher Mr. Richter, so you'll know who he is the next time I mention him. Our teachers in other subject areas will get names soon! Suggestions are welcome!

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