Mentoring Teachers

Last August, our new AVP asked me if I wanted to be an induction mentor. I fought off the urge to look at her in shock and said sure. I am not a fan of induction, but what the hell. My views on ed school have changed round the edges since that post, so maybe I could re-examine my firm belief that induction is the devil. Besides, neither of my induction mentors taught math, and if I’d refused this assignment the new teacher would have been assigned to someone Not a Math Teacher. Plus, amazingly, I get paid extra.

I would have done it for free, simply for the novelty of having been asked. Apparently, the move to my third school mad me a terrific teacher. All the administrators say hi unprompted and look at, rather than through, me. They ask my advice and want my feedback on interviews. I’m in my third year here and still haven’t really gotten used to being considered a valued resource. And the only thing that changed about my teaching practice was the address.

My mentee is a third year teacher who was very nervous that her induction mentor would treat her like a newbie whose ears needed wiping. Once we got past that, I think we’ve been doing well.

Induction itself has been a challenge. I’m a good mentor for new teachers (more on that in a minute), but she doesn’t really need mentoring on the basics. She needs me to play the other half of the induction process. Order. Following instructions. Attention to detail. Listening more than speaking. All attributes missing from my toolbox. I actually wake up nights every so often worried I’ve neglected something, that I’ll have let her down. Which means, I think, the exercise is good for me.

In addition, induction requires regular conversations about teaching practice, conversations that require give and take, as opposed to just jabbering about my own teaching which, it will come as little shock to regular readers, I am very fond of doing. I have to think about asking good questions of a peer, to be probing and challenging without dominating the conversation.

And at some point, I’ll have to observe her which means getting a substitute. Not crazy about that part. Still, this has really been useful professional development. Quite apart from just being thrilled to be asked, I’m learning a lot and working outside my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, we finally hired a full-time math teacher to replace the long term sub who was being terrorized by her Discovery Geometry class. Watching that go down was to witness a grueling demonstration of student brutality that I felt helpless to stop.

I met with this sub on many occasions. I personally handed her referral slips and wrote down the number to call to get students removed. I called supervisors to the room when the thumping and banging went on for more than two minutes. I told her not to let the kids even go to the bathroom and certainly not to let them go twice. Instead, she kept her door open in defiance of rules we’d been repeatedly told of, and kids came and went as they pleased. The other teachers in the surrounding classrooms were equally troubled; one of the most respected teachers on campus came in the classroom when the kids were throwing paper and empty water bottles at the sub. She told me privately she’d never shown so much contempt for students as she did in yelling at them—and that she could see some of them were ashamed. But they were at it again the next day. Those two months were an exercise in abuse psychology I’d just as soon have skipped, thanks. I learned that some teachers who can’t manage their classrooms just….go somewhere weird in their brains. They see themselves as helpless, even when they aren’t.

All of the teachers who witnessed this met with the administrators at various times to formally report the problem. I asked that supervisors stop by the classroom each day once or twice and just randomly remove kids who were acting out. Doing that a couple times would get kids leery waiting for the next supervisor appearance. It would have worked, I think. But no such action was taken.

While I wish our administrators had responded more vigorously, I’ve heard of this happening at other schools and it seems to be a universal response. I have concluded tentatively that administrators simply can’t bear to deal with the problems that occur when teachers—long-term subs or out-of-their-league probationaries—can’t control their classes. They look away. They have other things to do—including hiring replacements so they won’t have this problem next year.

What administrators ignore–or maybe just don’t let themselves think about or worst of all do think about and don’t ignore but can’t prevent—is the damage done to the kids. Never mind whether or not they lost instruction time (in fact, this sub was good on content). Kids in control of a classroom upsets the natural order. Students are troubled by this. Even the defiant nasties, the ones who’d do their best to disrupt in any circumstance, are bothered by teachers who just sit there and let it happen.

Anyway. When the new teacher came in, I came by to see him in his first hour on campus and recounted this history. He’s an intern, so he’s finishing up ed school while teaching (we should all be so lucky), a mild-mannered young guy with long hair and multiple piercings. I told him that I had zero authority over him, that he could take or leave anything I said, but that I believed he could permanently destroy himself as a teacher if he didn’t make classroom management his top priority. I don’t know how teachers recover from the memory of entire classes that hold not just their authority but their very existence in such contempt. I’m not convinced that most of them do.

I told him to come see me if he needed anything at all. He asked what he should do for the first day, and I suggested my algebra assessment test.

“But I don’t want to give them a test they haven’t had time to prepare for.”

“Tell them the only way they can get a bad grade is if they don’t try, and that you’ll be able to tell if they aren’t trying.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea. So this gets me through the first 20 minutes, then we can grade it, then what?”

“It will take them 45 minutes, then you can grade it, then you can go over class rules, which start with no one goes to the bathroom for a week in your classroom. Again, suggestion, I promise. But a strong suggestion.”

“This assessment will take them 45 minutes?”

“Your geometry class. The Discovery Geometry kids probably will need an hour, but some of them will just stop after that point.”

The next day, he reported with considerable astonishment that the geometry kids took 45 minutes; the Discovery Geometry kids took longer. I had street cred now.

He came by and asked for advice and curriculum frequently. Time and again, I was proven correct in suggesting he was being too ambitious in setting instructional rigor, ensuring he had a backup plan in case he needed to slow things down. He tells me this has helped him not only gauge student ability, but keep his classes successful—thus ensuring he keeps the students’ trust. He’s not a great classroom manager yet–the most disruptive class is still giving him trouble—but he’s male, which helps, and the classes are now well in hand.

He’s not eligible for induction, but it turns out we have another program to help intern teachers. Our school rep for that program reached out to him to see if he wanted a mentor and damned if he didn’t say “Hey, I already have one.” So now I’m getting paid to help him, too. I’m hoping I can combine all the observations for this and my induction mentee in one day.

Veteran teachers rarely reach out to help “the new guy” (or girl). At my last school, in just my third year of teaching, I was the go-to resource for two new math teachers whose induction mentors couldn’t be bothered. They both mentioned often how much they appreciated my help. One of them is now a department head (See? Told you he was a rock star) and he makes a point to give new teachers the support I provided him.

Key information:

  1. Copier information
  2. Referral slips
  3. Tech guy contact
  4. Principal’s secretary
  5. First day activity
  6. What to do if you don’t have logins to attendance system, grading book, and email. (First rule: Don’t let anyone make this your problem.)

In parenting, Jean Illsley Clark has defined assertive, supportive and conditional care. This paradigm works well with any kind of mentoring relationship, too. I could tell that my inductee was worried I would be assertive or conditional—that is, tell her what to do or withdraw my support if she didn’t share my teaching values. My other newbie told me apologetically he didn’t feel ready to teach a geometry subject the way I suggested, that he was more comfortable “just explaining it”. I told him that was fine, that methods like mine need commitment and confidence, that he shouldn’t extend himself until he feels ready.

I work hard to be purely supportive. I’m there to help, not make a teacher into a mini-me. Short of seeing a teacher break the law or endanger student well-being, I would never offer “assertive care”. And if there’s one thing that long-term sub taught me, it’s that “assertive care” doesn’t work without authority to back it up.

The upshot of all this: I’m an experienced teacher. I mean, I knew that. But now it’s official. I don’t want to go into management, have no interest in being a department head, and I’m not into sports. So I guess mentoring new teachers is where I go next. Huh. Not what I would have expected. But it would be fun to do this in a methods or classroom management course.

Note: Yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve written, for a number of reasons. I’ve been doing all sorts of research but couldn’t settle on anything. I’m going to take on undemanding topics for a while to break the block.

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