Where would we be without our mentors?

One of my great mentors is a colleague from my first school.  I was a new teacher, and she was my classroom assistant.  She had years of experience, and she seemed to know exactly what to do in a variety of situations.  As a green teacher, I had never experienced intense tantrums or difficult interactions with parents, for example, and she supported me through these and other tough moments. Thanks to her, my “teacher’s toolbox” grew tremendously as I filed away teaching ideas, possible responses to challenging situations, management strategies, etc.  Furthermore, I admired her gentle, supportive way of interacting with our young students, and I strove to adopt many of her mannerisms.

However, I never felt like it was a one-sided relationship.  Even though she taught me everything I didn’t learn in my teacher-prep program (which was a lot!), she made me feel like I brought a lot to the table, too.  I shared things I learned in school.  I noticed that she took on some of my routines and mannerisms. This wasn’t just an effort to be consistent; she was interested in learning and growing, too.  Looking back, this was critical to my confidence as a new teacher, and it made for an incredible working relationship.  I could ask for advice on anything, and she always made sure to remind me that I did not necessarily have to go with her opinion. If I become a mentor one day, I will model myself after her.    

The teacher I am today is a mashup of my own personality and ideas along with my favorite things about my mentors and colleagues.  It’s economical for teachers to learn from others and attempt to adopt strategies, mannerisms, and routines they admire.  As individuals, we will never have all of the answers (and we’d never have time to find them, anyway).  Perhaps most importantly, our students ultimately benefit from teachers freely sharing and implementing great ideas.

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Interview With One of My Mentors

What is your name?
Jill Saul

How long have you been teaching?
Sixteen years.

What do you teach?
I am a special education teacher. I am the department chairperson for my building which is a 9th grade building. I also teach two self contained learning support classes, one is English, the other social studies.

When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?
I think I was always a teacher. I just didn’t know it. Before I thought about being a teacher I had jobs in which I had to work with teens and young adults in both medical and mental health settings. I most enjoyed patient and client educational opportunities. I enjoyed that aspect of parenting as well. My life kept directing me toward my career until I finally got it.

Where did you go to school?
I attended Bucks County Community College for 13 years while working and tending to family. I FINALLY got a degree in Human Services. I then sought creative ways to complete my degree in as little time as possible. I entered Eastern University as a Business Major in their Accelerated program and worked on my certification courses at the same time. I graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Organizational Management. One semester later, I had my certification and a job!

What do you like most about teaching?
I love those AH-HA moments when someone gets a concept or information starts to make sense and they get it. It is so exciting to see the light come on. I love to help students see that the world around them is big and exciting and that you can go on learning forever. I love to teach students because the more knowledge they gain, the more excited they get.

What do you like least about teaching?
There are two things I like least about teaching. The first is a student who is very resistant to learning and disrupts the learning of others. That being said, I need to qualify it. Students come into the classroom with baggage that you can’t even imagine. Sometimes, inviting them to learn is almost ludicrous considering what they are dealing with at home. Resistance to learning happens for many reasons. My job is to create an environment where students can feel safe enough to temporarily step away from their personal problems and lose themselves in the excitement of learning.
Many students come into the classroom resistant to learning. I need to find out what the hook is that makes them open their minds to the knowledge that is available to them. It requires a great deal of patience and lots of love. If I don’t care about my students, they know it and I will never gain their trust. I sometimes have to consciously find those traits. I also have to give respect at all times. I expect it in return – and eventually get it – but I have to always and consistently put it out there.
The second thing that I like least about teaching is the current lack of respect and devaluing of teachers in our society. Our government is making a conscious effort to discredit teachers as overpaid, lazy, not very bright people who come into teaching for the money. I can assure you that, for those who don’t find it a labor of love, teaching is a terrible job. It requires many, many hours above and beyond what one is paid for and is something you never leave completely. The burn out rate is high. I have worked many jobs in my life, but I have never worked in such full immersion as I do as an educator.

How do you discipline and still keep your student’s trust?
Being respectful of someone does not mean that I have to lie down and get walked all over. In the beginning of the year I explain what my expectations are in the classroom. I give students opportunities to pull themselves together if they are being disrespectful or disruptive. It works very well. I am always honest and respectful. I don’t lose control of myself. I don’t power play. Most importantly, every day is a new day with a fresh start. I don’t ever carry grudges in the classroom. I expect the same of my students.

Do you think that teaching has gotten more difficult through the years?
No. I think that, as I get older, it sometimes feels harder, but I don’t see that as the students being worse. I think I am just more easily tired by the day to day difficulty of teaching. Few teachers teach until they are 65 or older. It is a very emotionally demanding job and I think you get less tolerant as time goes on.
Since the beginning of time, I think that adults have always thought the next generation was tougher than the previous one. Children are a reflection of what is going on in society. Right now, times are tough. Lives are tough. This is reflected in my students, as it is in the adults I work with. Kids are kids and some things that I hear teachers complain about are the same things they were complaining about when I was a teen.

What advice would you give someone who wants to teach?
Follow your dream. Good teachers are hard to find. I was discouraged from teaching because I could make more money in the private sector. I have never regretted my decision.

What are some of the Best Practices that you use in your classroom?
This is a very loaded question. True Best Practice is a school wide initiative to form learning communities in which student learning is given the highest priority. The school uses empirical evidence, combined with strong teacher skills, to help students achieve high levels of academic success. There are about nine sections attached to Best Practices. These include building a strong learning community where teachers are well trained to lead their classes to success. There is collaborative support among teachers. Basically, it would be the perfect school where everyone knew the students well, not only as learners, but as individuals. Principals would support teachers, teachers would support one another, there would be bridges of communication between parents and teachers, and children would be able to have their needs met. I want to work in this school!
Unfortunately, the reality is quite different in every school district that I am familiar with. In special education there is something called “A Free and Appropriate Education”. “Appropriate” does not come anywhere near “Best”. Appropriate often translates to the bare minimum that must be done to meet the child’s needs. It does not mean that one provides the best possible education for that child.
In my classroom, “Best Practices” translates into me getting to know my students as people. It means that I must care about them and their families. That I must build those bridges between my student’s families and myself so that parents feel comfortable consulting with me. It means that we, teachers, social workers, parents, and students must form a team to help that child reach his or her goals.

What goals do you have for your students?
To help them be the person they want to be when they are grown up even if they don’t yet know who that is. To teach a love for learning and discovery that will serve them well in a changing world. To give them the background knowledge they need to move forward with some knowledge of what came before them. To have the skills needed to achieve their dreams, whatever and whenever they decide they need them. To show them that the world is bigger than they imagine. To show them that they are here for a reason and that there is a place for them in the world.

What is your opinion on PSSA testing, especially the writing portion?
PSSA testing has changed the concept of teaching. We now teach to the test and teach to increase scores. This is not necessarily good teaching. As for the writing portion; I don’t have any particular objections to it, I just don’t think it is a good measure of what students can really accomplish. It is a small sample in a high pressure situation. I like the concept of developmental writing portfolios much better. It is a more comprehensive way of measuring growth over time.

What text book do you use for teaching writing?
We use a literature anthology by Holt. It is called Elements of Literature. In order to write well, there must be some identification, emotion, or passion. Interesting literary works make good jumping points for writing. I also have a small writing course booklet that I use for teaching the mechanics of writing. Writing is formulaic in nature so, just as in math, students must be taught the formulas (five paragraph essay as one example that every college student knows).

How do you grade writing assignments?
I generally use a rubric for each assignment. The rubrics vary with the assignment. Their use allows me to vary my grading to the expertise of the writer, and to the task at hand. Students are always clear about my expectations, but I can vary those with the assignment.
At the beginning of the school year I am most interested in having students express themselves. I often choose to overlook some mechanics such as spelling in the beginning in favor of expressiveness. If I can get the student to take chances and not be afraid of creativity in the beginning of the year, I can build better writers. By this time of year we are much more focused on mechanics, and the various formats for different types of writing.

How do you teach writing to different student levels?
See above.

How do you get students to do revisions?
Laptop computers have improved our ability to get students to do this. It is much easier to revise on a laptop than to re-write over and over. That said, I still have an old school way of having students revise their work.
When a student completes their rough draft I have them print it out. They then have to read it to themselves and make revisions.
When they have completed their revisions, they then must find a partner and read it aloud to the partner. They stop and fix errors as they pick it up.
I then have the partner read it to the writer. The writer then has an opportunity to “hear” how it is written. This generally results in the addition of commas and periods, and some sentence revision.
It is then read back to them again.
When they feel it is perfect, they make the revisions on the computer and print out the final copy.
One more personal proof read and it is handed in for credit.

If you could give one piece of advice on teaching writing, what would it be?
Use all five senses to help them “feel” what they are reading and writing about. Push for emotion in creative or expository writing.

What pet peeves do you have about teaching writing?
That I sometimes spend the whole weekend grading papers and when I return them, the student looks at it, grimaces, sighs, and throws it in the trash. It takes about 2 seconds to respond to my 20 minutes of grading!


What if we all shared the good stuff?

Hello to my new classmates! Welcome to my online space.  Just like several of you, I recently completed ED677 and decided to continue with my existing blog.  If you’re interested, feel free to browse my previous posts.  I grew quite fond of my blog because each post is a snapshot of my learning at different points in time.  It’s like a little photo album of growth.  I look forward to working with each of you, and I hope everybody finds blogging to be a great learning experience, too.

I almost forgot; I should introduce myself.  I’m Bonnie, and I’m a Pre-K teacher with a newfound interest in connected learning. The problem is I can’t seem to find examples of what CL looks like in EC.  So, I’m trying to wrap my head around how it might work.  My goal for this class is to bridge the gap between my current understanding of connected learning, which is shaped by exemplars of how it works in older grades (generally 2nd and up), and the skills and knowledge I need to apply to my EC classroom.  I’m especially looking forward to our work with mentors.  I think I might need help with this one!

I enjoyed our reading of Give and Take by Adam Grant.  The story about David Hornik, an un-apologetic “giver,” resonated with me because I often feel a disconnect within our profession. What would it be like if we truly acted with others in mind?  Grant discusses the ripple effect that occurs when givers succeed and others benefit from their success.  It reminds me of a blog post I previously wrote in which I lament the difficulty in finding quality, openly-networked curations of teacher resources.  Instead, we find an abundance of resources on sale in print (spend, spend, spend at Lakeshore or Becker’s).  Or, we find it on sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, where you can download mediocre content for free but fork over cash for anything worthwhile.  Simply put, nobody wants to share the good stuff!  But why not?  What if we all shared the good stuff?  

In that same post, I said the practice of teaching and learning would be so much stronger and feel more united if we approached it like a garden co-op: we all get our hands dirty in the garden, and then we all share a bountiful harvest.  I’ll put my best work out there, and I’d love to view and utilize your best work, too.  To tie this back to our Adam Grant reading, it’s giving with no expectation of taking but an openness to receiving.  Wouldn’t that result in a much better experience for teachers and consequently our students?

Welcome, ED676 Friends!

Hello ED676 Friends,

Welcome to my connected learning blog! My name is Kelly; and I’m currently working on my M.Ed. at Arcadia. I teach English grades 7-9 at a private school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. This is my third year in the classroom, but the first year I’ve had a permanent placement from the start of the year to the end. It’s been an exciting, fulfilling, and exhausting year all at the same time!

This is my second connected learning class. I’m also taking my Master’s Project course this summer, so I will graduate in August with a Master’s, as well as a cert in connected learning. This blog is actually an extension of the first class blog I made last semester in ED677- Seeking Equity in Connected Learning. Going into that class, I really had no inkling as to what connected learning was or what the course would consist of. It turns out it was one of the most meaningful classes I’ve had so far at Arcadia, which prompted me to take ED676. Please feel free to dig back into my posts from last semester—we did a lot a great work, and connected learning is all about collaborating with ideas and resources!

Please find me on Arcadia’s connected learning community on Google+. I look forward to connecting with all of you throughout the next month :)

-Kelly


New Class, New Subject but still Connected Learning

Hi Everyone, I am back and feeling so much better about school. I am currently in Ed. 676. and I truly feel that this class, has been a huge assett to me. In the first chapter of this book, I learned that I can have more than one mentor, and that each mentor can be for something else. I hope that in this class, I learn how to be an amazing assets to my students as well as be able to help them create a space just for them.

Amy


How do we as Teachers Galvanize our Practices?

I swear she really does exist…

Have you heard the expression, “Her name rings bells?” When it comes to my mentor, Joanne Chiachetti, her name not only rang bells years ago when I began my teaching career, but it still rings bells…and she’s been retired for years now! She was the quintessential educator…strong content knowledge, flawless pedagogy, a solid grasp of child psychology, the diplomatic prowess of a government negotiator, tireless commitment, and above all, just an unwavering passion to helping students be the best they can be. “Do what’s best for kids,” she would say to me when I’d approach her with a dilemma. Yes, I have to say that I was one of the few fortunate blessed ones to have been honored to have her as a mentor, and this week’s readings have ushered in wonderful memories.

Weekly readings…

One of the required texts for ED 676 (Teacher Practice in a Connected World) is Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching by Meenoo Rami and chapter one is dedicated to using the expertise of mentors. In it, I was reminded of the fact that we teachers are expected to wear many hats during various times of the day; it is indeed a pressure-filled job. We all need a safe haven to head towards from time-to-time and connecting with mentors can be that safe haven. The chapter offered a few tips however, before entering into a situation that has the potential of adding stress. Most helpful for me was having one understand why they felt the need to have a mentor. This is key in grounding the expectations in reality…for both the mentor and mentee. When you know what your needs are, chances are you’ll be able to help your mentor focus in on the things that matter. You can also hash out details that seem minor but are anything but. In what manner will you communicate, how frequently, and even the time duration are all crucial when it comes effective mentoring!

With Great Power Comes…

…you know the rest. But it’s very true here. The mentor/mentee relationship is a sacred one that should be respected and certainly not taken for granted. Both parties involved can find mutual benefits if there is a decent fit. In fact, I believe I learned just as much from the teacher I mentored as she learned from me. We problem solved together on many occasions and I even found myself going to her for her thoughts on situations (and I still do)! I became more organized as we met regularly and had a set agenda to honor each other’s time. Another unintended benefit was the fact that I became very well versed with district policies and procedures. At the end of the school year, I can honestly say that we met our goal to become more reflective educators…but we also became great friends.

I’ve had great experiences as a mentee and as mentor…share your experiences here!


How do we as Teachers Galvanize our Practices?

I swear she really does exist…

Have you heard the expression, “Her name rings bells?” When it comes to my mentor, Joanne Chiachetti, her name not only rang bells years ago when I began my teaching career, but it still rings bells…and she’s been retired for years now! She was the quintessential educator…strong content knowledge, flawless pedagogy, a solid grasp of child psychology, the diplomatic prowess of a government negotiator, tireless commitment, and above all, just an unwavering passion to helping students be the best they can be. “Do what’s best for kids,” she would say to me when I’d approach her with a dilemma. Yes, I have to say that I was one of the few fortunate blessed ones to have been honored to have her as a mentor, and this week’s readings have ushered in wonderful memories.

Weekly readings…

One of the required texts for ED 676 (Teacher Practice in a Connected World) is Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching by Meenoo Rami and chapter one is dedicated to using the expertise of mentors. In it, I was reminded of the fact that we teachers are expected to wear many hats during various times of the day; it is indeed a pressure-filled job. We all need a safe haven to head towards from time-to-time and connecting with mentors can be that safe haven. The chapter offered a few tips however, before entering into a situation that has the potential of adding stress. Most helpful for me was having one understand why they felt the need to have a mentor. This is key in grounding the expectations in reality…for both the mentor and mentee. When you know what your needs are, chances are you’ll be able to help your mentor focus in on the things that matter. You can also hash out details that seem minor but are anything but. In what manner will you communicate, how frequently, and even the time duration are all crucial when it comes effective mentoring!

With Great Power Comes…

…you know the rest. But it’s very true here. The mentor/mentee relationship is a sacred one that should be respected and certainly not taken for granted. Both parties involved can find mutual benefits if there is a decent fit. In fact, I believe I learned just as much from the teacher I mentored as she learned from me. We problem solved together on many occasions and I even found myself going to her for her thoughts on situations (and I still do)! I became more organized as we met regularly and had a set agenda to honor each other’s time. Another unintended benefit was the fact that I became very well versed with district policies and procedures. At the end of the school year, I can honestly say that we met our goal to become more reflective educators…but we also became great friends.

I’ve had great experiences as a mentee and as mentor…share your experiences here!


The greatest resource in the fight for equity in American classrooms: teachers

The greatest resource in the fight for equity in American classrooms: teachers. My own anecdote.

There is plenty of research that shows the immense impact a teacher can have on students. That research is really in a way a supplement to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. Of course the answer is both to some extent, but I think a teacher is naturally inclined to believe more in nurture (if not why would we choose to teach at all?). 

“Teaching is a great act of optimism”-Colleen Wilcox 

I write this with a clouded and tired mind. I’m frustrated and hopeful all at once. These are not new concepts to bear at once, nor are they even new in my short time of blogging to try and articulate things I find important or worth sharing.

My supervisor for student teaching mentioned once that the most important thing you could do for students was to simply be there - everyday - “keep showing up”; be a constant presence (something some students unfortunately lack anywhere else in their young lives).

I’ve alluded in previous posts to a fear that I’m worried will become a reality. I can feel, deep down, that my journey is reaching a precipice where many changes are convening all at once to forge what comes next. Critical mass. Balance has felt hard lately. I’m excited for my wedding in just a few months. We’ve started to house hunt. I’m slogging along with the end of graduate school in sight. And I’m still toiling in the trenches as my fifth year in the classroom winds down during “testing season”.

A strength and flaw I have is that when I invest in something, I’m all in. I put everything into it. This has been the case for the last 5 years of teaching and sometimes that has come at a cost. This internal conflict has been embroiled and magnified in the last year as I’ve tried to reconcile my desire to teach where I am with the financial risk that brings (I’m alluding to the trend of charter schools struggling to offer competitive salaries). 

Teaching is hard. It takes a special person to do it right. Teaching in Philadelphia is harder. It takes a special person to do it right. Even then the right person might not always be right (there can come a point where you’ve simply maxed out). 

Since I learned about “urban education” in my final year at Arcadia I’ve felt a calling to it. The plan has always been simple. Find a niche in the city where there is enough structure and let me do the rest. Let me do that for as long as I feel I can do it and for as long as I feel I can do it effectively. And you know what… I still love it, I can still do it, I still want to do it.

A friend of mine was working through the education program at Arcadia the same time as me and was a semester behind in student teaching. Her passion was also in urban education. She made a comment once that was innocuous enough at face value. She had requested a placement in Cheltenham High School. She explained to me that her reasoning was that she wanted to learn how “it was done right” in a suburban school for student teaching and then apply that when she got a job in the city.

I was surprised (and truthfully a bit insulted). I had taken the opposite approach. Put me in thick of it from the get-go so I know how best to accommodate and deal. I feel I’ve worked with some really great teachers at King and Cap. I feel like they would thrive just as much, if not more than, any teacher placed in an affluent suburban school, but this was not the path those teachers had chosen (or for some at least the one they could choose). They had different battles to fight and were all too often less supported, less respected, less rewarded, and less trusted. To be clear, I am certainly generalizing for the sake of brevity here, it’s not fair to label this simply as city and suburban to denote quality but I’m really envisioning socioeconomic status in a simplified way for this post.

In my mind this friend had the best of intentions, albeit misguided ones. I know the stats, there are bad teachers and when you start to examine the circumstances a lot of those teachers find themselves in urban schools (the only place emergency certification is usually needed and turnover rates are at their highest). Nevertheless, couldn’t she see that if she wanted to learn how “it was done right” she was going to be let down and unprepared when she entered the field in Philadelphia? The support systems she had learned would dissipate. New policies/edicts would be issued, before an about face and another ‘silver bullet’ was peddled introduced. This is a reality of many teachers in Philly. Do more with less. Be blamed for policy failures. My friend was not going to learn of this in the suburbs.

I’m obviously biased but I felt I had taken the right approach. King felt right for my induction. Trial by fire the best way. Sink or swim and damn if I wasn’t determined to at least float while I learned to swim.

The year after my time at King they were converted to the final step for underperforming schools. The school district has a lovely euphemism for what happens next. Renaissance. If it’s a renaissance it’s born from a conflagration first. I get it. Situations can be toxic. You clean house and start again. All administration is let go; no more than 50% of teachers can be hired back (I was told that King only hired back 6). But I don’t want to get it. King was making strides while I was there but the school district was setting them up to fail and then betting they would. We had to have the entire week written in lesson plans, that had to be in a black binder on your desk at all times, and random people could pop in at anytime and check that binder and expect you to be at that exact spot. I wrote previously of the loss of motivation and incentive. This was that at its worst.

King didn’t have an opening when I completed student teaching so I looked elsewhere. I only had to interview for one school before I was offered a job. A quick Google search would reveal the turmoil CAP has been battling just to stay open. SRC battles over votes to shut down the school. The cloud had been overhead and brewing for years now. Failed charter vote. The higher ups insisting we’re in the right and can fight. At what point do I bail? When is it okay to be selfish? And if I’m being selfish, where do I go? But I never left. I never even looked for other options (until this year). The pay freezes have finally started to catch up.

I realize this entire post is very “me” centered but my real frustration is that I have to worry about these things instead of just focusing on teaching in the city. This is where my heart wants to be. But my mind has been whispering impatiently… My anecdote is also just playing out a reality many teachers must confront.

It breaks a part of you, slowly. But what course can be taken? You hang in and do your best until… you don’t. And then you move on. You set aside your devotion to the kids because at times you have to do what’s best for you and there will always be more kids no matter where you go and there will never be a “perfect” time to leave the ones you know now… even the way I write that indicates how I’m grappling with convincing myself of it (and I don’t believe it now). The kids are why I’m here. It’s why all good teachers are here. It’s why those in bad teaching environments tolerate those circumstances and keep pushing.

This approaching crossroad was predictable 6 years ago when I was still an undergraduate. I wouldn’t change anything (does that make my idealism more naive than anything?) This was the plan. It was a simple plan. It’s still ongoing. I’m still fighting. I still love this. But this year I’ve felt like two forces have been pulling and tearing in opposite directions from within. When does the scale tip? I believe I’m a good teacher. I feel I would help no matter where I go. But I want to teach here, I want to help the students I already have.

I’ve always loved mythology. I’m still surprised by a core tenet of Norse mythology. Ragnarok. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell: Ragnarok is the Norse version of the end of the world (though it is restarted after). What’s interesting is that the Norse gods and heroes all know they will lose before they even begin. And yet they fight. The only noble choice is to fight knowing defeat is assured, so they make it without hesitation or regret. I realize my situation compared to this is downright silly but it’s resonating with me right now. 

Something that is predictable and unfolds slowly is no less heartbreaking, if anything that makes it worse. No decision is imminent but somewhere unseen there is a clock ticking, grains of sand are falling. There is a fixed proposition to two opposing forces confined and anyone betting knows what side eventually wins…

When I mentioned to certain teachers at King that I wanted to teach in the city they quickly corrected me. I’m sure they meant well, but it was frustrating. “No, no, get to the suburbs” they would say, “you don’t want to be in the city”. If you don’t want to be here how do you expect the kids to want to be? I wrote previously that I’m not naive enough to think that teachers alone solve everything, but anyone else is naïve if they think one necessary part of the equation isn’t teachers who want to be a part of the solution. 

What happens when a fractured system continues to push them away and push them out?