Professional Reflections of a Mentor Teacher
Imagine you learn that a loved one is in dire need of an emergency, life-saving surgery. Think of the flood of emotions, anxiety, and concerns you would immediately feel. Now imagine discovering that the doctor slated to perform the operation was in her first year of practice.
Every day, parents throughout the state of Louisiana send their children to school entrusting the teachers to give them a great education and a fair shot at a good life. Often times, the parents of kids who are furthest behind, the ones most in need of truly exceptional teachers, are sending their kids into classrooms led by rookie educators. This massive social problem has a surprisingly simple fix: treat our rookie teachers' first years in the classroom like a medical residency. The state has been piloting this approach for years, and it works.
In my first year as a teacher in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, I taught a student affectionately nicknamed Lolly--a spicy, spirited, wonderful young woman who was several grades behind in her math skills but filled with a powerful desire to be successful. After a year of lunch and after-school tutoring, special help, behavioral plans, basketball games, and evening phone calls to talk through homework, Lolly eked out a score of Basic on her GEE, the state's test of core academic skills required for graduation. I remember ending the year feeling overwhelmed by the understanding that, despite both of us trying our absolute hardest, Lolly had made only modest gains in her math skills that year. I knew that a kid like Lolly would have grown so much more in the care of an exceptional teacher. But I also knew I wasn't yet that teacher for Lolly.
Many years later, I am now a coach for rookie teachers at Collegiate Academies, a network of high schools in New Orleans, Louisiana. Last year, I had the privilege of coaching Andy, a 22-year-old bright-eyed rookie teacher new to town and new to teaching. To say that he started his year struggling would be an understatement. His classroom was unstable and very little learning occurred on most days.
But fortunately for Andy and the kids he served, we participated in the state of Louisiana's Believe and Prepare pilot program in partnership with The New Teacher Project (TNTP). Through our partnership, Andy had a coach standing next to him and coaching him as he taught four days a week, meeting with him twice a week to set individual goals for Andy and his kids, and leading professional development twice a week in the evenings after school. We had a plan for his development but were also constantly shifting his coaching and professional development in response to what was happening in his class. It is impossible for me to imagine Andy or his students being successful without our constant coaching around assessment data, relationship building, lesson planning, and lesson delivery in the context of the actual students we were observing together every day.
Fast forward to the end of the year; Andy's scholars performed higher on their End of Course exams than students at any other school in the Recovery School District. When I got to watch Andy announce to his class how wildly successfully they were, the one thought cycling through my mind was the number of kids who had passed through my own first class who could have been so much better served if I would have had the kind of support that Andy had.
Simply put, our new teachers--whether they are coming from university-based or alternative certification programs--are not prepared to lead a full class on their own on their first day. But our kids deserve the very best teachers for every second of their year.
Just as medical residents depend on expert training and development from the attending physicians who lead them, our rookie teachers need veteran teachers to mentor and support them through their first years in the classroom. This is the most important way for veteran teachers to expand their impact and further their reasons for becoming a teacher, and it is the only way our rookie teachers will serve our kids at the levels they deserve.
Doctors spend four years in post-graduate school, several more years as interns and residents, and then often many more years after that in training for specialties. And still we would shudder at the idea of entrusting a new surgeon with our loved one. As a society we have agreed that a doctor's training should be as robust as possible since they are responsible for people's lives and well-being. So are teachers. It is time that their training and preparation catch up.
Collegiate Academies (New Orleans, Louisiana)