Mentors for the Newest Teachers
by Casey Murrow
Many people who have studied mentoring in education feel that student teachers and beginning teachers would benefit immensely from a strong relationship with a mentor. Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has institutionalized this idea in its state approved teacher certification program, the "Teacher Training Course." The one year program is designed for individuals who already hold a Bachelor's degree.
Founded as an independent school in 1915, Shady Hill offers a pre-school to 9th grade education for nearly five hundred students. It caters to a diverse student body and is known for high standards and innovative practices. To find out how mentoring works in the Teacher Training Course, Connect interviewed Anne Snyder, Shady Hill's Director of Teacher Training. She described for us the roles of mentors, both in the history of the project and in the current program. EDITOR-Casey Murrow
Anne Snyder: I think the genesis of the program is one of the inspiring parts of it. It was started by the first head of the school, Katharine Taylor, in 1928. The school then was radically different from most schools. They believed in teaching through immersion with a central subject approach in which they were integrating curriculum all year long. They were devotees of Dewey, engaged in real experiential learning where they dug in up to their elbows in project work. Katharine Taylor couldnt find prospective teachers who could teach this way, so she decided she ought to train her own teachers. She chose two college graduates interested in teaching and placed them as apprentices for the entire year with two of her teachers. Then they did graduate level seminars with her, meeting each week. So she was their teacher of educational theory and they had hands-on experience in the classrooms. She and the rest of the faculty got inspired by the idea of training for a larger purpose, not just training for Shady Hill.
They expanded the size of the class and began having classroom apprentices every year. Teachers would come in to give seminars, as well. We used our own resources and let teachers come talk about their areas of passion. We quickly found out that it also was an injection in the arm of the school because the teachers got excited about pulling together their thoughts for a seminar. It was in 1970 that we began our joint Masters program with Lesley College. Shortly after that we also forged a relationship with Tufts University, designed for middle-school subject specialists.
Innovation in teacher certification
By the mid 1980s, a new wave of educational reform was happening in Massachusetts. The state has to review its approved programs, so on one of their visits to the Tufts-Shady Hill joint Masters program, they came to this campus. One of the visiting team pulled my predecessor aside at the end of the visit and said, "You know what you do on this campus is so complete, you should be training teachers independently."
The state intended to create new certification programs encouraging innovation and experimentation and they asked us to apply. We had two or three years of back and forth with the state as we each learned and adapted to how the other worked. There were moments when we were ready to walk away from it, but finally, both sides realized we needed to bend a bit. Now that weve been approved, I think its added a different kind of sophistication to our program. Weve had to use the lens of public education and the work that public educators have done about what the standards are. Its really helped in the way we train for public education. And its helped us not feel so isolated in our own language and belief system. Thats been the great benefit to us. I think the benefit to the state is that they wanted to think outside of the university model and really needed to have questions posed by a program like ours about some of those assumptions. Thats helped us both.
Casey Murrow: So the certification program has been in place for 3 years?
A.S.: It was approved in 1993.
The central learning experience
C.M.: Anne, from the very beginning it seems as though this program has focused on mentoring through the relationship with the master-teacher, the Directing Teacher. But do apprentices work with just one teacher for the whole year of the program?
A.S.: No. They have two different placements during the year. I think those are the central learning experiences for apprentices. The learning happens in the context of that relationship and it has to do with all the nuances of living day to day with somebody in a classroom. Weve spent a lot of time, especially in this work with the state, trying to figure out how to formalize what our guidelines are for Directing Teachers, so that they know what is expected of them. We also want to assure some kind of consistency in experience for apprentices, so weve developed a Directing Teachers manual that has in it a description of the role and such things as a progression of responsibilities for the apprentice and a list of expectations about what an apprentice can expect from them in terms of guidance and kinds of experiences. Yet, I still think the magic of it is what happens that cannot be put on paper, that cant be prescribed.
Theres another component, too. As long as Ive known the program, weve had a second adult, an educator whos part of the school community, serving in the role of advisor. We articulate that role as being another professional, to help guide an apprentice through the year. Its intentionally a loose definition. This person meets with the apprentice once a week and observes her or him teach three times a semester, but other than that its a non-evaluative role. The relationship can take its own course. Some get to be friendships, others focus on thinking about curriculum or kids together.
When you get into looking and thinking about what is elemental in the mentoring experience, respect is a really deep part of it. Were dealing with personality and teaching style in this experience with young adults. When an experience goes bad, its usually an apprentice who is stuck in their own growing up and cant respect a style thats different than theirs. That has to do with maturity, though, or emotional health, it seems to me. At heart there has to be mutual respect for it to feel like a true mentoring experience.
Benefits for mentors
C.M.: I wonder how the mentors, the Directing Teachers, feel they benefit from this experience? Is it always a plus for them?
A.S. What the most experienced Directing Teachers say with some perspective, is that its the lifeblood of their own professional development because it keeps them in a constant state of examining their practice, articulating it and seeing a new interpretation, a new idea or a new approach.
This is my fourth year as Director and part of what Im loving is beginning to understand how to help a brand new Directing Teacher over the course of two, three or four years to become better and better at mentoring. They have to realize that this other adult in the room is a learner. Once they make that leap and then get committed to being analytical about somebody elses learning, then theyre hooked as mentor teachers. Problems can arise if a Directing Teacher gets upset that this other adult in the room isnt doing what youd expect an adult to do. Its that business of looking at a grown-up body and thinking, "Well, you should know how to do this." I think once people roll up their sleeves and realize that this is an adult whos learning how to be a professional, they will usually think, "How can I help them learn to do that?"
Once that leap is made, theres a kind of pride in bringing somebody along and patience about some of those early lessons of professional blind spots. Then the rewards are all the sweeter if you know this is part of the mentoring role. The mentor helps usher someone into the profession, with all that that means in relation to how they are with children, how they conduct themselves with colleagues, and to how to be with parents. Once they see that as part of the whole package, then theyre so much better as Directing Teachers, as mentors.
C.M.: How common is this mentoring experience for your teachers? Do they have an apprentice every year or is there some form of rotation?
A.S.: Shady Hill has a deep institutional commitment to the apprentice program. Its in the history of the school and the really concrete way it plays out is that every new teacher coming to this school signs a contract and part of their contract is that theyll work with the teacher training program. Its also part of why some people say that they come to the school. It doesnt make sense to have a new teacher at the school have an apprentice, so we usually give people at least the first semester, sometimes the whole first year, off. Within that I also think its important not to use the same people for a complex series of reasons. Both to help fulfill the sense that were institutionally committed to it and its part of what everybody does, but also because I remember in my own history in the school as a teacher, the feeling that sometimes there were favored Directing Teachers, or people who were really good at it so they got all the apprentices. I think its a worthy goal to work towards having everyone feel that theyre good at it. For the second placement, apprentices have some say. They give us five or six choices and then we put people together.
Reflecting on past apprentices
C.M.: When these new teachers have gone through your program do they approach classroom teaching a particular way or seek out a mentoring role for themselves in the future?
A.S.: People leave here with a model in place about the strength that is found in collaborating with people. Theyve not only had this mentoring relationship with a directing teacher and an advisor, but theyve often taken part in team meetings. If theyre a fourth grade apprentice, they meet once a week with the fourth grade teaching team and other apprentices where they deal with whatever issues arise. Theyre usually about curriculum, but sometimes theyre about recess rules. Theyve also been part of a peer group of 16 to18 apprentices thats been incredibly supportive, so they leave here really hungry to make a connection of one sort or another within their new school. Even as brand new teachers theyre looking for a buddy. Sometimes theyre quite pointed in looking for a mentor and some of them are pretty good at asking for that. I think schools are getting better about putting a mentor in place to support brand new teachers.
C.M.: Later on it seems they could be very able mentors themselves if they happen to be somewhere where they could work with student teachers.
A.S.: After a few years out what does come back to us is that people do get involved and are not scared off by the idea of mentoring, but in fact are eager for it. Many like the idea of working with student teachers in whatever way they can. Also, there are more and more programs like this springing up. There are now five local programs that are collaborative programs with Lesley College. Whats happened is that a lot of our apprentices have gone to schools that are already running programs like this, or that want to. I think thats wonderfully strategic. Those educators know how to be directing teachers because theyve experienced it.
Finding a job
C.M.: When you are placing apprentices, what is the breakdown between independent and public schools? Since you offer state certification there must be increasing opportunities in public schools.
A.S.: People have gone on to both public and independent schools in the 20 years that Ive had experience with the program, but it used to be that the larger percentage went into independent schools. Our network is strong with independent schools and knowledge of this program is greater with them than it is in public schools. Also, the hiring schedule varies. Independent school jobs usually get set in the spring but public school decisions may delay until the summer. So it requires nerves of steel for apprentices to decide they want to be in a public school and watch these other jobs float by. Thats been tough. But in the past two years, a third to a half of the apprentices have gone into the public schools which Im thrilled about. We also now have greater visibility among local public schools than we used to. I think apprentices are feeling more and more confident that theyll be able to get those jobs. It helps to say that we are a state certified program. Therere still some of the standard suspicions the public schools have about whether apprentices whove come from an independent school are going to have any sense of the range of issues, learning issues, developmental issues, special needs and behavioral issues. The experience that our apprentices lack is with mainstreamed special needs kids. Weve got a range of learning styles, but not special needs kids.
C.M.: So what has happened to some of the graduates over time?
A.S.: A large number of influential educators have developed out of this program, from heads of schools to curriculum coordinators and teacher educators. There are at least ten new schools that have been spawned from the program. Education for Parenting, which is now a thriving organization, was started by one of our graduates at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. The Algebra Project has two grads of the program working in it. Another graduate started an educational software company. I think people here are excited by ideas and filled with the possibility that they can make them happen.
C.M.: Anne, is there more to tell us about your role in all of this about making the whole program come together?
A.S.: Well, Im the supervisor of the program and the individual apprentices. I find myself doing a lot of mentoring too. I visit the apprentices, watch them teach and talk about their class with them afterwards. I usually take extensive notes. Three times in the placement at least, we sit down as a threesome, the Directing Teacher, the apprentice and me. This is state mandated too, in order to provide documentation for the state. Its an interesting role in that I feel a great responsibility to both the Directing Teacher and the apprentice. Generally, I do a whole lot of checking in around the edges to see if theres any troubleshooting to be done. The fact that Im available to do this is an important part of the program, and it is in contrast to conventional student teaching where the supervisor comes to the site only occasionally for observations. I have the overview of the whole year with an apprentice. Thats of great value in my overall responsibility to help usher somebody along. .
- Casey Murrow is Co-Director of Synergy Learning and editor of CONNECT.