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The Luckiest First Year of Teaching!

I was very lucky as a new teacher in September of 1988 at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, NY (a suburb of Albany). NYSUT had recently negotiated money from the New York State Education Department for each school district to develop mentoring programs. East Greenbush, under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent Arnold Kaye (if memory serves) led the development of a robust, innovative, and supportive mentoring program that I have no doubt is a huge factor in the success and happiness I’ve enjoyed as an educator.

I describe the program here, because I think it’s a great model for other programs, and as a show of support for the value that can come from substantial investment in teacher development.

The Elements of the Mentoring Program

For my entire first year as a teacher, I was allowed to hire a substitute teacher who would essentially work for me every Tuesday, all day. The man I hired was Bob S. A newly-minted teacher, Bob spent each Tuesday either teaching my classes, so I could observe other teachers and spend time with my mentor; or, he taught other teacher’s classes, so they could observe me.

My mentor, a great guy named Bernie McCauley, was a reading teacher. Bernie was not in the English Department, and I did not report to him in any official capacity. Bernie was assigned to me, but if he and I didn’t get along well, I was free to ask for a new mentor. Honestly, I don’t know how well asking for another mentor would have gone, but it was never an issue. Bernie’s first instructions to me were that his mentoring was to be totally driven by my questions and that anything he and I spoke of was completely confidential. A devout Catholic, Bernie referenced the sanctity of the confessional, for which a priest is quickly defrocked for violating. He would never reveal any insecurity or concerns I expressed, nor would he report any stupid or troubling questions I asked.

The Effects of the Program

Thanks to this mentoring program, in one year I was observed at least once by 14 senior English teachers, each of whom could spend at least one period later that day talking to me about what they observed. I was also able to observe all 14 of those teachers and to take at least a period later that day to talk with them about what I observed. This was a tremendous education in many ways, including:

  • I learned about many, many different teaching techniques, classroom atmospheres, and perspectives on scenarios in education.
  • I saw teachers teaching some of the same texts I was teaching at the same time.
  • I quickly became very comfortable being observed in my classroom.
  • I developed a sophisticated sense of the range of possibilities teaching and learning could take, because I witnessed so many of them while I was developing my own style.

At the same time, having a confidential mentor allowed me to express reservation, fear, and ignorance without worrying about sabotaging myself professionally.

I have no doubt that I grew tremendously thanks to the support of Bob (the substitute I was able to hire), my 14 colleagues in the English Department, and Bernie McCauley, my mentor.  That one year was a supercharged professional development program!

So good was my mentoring experience, at the end of the year I wrote and published my first article about it in The English Record, the publication of the New York State English Council. 

Problems with the Program

I don’t mean the mentoring program to sound like it was perfect. There were some hiccups. Having a mentor assigned to me was not only initially off-putting to me, but my colleagues in the English Department expressed concern that my mentor wasn’t in English, like me.

There was also a highly-regarded substitute, Sue, who regularly taught for the English Department, and many thought I should have hired her, rather than Bob, whom I selected from a pool of external applicants. It was important that I be allowed to choose my sub, so I would trust him and not fear he was reporting my progress to my chair or principal. In my insecurity, I chose someone who had the same amount of experience I did: none. But, as luck would have it, again, he was excellent. And, after he got his own full-time position later that year (when I was feeling more secure), I was happy to hire Sue.

There were also differences in tone and expectations among my 14 colleagues, and it took a while before I realized I didn’t have to try to mirror or please them all. Some of them may have felt slighted, but again, I was lucky in that none of them ever held any of their feelings against me.

Mentoring Teachers Today

The experience I had was so rich, so thorough, and so costly, I can scarcely imagine such a program being approved today. In fact, the mentoring program I experienced was quickly phased out when funding was eliminated for it. A real shame.

I have been a teacher educator now for over a dozen years, and I’ve seen fewer and fewer state-supported efforts to truly mentor new teachers with depth. Many excellent veteran teachers volunteer their time to help their newest colleagues, but that’s not enough. We should seek out sustainable, well-funded mentoring programs, such as the one I was lucky enough to get.

What positive and negative experiences did you have as a new teacher? And what ideas do you have for advocating for strong support of new teachers today?

7 thoughts on “The Luckiest First Year of Teaching!”

  1. Pingback: Who Helped Me for No Reason | edukention

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  3. Ken, you and I were going through teacher education at the same time. My experience was practically the opposite of yours. As I was doing my student teaching, I worked with someone who should not have been teaching. I won’t go into details, identify the city, or name names here, but he was racist, sexist, made inappropriate comments about young women students, was rude, crude, and harassed me. Let me note here that he was not the only one he did these things. Three others at that school said/did similar things.

    I kept very detailed notes and documented everything. I asked to work with someone else, and when I was told that was impossible, I continued to complain. I was not listened to by the head of the teacher prep program, and I was told, in fact, that “Mr. X has supervised and mentored student teachers previously, and he is very good at it.” No. He was not good at it at all. He scared and scarred some young folks that semester, and I tried to counter it as best I could, which was not very well. I remember he gave me an “A-” for my student teaching grade, and he labeled me “an abrasive young woman.”

    The only full-time job I was offered in that district was at one of the alternative schools (behavior disorder, etc.) I started my seven or eight years in alternative ed there, but moved to the home/hospital program, and eventually ran the program for pregnant/parenting female students. I also finished my M.A. and then, some years later, had the good fortune to met you as I was starting the Ph.D. As you know, I found my teaching niche at the community college, and I still look forward to going to work, even after 16 years full-time!

    I’d love to think that the experiences I initially had as a public school educator were rare and would never happen now. One of the things my “mentor” did for support (I’m sure he thought I’d think it was great) was actually quite the reverse. He greeted me with a photo album of all the children I would have in the class (upper level primary). At first, I thought that was a good idea, to help me put names with faces, until he pointed out what he’d written on the back in addition to their names:”Trouble-maker,” and “Never pays attention,” etc. Each child had a couple sentences with the mostly negative categorical labels he’d given them. And as we know from Mike Rose, students will “float to the mark [we] set.”

    I think in order for new teachers to feel supported, they need many things: opportunities for observation, continuing education, autonomy for creative approaches to lessons, etc.– But perhaps most importantly, they need to be listened to by a school authority who will take them seriously if they have serious complaints.

    Thanks for the opportunity to respond, and I’m so happy you have started your blog!

    1. Deborah, Thank you so much for your comment! I’m sorry you had such a bad experience in student teaching. Outrageous that that was allowed to go on. I’ve heard similar stories, unfortunately, and perhaps there needs to be a larger discussion about this.

      I am so glad you’re still enjoying your teaching at community college. I can’t imagine the size of the album of students you’ve helped by now–with very few, if any, negative comments on them.

      BTW, I also find you abrasive–when necessary. It’s one of your best qualities! 😉

  4. michelleszetela

    I started my tenure at Stony Brook the same year you did – I started as a freshman in 2003. In fact, I remember considering applying to the English Teacher Education Program but being advised to wait to apply because some new guy was coming in and making waves. I was generally quite happy with our Teacher Education Program, but my student teaching experiences seemed to be bumpier than many of my classmates’ experiences. Had that been my first experience in education as a non-student, I’m not sure I would have stuck around. Fortunately, I had excellent experiences and guidance in both the PEP and at our Writing Center, and my parents and grandmother were veteran career teachers, so I felt comfortable sticking it out; I felt I could in time become a good teacher and that my experiences at these particular schools were not a reflection of every school.

    For the first time since I’ve graduated from Stony Brook Univ. in 2007, I’m at a school now in which I feel supported; things have calmed down a bit since August, but the first month or two, my assistant principal regularly stopped by for a few minutes to see how things were going, as did several of my colleagues. On occasion, they’d even sit down for 5-10 minutes; even the principal came by once, and my mentor has been very friendly and has consistently taken the time to answer questions as well. I was repeatedly asked how things were going, how I was doing, how the students were treating me, etc. My assistant principal noted that he came by so that when I was officially observed, I wouldn’t feel unnerved. (I was only slightly unnerved, but less so than I might have been otherwise.) I’ve never felt more welcome. It felt like a group effort in making new teachers welcome, everyone taking a small part now and again. It’s not my first year of teaching but I’m finally feeling more secure in my ability to keep students alive.

    1. Glad you finally have an excellent experience, Michelle. Student teaching is a whole other matter from the first year’s of employment as a teacher.

      Keep riding those waves! 🙂 Thanks for writing.

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