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?