Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Tuesday SOL What do you learn from a beginner?

Yesterday, I noted how I'm beginning the summer lost in thought about teaching, schools, education. In particular -

How do you sustain a motivated staff?
What makes teaching doable and enjoyable?

I've been thinking about the power of the Teaching Residents...how refreshing and invigorating it is to have this bonded group of beginning teachers on our staff.

I realize, these beginning teachers are a huge part of what sustains me.

Like curious and engaged students, the Teaching Residents instigate us - the Master Teachers.

The term "Master Teacher" embarrasses me most of the time - I don't feel perfect at what I do, I am not always ready to be observed, and yet, I signed up for a teaching position where being continually observed is one of the expectations.  The beginning teacher - Teaching Resident - watches my every move, sees both successes and mistakes.

We spend our days together, from August through June, like a couple in an arranged marriage. (A couple who, inexplicably, have many, many new children the same age.)

Our program is built upon the concept of graduated release where, throughout the course of the year, the Teaching Resident takes on more and more responsibility. There is a somewhat abstract calendar of the month to month release - and each of us Master Teachers wrestled with just how to do this.

This year, I began - and continually - asked my Teaching Resident, Laura McCarthy, "What do you want to learn? What do you want to get out of this? What do you want to try?"

I had such a great year, teaching alongside Laura. She came into the classroom cautious, wide-eyed, and uncertain.  I had the thrill of watching her transform into a confident, reflective teacher, one who truly loves working with children. Of course, she came with so many gifts - organized, motivated, delighted by children, great sense of humor, easy-going personality. All I did was give her the space and opportunity to share those gifts with the students.

I think this idea of "giving space and opportunity to share those gifts" is perhaps my biggest challenge professionally - and one that, like all good challenges, sustains me as a teacher.

I had to let Laura lead the classroom even when I wasn't sure she could.

Mentoring a new teacher is no different than working with students - you have to let them be in charge of their own learning, you have to let them take risks, you have to let them see things fall apart and figure out how to persevere.

I had to learn to not be in control. I had to learn how to close my mouth, back away, to sit on my hands. I trusted myself that I could 'regain equilibrium' in the room if things fell apart. I reminded myself that, chances were, tomorrow would come and there would be  a chance to "do over" - to repeat, review, reflect.

I learned so much from Laura. She helped me be more explicit in my teaching, more intentional with my goals. She helped me practice the art of failing in front of others, with grace! (This remains hard - admitting, wow, that didn't work!) Together, we took risks in curriculum (for example, our hero exploration), that I had never done before and I have no doubt I will repeat in the future. And, I have a whole new repertoire of songs to sing to children!

Yes, there's no end to what you learn from a beginner.

Working alongside beginning teachers, I am again reminded that what we do is called "teaching' which, right there, shows the process involved.  It is not called "Taught" or "Teach" or "I know everything, do exactly as I do." It is process. It is constant. You are in the midst, in the thick, teaching is a moving thing. It's also called practice. Over and over, you practice.

All of our Teaching Residents are in the same alternative certification program, with The Center for Inspired Teaching. They begin working together as cohort the summer before being assigned to a classroom; they are in classes together in the evenings and weekends throughout the school year. This creates a tight-knit relationship amongst them, perhaps like living in the same college dorm. Their mutual respect and collaboration is a genuine gift to our school.

An anecdote from last fall -

We were at a staff meeting, and our task was to create a plan for the upcoming "Learning Showcase" family night. It's an exciting event in the fall of the year, an opportunity to "show off" the school to families, making that all important first impression of the child's school year. I remember being at the staff meeting preoccupied with my own 'to do' list and thinking - "oh my, let's stop the chatter and get back to our rooms so that I can get some real work done,' when this ground-swell began amongst the Residents, who were wrestling with a way to make this Learning Showcase unique. The Residents were full of questions and ideas, playing off one another's thoughts, considering all aspects of the event with an energy level I was currently lacking.

Our school had moved to a brand new location in downtown Washington, D.C., and they seized upon this move as a theme - introducing the idea of creating "metro lines" with colored tape on the floor, throughout the school. We would pair classrooms as "ends of lines," so that families might understand the partnership work between these two classrooms [my preschoolers were paired with a kindergarten class all year - reading, doing art projects, and other endeavors together]. These metro lines became a fun opportunity for families to find their way in the new building. The evening was a great success, one that energized students, teachers, and families and strengthened our school community.

All year long, these Residents help us plan, dream, imagine - asking questions. There is something genuinely 'youthful,' or 'unbridled' in the way in which they respond to challenges. It is so good to be reminded how to 'build' on things rather than settling into an almost reflexive 'well, I've always done it this way.'

It is good to be questioned, to have to think about why you do what you do.

For me, this is invigorating as a teacher - to be surrounded by inquiring minds. With the premise of our school being based on the "Master Teacher - Teaching Resident" model, each year will feel very new, as we welcome a new cohort of beginning teachers.

Of course, there are enormous challenges with being a school that teaches beginning teachers:

  • How do you ensure that they are getting similar experiences?
  • How can each of us share what we are doing in our classrooms?
  • What do you do if your "arranged marriage" is difficult? How do you support these Master Teachers and Residents who simply do not gel?
and many, many more....

It is a work in progress, just like teaching.

Let me close with a beautiful quote I read the other day:

Mentoring is the art of invitation – and the art of getting out of the way once a gift is invited. 
(Donna Schaper)


  1. You, your colleagues, the teaching residents, and the Center for Inspired Teaching are doing such important work. It's a pleasure to get a glimpse into the intentionality you have about mentoring others.

  2. Beautifully said, Maureen. While we do not have teaching residents everywhere, we so side-by-side work with another school that runs an alternative program so some of our teaching assistants come from that program. That's why I referred to interns I advised last year. Our assistants in the classroom are an energized addition to what happens, as you've described so well. I remember worrying about someone watching me teach when I first began working at the school, but the collaborative nature is such a blessing, I soon moved on. One of the biggest challenges is finding time for good conversations so they can ask questions, add their own ideas, etc. Thanks for all this. Like always, I enjoy your talk about teaching!