By John Gensic
“So here is Lori. She’s your mentor,” my first middle school principal said. I was a first year teacher and Lori was good at answering nuts-and-bolts questions about how the school worked, just as the teacher across the hall was. Together, Lori and I went to a meeting about the requirements of mentoring at the high school our middle school students would attend. Together, we figured out how to fulfill the state mentoring requirements so I could update my license.
Neither one of us chose the relationship and I’m not sure that it helped my teaching. We were part of a state-imposed system with little to no funding that focused more on meeting the mentoring requirements than on student learning and teaching. I had no choice in who my mentor was. I am pretty sure that Lori, who was the most veteran teacher at the middle school, didn’t chose to be a state portfolio mentor. The situation put me into a “receive mode,” where I had to have decisions made for me and fulfill paperwork requirements in order to stay a teacher. It was only after I met my other two mentors, Mary Lou and Jim, that I understood the true value of professional mentorship.
Mary Lou was a straight-talking, retired math teacher who observed full days of my classes and noticed patterns. She told me to “smile more” and “get kids moving.” These were things I needed to hear. Jim was the English teacher down the hall who got students to work, respect each other, and enjoy school. After seeing him in action, I knew I wanted to learn from him.
By having mentors I selected on my own, I felt like I was taking ownership of my profession. One early piece of advice from Mary Lou was to attend the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference. Afterwards, I set about implementing numerous ideas from the conference. I still have her voice in my head saying, “you should be having kids do more science, not just reading about it.”
In Indiana, we now have an opportunity to learn from teacher experts to improve mentoring. If passed, the HB 1449, a bill introduced by Rep. Dale DeVon, would improve teacher induction through more teacher input into the process of mentoring new teachers and a residency pilot program. The bill moves teacher induction in the right direction by requiring that two or more teachers participate in the development of a district’s mentoring plan. Mentor teachers would also earn micro-credentials through their work. Teachers like me who went through the earlier mentoring program can use our past experiences to forge a better path for induction and by giving input into how the residency pilot program is implemented to ensure teacher voice.
We need to show support for HB 1449 and we can also help improve mentoring at the grassroots level. Finding our own mentors is now easier than ever. We can use online lists of award-winning teachers who live close or have retired, connect with them online, and invite them into our classrooms. We can share audio or video footage of our classrooms with teachers we admire, and ask for their honest feedback. We can watch and ask questions of the teachers in our building whom we see get results with kids. When we ask for advice from great teachers, they’re usually very willing to help. Seeking counsel helps build lasting, professional, and personal relationships that go well beyond the first years of teaching.
I encourage principals to give their new teachers options as they grow into the profession. Whether it is a set of principal-approved choices they can select as mentors, helping connect new teachers with excellent retired teachers or providing new teachers the option to switch mentors after a set trial period, increased choice in mentorship and residency will only grow the ownership teachers have of their profession. A simple conversation early in a teacher’s career focused on, “Who would you like your mentor to be?” may help shift the locus of the control toward the teacher to continually improve their craft and grow in the profession.
John Gensic teaches 9th grade biology and 10th grade early college biology at Penn High School in Mishawaka, IN. He is a Teach Plus Indiana Teaching Policy Fellow.