Scott Mandel's Internet guest book is filled with requests for help, words of thanks, and lavish praise. And then, of course, there are the exclamation points.
"WOW!" begins one California teacher. "I just found you, and I am overwhelmed. I am a first-year teacher, and I need some ideas for the first week of school. I am really nervous."
"Great site!" writes another teacher, this one from New York. "I've saved the various lesson plans. Whatever I don't use will be passed on to colleagues. I'll send along some lessons, too."
"Hallelujah!" rejoices a visitor to the site from South Carolina. "Wish I'd found this before. Please keep up the good work. You know how isolated/frustrated teachers can feel. You are a real encouragement."
Mandel, contrary to what some entries might imply, is a middle school teacher--not a guru or inspirational healer. But he, or at least his site on the Internet's World Wide Web, has attained almost cult status among web-surfing teachers looking for support and networking opportunities. And judging from the success of Teachers Helping Teachers, which has had more than 100,000 hits in the past year, he has tapped in to a largely unmet demand.
"Teaching is such a lonely profession," Mandel says. "The only way we can improve it and prevent burnout of new teachers is for more experienced teachers to help those coming in." Thoughtful exchanges on teaching techniques are not likely to happen during the jampacked schedule of the school day. That's why Mandel thinks the Internet makes such an ideal venue for the exchange of ideas. "At home, you're relaxed," he says. "Then it's a perfect time to do this networking."
Mandel's web site, and most of his knowledge of the Internet, dates to just over a year ago. An English, history, and musical-theater teacher at Pacoima Middle School in Los Angeles, he decided to spend time over the summer making himself Internet-literate. He wanted to create a forum that could help other teachers.
Teachers Helping Teachers was launched a year ago as a tips page, with Mandel supplying about 80 percent of the material and friends the rest. But when Yahoo, a searchable directory of Internet sites, began listing his site, the number of visitors jumped from about 75 a day to as many as 400, and the lesson ideas began pouring in. Now, about 85 percent of the ideas come from the outside.
Teachers who log in can select from a variety of subject areas ranging from classroom management to special education. A teacher clicking on "Social Studies," for example, is greeted by an animated graphic featuring two spinning globes. Scrolling down the page, the reader finds a list of lesson suggestions such as "Political Movements in America: How Are Issues Promoted?" and "Multi-culturalism Today: Studying American Culture."
The site also features education resources and stress-reduction tips. A newer feature lets teachers "chat" with colleagues in real-time. Readers submit between 20 and 40 questions and problems each day. Mandel turns some of those queries into a special topic of the week. But if the question is urgent in nature, Mandel will supply an answer within 48 hours.
The web site's most revealing page is the guest book, which serves as a kind of bulletin board for teachers. Each listing includes a brief comment from the visitor, along with an e-mail address to which others can send responses. "I just found this section while browsing," a Virginia teacher wrote last August. "Wow! I'm looking for ideas on teaching ancient Egypt to 2nd graders."
A teacher from Wisconsin writes: "Help...9th grade U.S. history teacher looking for a Macintosh mentor to help me learn more about the Internet so I can use it more effectively in the classroom."
Like the queries teachers send in, each guest-book entry gets a personal response from Mandel. The whole operation takes about eight to 12 hours of his time each week. He gets no money for running the service. "This is my pro bono work," he says.
Mandel's site, of course, is not the only web page by teachers for teachers. Kansas elementary school teacher Lajean Shiney and her graphic-designer husband, Lee, run a similar site called Teacher's Edition Online. The Shineys' site, like Mandel's, has been up for only a little more than a year.
In its first incarnation (it started out as a personal home page), the site happened to mention that Shiney had a pond in her classroom. That tidbit sparked the interest of teachers who wanted to replicate the idea, and soon the Shineys found themselves exclusively in the lesson-idea business. Now, the site, which changes weekly, offers lessons, teaching tips, and real-world advice on such topics as "classroom public relations."
Shiney, who teaches 4th and 5th graders at Lawrence Elementary School in Wichita, says the site has attracted a wide range of educators, from preschool teachers and university professors to home-schooling parents looking for ideas.
Teachers, Shiney says, "are doing more sharing this way than they're doing in their own building or in their own district. People are more willing to share this way."
Mandel agrees, describing the Internet as "the ultimate" teacher-resource. "I may be working on a lesson, and I need a piece of information," he says. "I can get it on the Internet."