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Ask a Mentor: Professional Development Challenges

April 10, 2008 3 min read

Rebecca Hendrickson is associate director of graduate support and a professional field coach at the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which provides first-year teachers at Chicago public schools with mentors and the training needed to earn a Masters of Arts in Teaching. Here she answers readers questions about professional development issues.

I’m a first-year 7th and 8th grade language arts teacher. I have a mentor who’s well-versed in the field, but she doesn’t teach the grades I do and often can’t fit me into her schedule. How do I address this problem?

First, don’t give up on scheduling time with your mentor. Even though she may not work at your grade level, she probably has a wealth of content knowledge and teaching strategies to share. Ask her to make time, even if you have to schedule weeks in advance. And create a specific list of issues and areas you’d like support on. It’s easiest for mentors to support teachers who are clear about their needs.

Perhaps you can also get a group of colleagues to meet over lunch or after school to discuss key issues. Maybe your mentor could facilitate such a group meeting, thus supporting several teachers at once. If not, organize it yourself. There are outside groups who will provide grants for teachers to participate in this type of collaborative study group.

Lastly, keep on the lookout for resources, conferences, and seminars that will help you. If you know what you’d like to work on, you can often do an Internet search and begin locating support that way.

Many new teachers who are content specialists struggle to deliver that content at the introductory level. What strategies do you suggest?

These teachers need support. They may not know how to structure engaging activities or use good questioning techniques. They can benefit from watching other teachers or mentors at work. Chances are, once in a while, that the teacher does design a successful, engaging lesson. See if he or she can identify a time when the lesson “worked” and analyze the ways the structure and presentation affected the outcome. Professional development workshops that focus on instructional strategies, rather than content knowledge, may also benefit such teachers.

My school seems to think that the principal lecturing for an hour on current research qualifies as professional development. I’m in a new school in a state I’ve never worked in before, so this is all new to me. But I’m appalled at the lack of professional courtesy. Am I being too critical?

Lecturing about research is certainly a form of professional development, although most experts agree that it’s not a very effective way to support teacher growth. I can understand your frustration. Teachers are very busy and want, need, and deserve high-quality and useful PD opportunities. There are certainly more productive and engaging ways to spend that hour of time: collaborative planning; discussing a shared text; brainstorming around a pressing issue in the classroom or school; participating (from a student’s perspective) in a model lesson. In many ways, good PD utilizes the same instructional strategies as good classroom teaching.

Nevertheless, given your new position in your school you may want to find very diplomatic and strategic ways to voice concerns or question the current PD plan. Wait it out a bit more and get to know the school culture so that you don’t jeopardize your own position. Meanwhile, try organizing your own opportunities for continued growth.

Many teachers are unaware of how to become nationally certified. Could you please describe what the process entails?

Teachers interested in national certification should visit the Web site for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards at www.nbpts.org. Applicants apply for one of 24 different certificate areas at various grade levels in different subjects. In order to apply, teachers must have completed three years of teaching. The application consists of four portfolio entries comprised of narrative descriptions and reflections, student work, and classroom videos that demonstrate how the applicant’s teaching meets the National Board standards.

Applicants must also complete a computer-based assessment of their content knowledge, which consists of six exercises developed and designed by practicing professionals in the certificate area. They have up to 30 minutes to respond to each of the exercises. There are often opportunities for getting financial support or incentives. Here’s a link to info for support at the state level: www.nbpts.org/for_candidates/candidate_support.

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