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In Time, A New Mindset: The Beginner Mentors the Veteran

By Cole Farnum — July 21, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Cole Farnum, a teacher in New York City, is guest-posting this week.

As a beginning teacher, I’ve experienced times when communicating with my colleagues has been challenging. I’ve discovered that allowing alternative perspectives to inform my own, not just working harder as an individual, is the key lever to continuously improving my teaching. That’s why my next steps for improvement are so ambitious: I’m relying solely on my colleagues to challenge and support me. And as I’ll explain, experienced teachers committed to growing as educators (like the successful Zak Champaign) must also rely on beginning teachers like me. What would it take for two teachers with varying levels of experience to observe one another’s class, exchange feedback, develop next steps, and support one another to act on what they’ve learned? What mindset do beginning and veteran teachers need to share to be the other’s mentor?

Valuing our backgrounds, experiences, advice and support, requires reciprocity, or exchange based on mutual benefit. Relationships based on reciprocity are not about switching who makes the copies each day; they go further than giving ideas for tomorrow’s lesson or meeting weekly to critique a unit; they transcend the default mindset that more years in the classroom equals more effective teaching. These relationships form when two or more teachers understand that to continuously improve their practice and maximize student success, they will need more than what’s in their immediate power to control. In other words, they acknowledge they need one another.

In a reciprocal relationship between an experienced and beginning teacher, both educators share a general desire to maximize student achievement. They acknowledge they possess unique experiences (as opposed to a greater or lesser number of years in a classroom): beginning educators may bring a fresh perspective and/or new skills to an entrenched problem; an experienced educator may have, among many assets, pedagogical knowledge, a practical lens, or institutional intelligence to contribute. As a problem solving team, it’s not a revolutionary arrangement: teachers meet to discuss a problem and find a solution, much like traditional mentoring models. Yet here, the longer-standing teacher isn’t the default mentor: both teachers expect to be mentored and mentor each other.

Reciprocal mentoring is possible only because school environments and their challenges are incredibly complex. The necessity for a diverse set of knowledge, skills, and perspectives to solve them, then, is undeniable. Thankfully in a school with a range of experience levels, these problems may be more manageable. A beginning teacher, by virtue of having different background experiences and/or skills, may in fact be more experienced in some aspect of an existing problem and his or her longstanding experienced colleague, more of a beginner. This allows the beginning teacher to take on a mentoring role and provide perspective and advice, if only briefly. When another perspective is needed to solve a different problem, the dynamic may instantly switch; each teacher may simultaneously hold both roles, too.

As both teachers practice giving and receiving their thoughts and advice, they’re exposed to more opportunities to trace their impact as teachers. What might begin with how their students performed and what they did in class, common starting and ending points when discussing student data, will eventually focus on how teachers influenced students and, hopefully, why we made such decisions. With consistent opportunities to engage with these topics, the fact that they are more or less experienced as teachers becomes irrelevant: the quality of how they evaluate and learn from their practice determines the success of their relationship.

While simple in concept, reciprocity is ambitious. Undoubtedly, allowing others to discuss the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of your teaching is a monumental challenge for all, particularly among teachers who’ve experienced how difficult it may be to effectively communicate with colleagues. Simply, engaging in reciprocity requires the development of new mindsets. Learning to value each of your colleagues and building the expectation that they value you, too, takes practice. And practice takes time, something we all know can be very short.

However, as time is something that may be managed, reciprocity is feasible. Time is the most valuable resource for a great reason: anything can be changed through it. Like student learning, developing a reciprocal relationship between teachers is a continuous learning process rather than a single event. If teachers are allowed structured and consistent opportunities for exchange, solving school issues by tracing back student outcomes to teacher mindsets becomes a habit. The time exchanging perspectives with one another, then, changes teacher mindsets: the more we continuously think about why we teach the way we do in the company of other professionals, the more we question the assumptions we make about what’s possible for students and ourselves. The major assumption to be questioned is that beginning teachers are, by default, the recipient of advice and veterans, the donors.

The logic of how teachers may mutually exchange their knowledge, skills and perspectives is laid out, but why does reciprocity matter to students and teachers as a whole? Tomorrow, I’ll acknowledge what’s to be gained and lost through mutual exchange, explore the risks that beginning and experienced teachers must take to openly share with one another, and what I feel to be at stake if they don’t.

--Cole Farnum

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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