Professional Development Ask the Mentor

Rebecca Hendrickson on Professional Development

December 22, 2006 9 min read
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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. “Graduates” then work at least five years in the city’s schools, with AUSL providing professional development, mentoring, and field coach support. Prior to joining AUSL, Hendrickson spent eight years in the classroom and three as a professional development specialist. For more information, visit:

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.

I’m on a task force that’s developing a program that would partner our urban district with a community college and a four-year university to train students to become urban teachers. Are you aware of existing programs we could learn from?

Looking to current teacher training models to inform your process is an excellent idea. At AUSL, our program is designed not only to train teachers, but also to retain teachers. Any new program should consider both aims. In our program, candidates receive a Masters in Teaching while completing a full-year residency in a master teacher’s classroom. We believe this produces more qualified and capable candidates. Beyond this preparation, however, we also provide several years of coaching to teachers in their first years in the field. You can learn more about our program at and about programs like ours through the Coalition Of Urban Teacher Residencies:

What does AUSL deem key academic concerns to get across to teachers you’re training in the classroom?

Our program is designed to connect educational theory to practice. Teachers are given a solid foundation in the theories of research-based best practices, but also explore how these theories apply to a classroom setting. Our program is also designed to help teachers take a child-centered, constructivist approach. They develop differentiated learning activities that actively engage students and incorporate a variety of learning styles and instructional strategies.

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 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:

Nowadays, child-centered activities are appropriate in the classroom. But we lack resources in our school, and many parents are illiterate. What do you suggest I do?

Being “child-centered” is an approach any teacher can adopt with or without resources. It literally means that your instructional strategies, management techniques, assessment tools, etc., are inclusive and responsive to your students’ interests, skills, and needs. Here are some suggestions for making your classroom more “child-centered":

1. Get to know your students. Take time and create activities that help you gather information about them. What are their interests, backgrounds, fears, struggles, talents? Interest surveys, journal writing, interviews, and team-building activities are ways you can gather information about your students.

2. Use a variety of assessment tools. Look closely at student work and your students at work-not just tests and quizzes-to get a more complete and nuanced picture of how each student thinks and reasons.

3. Build student choice into activities. There are many ways to respond to a text: writing, acting out a monologue, illustrating significant scenes, making up a new ending. By designing assignments that allow students to make choices, you’re allowing them to process information and connect with content in ways that work individually.

4. Question instead of telling. We often present information without probing students for their opinions and prior knowledge. This forces them into a passive, rather than active, role. If you use questioning as the backbone of your whole-class instruction time-"So, what have we been learning about?” instead of “So we’ve been learning about…"-you encourage and facilitate student participation and active thinking.

5. Help students make personal connections to topics. If you’re learning about the American Revolution, for example, have students write about a time when they experienced an unfair situation and how they responded to it.

6. Integrate goal-setting and self-assessment into your classroom. Have students set goals-daily, weekly, and monthly. Then have them monitor progress toward these goals by keeping a “goals journal” or a personal progress report.

Having been trained to be a mentor in my district, I’ve scheduled a professional development day for May, but we need to come up with funding. Do you have any suggestions?

If you need immediate funding, I suggest you ask your district or the schools for which you are conducting professional development; they should have a budget. Another approach is to find ways to conduct the PD day without bringing in outside experts or organizations, which demand fees for service. At AUSL, coaches design and conduct our professional development days for our graduates as part of our coaching responsibilities. Often the only resources needed are copies of materials we generate, chart paper, markers, and overhead or LCD projectors. These are resources we can find at our offices and in our schools.

Would it be possible to recruit several mentors to create and facilitate your workshops? What about accomplished teachers in your district? Often these workshops can be quite informative and helpful for teachers, not to mention low cost. A more long-term solution is to apply for grants. There are numerous foundations and corporations that contribute dollars to support teacher development as part of school reform. Our coaching program is almost entirely funded by such grants.

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.

I have been offered a position as a K-4 teacher. I’m concerned about how I can turn the classroom into a learning environment without it feeling more like day care, the way it does now.

Day cares, infant-toddler rooms, and kindergartens can and should all be structured to promote and support learning. Organize the room so that there are specific areas for activities: a library, a math/science exploration area, a writing area, a dramatic play area, a listening center, a meeting area. Each area should have relevant materials, in easily accessible and labeled bins. For example, the writing area may have different types of paper, writing utensils (crayons, pencils, markers, pens), and a word wall.

Also, make the room print-rich. When you facilitate a discussion with a group of students, record (and post) their thoughts and responses on chart paper. Display student work; for little ones, this does include drawings and early attempts at writing. You can also post photographs of the children at work, conducting their own explorations. Many teachers also find it helpful to post a daily agenda. Really, your room should be a reflection of the curriculum you design. If your curriculum is rich and learner-centered, your room will reflect that.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Rebecca Hendrickson on Professional Development


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