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Mentoring a New Teacher without a Magic Filing Cabinet


donna andrewsDonna is an Assistant Professor with the Teacher Education Department at California State University, Stanislaus. She received a B.S in Mathematics and a Master’s Degree in Education from St. Lawrence University and earned her doctoral degree in Gifted Education and Counseling at The Ohio State University. Donna has many years of experience teaching math at the middle school and high school levels. She has also worked in university programs that embrace community-based learning projects and she has secured corporate partnerships to enhance the learning experiences for disadvantaged students. Donna believes that effective educators take the time to discover their students’ interests and learning styles and then use this information to create meaningful educational experiences to help students connect the curriculum to real world scenarios. She also contends that a successful teacher must be able to identify, cultivate, and nurture the school climate with the assistance of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.  Donna adheres to the philosophy that it takes a village to raise a child.

"What was the duty of the teacher if not to inspire?"
Bharti Mukherjee

As I reach year thirty-three in the teaching profession, I continue to swim upstream. I should be floating around in a pool sipping on lemonade, but, no, I search for new ways to deliver timeless information. I now teach in the Single Subject Credential Program at California State University, Stanislaus where I have the pleasure of working with credential candidates and their secondary cooperating teachers. These professional partnerships constantly remind me of my days as a mentor teacher. Let me share with you one of my last adventures in this role.

I had been teaching mathematics in an outstanding suburban high school in Columbus, Ohio for eighteen years when my building principal asked me if I would be interested in mentoring a new teacher in my math department. I had already broken in a new recruit a few years previously and wanted to enjoy working with him on a cross curriculum proposal. In addition, I had said yes to helping out the guidance department for four weeks since they were down a counselor until mid September. I considered all that I had on my plate, but decided, why not, what’s one more duty for this old veteran?

I remember the day I met Emily like it was yesterday. I was helping out in the guidance office before the start of the school year, completely overwhelmed with last minute schedule changes for students, and the scheduling server was down. In desperation, I had decided to build a schedule the old fashioned way with paper and pencil when Emily walked into the office. I could tell she was very sweet and extremely anxious about teaching geometry for the first time. We started speaking about the geometry curriculum, but I was distracted with thoughts about solutions to scheduling conflicts. She could tell that I was not all there and asked if she could just have access to my "magic filing cabinet" so that I could get back to working on my scheduling issues. I didn’t know what she was talking about and subsequently pointed to the filing cabinet next to me and said "Abracadabra!" She wasn’t amused by my antics and went on to clarify her questions. She specifically wanted to know if she could have access to my lesson plans from years past, similar to those most veteran teachers use to make their lives easier during the beginning of the school year. The "A-ha" and "Ha-ha" moments came simultaneously when I told her that I do not teach from a magic filing cabinet, and that instead, we were going to go on a magic carpet ride!

I then shared activities with her that I would be doing with my students during the first two weeks of school in order to get to know them on a more personal and academic level. I told her that after I gathered these data, I would then start designing the school year to meet their academic and personal needs—we now call this differentiated instruction. She gave me the "deer in headlights" look and reluctantly agreed to join me since she felt that she had no choice.

We found out that we had a common planning period and were teaching the same courses—Geometry and Algebra II. I had her join my first period class, and she got to witness my "get to know each other" activity with my freshmen students. For example, I taught them how to speak with a New York accent while they played survival simulation games. We all laughed a lot during these initial weeks. While the students were engaged in these activities, I learned the levels of students’ analytical reasoning and critical thinking skills, along with how well students worked together. This inevitably helped me to create a strategic seating chart that would optimize the students’ learning and social potentials. She loved every minute of the classes she observed, and I could tell that I had found a new friend and ally. We ended up collaborating on every lesson, which was made easier given our common planning period. We also would meet after school since I did not need to rush home—doggie doors make pet responsibility so much easier. She felt extremely valued in the planning process and I in turn enjoyed her innocence and desire to try new things in the classroom.

We agreed that I would stay one day ahead of her so that she could watch me teach a lesson while role modeling various techniques that I used to get students involved in the activities. I also enjoyed having another adult in the room to speak with and to make laugh at inappropriate times. My days of isolation were over. She was able to read my mind and knew all the things I wanted to say to my little angels that would have had me escorted out by the campus supervisor if I said them out loud!

During our work together, she also taught me a lot about technology. In her second year at the high school, she ended up writing a grant and offering an in-service on how to use a Smartboard (an interactive white board) in our math classes. This piece of technology changed my life much like the DVR! In case you are confused, a DVR is a digital video recording device that allows you to record your favorite television programs and watch them whenever you want—hopefully my last reference statement can make you laugh now.

One day I received an email from Emily describing a recent faculty meeting where the principal asked her to present to the staff on how to use the Smartboards in the classroom. She thanked me for always telling her to include students and community members in presentations that involved innovative teaching practices because it keeps everyone focused on what is best for students. Well, she was a hit! I received numerous emails from my former colleagues telling me how proud I would have been to see the way she challenged everyone’s magic filing cabinet practices.

Emily has told me on many occasions that she misses her goofy buddy and feels isolated. Apparently, there is no one at the high school who wants to explore education the way that we did together. She also wanted me to forgive her for her initial thoughts that I was crazy when we first met! I told her that the universe has a way of equaling things out and that I hope she has the high beams on when she speaks to her colleagues!

I then decided to take our professional mentoring model to a new virtual level and use the Internet to connect our two worlds. We decided to use the technology associated with Podcasting and Wiki to show my credential candidates how to make the geometry curriculum more relevant to 21st century learners. We designed a Wiki page that contained 60 different tutorials related to the surface area and volume of three-dimensional figures. Emily’s students were responsible for creating a two-minute tutorial podcast teaching my students about a particular geometric concept. They also were required to upload visuals to support their podcast, post a link to a website that provides more details regarding the concept presented in the tutorial, post a link that contained more practice problems, and post a link to a website that demonstrates a real world application of the concept presented in the tutorial.

Below is the website link and a picture of the home page
service learning

The objective was clear in that the design of the tutorial needed to be comprehensive for my pre-service teachers who where all math phobic, much older than they were, and that this unique audience would also be assessing their work using a rubric score that would count for twenty-five percent of their grade. In addition, the geometry students understood that is was imperative for their tutorial to be concise, accurate, and understandable, since many of these future teachers were not math majors, and consequently, they needed to write their podcasts to help all types of students understand their concept.

Emily and I spent a lot of time developing a user-friendly rubric that contained positive language and stressed the importance of a more global audience. We agreed on five parts that would be assessed on a scale of 1-5. These parts were related to the podcast itself, the visuals that supported the podcast, the appropriateness of the links, the actual accurate uploads to the Wiki space, and the ability to address the learning needs of the global audience. For instance, under professional audience, a student would receive a 5 if the tutorial is easy to navigate and appropriate for all Internet users; a 3 if the tutorial can be navigated and would be most beneficial to a high school math student; and, a 1 if the tutorial is accessible and would benefit a member of our Geometry class. This was a different experience for my students and some of them struggled with how to score someone’s work that they did not know. I told them that this was the main point of the project—making sure both parties were clear with their communication.

Emily sent a powerful email to my students that contained a valuable lesson about assessments:

Some of you really went out of your way to make sure that your
thoughts were clearly communicated. You referenced specific details
from each students' assignment and took the time to make thoughtful
comments. You articulated specific items that needed to be corrected
... and hopefully, you were able to see what a difference quality
feedback can make in students' work. THANK YOU!!

Others of you provided a numerical score with either no comments, or
something like "Good job." Though on a test or quiz, that "generic"
kind of comment may be fine ... on something that has taken your
students HOURS to complete, specific comments about their work really
mean a lot to them. It shows them that you valued what they did—and
that you, too, took time to assess their work.

Our 21st century learning assignment was a huge success. The high school students learned about the importance of global communication and the credential teacher candidates practiced assessing creative projects that involved technology. Parents were impressed with the outsourcing idea and my colleagues thought that this project truly embraced our service learning philosophy. As they say in the business, a win-win for all involved!

One of my students sent Emily and me this email:

Thank you so much for giving our class the opportunity to take part in this assignment! It was absolutely a phenomenal experience and definitely well worth the time and effort involved on all parts. Before starting this tutorial I knew that technology provided a gateway for many opportunities. It enables us to do impressive and useful things, which we otherwise could not, and, after all, it is the way the world is heading. But after having gone through a technological project such as this one, I recognize that it can be a useful tool in education as well as in entertainment and business. It allows students to demonstrate their proficiency in both technology and the skill they are presenting in a non-threatening environment. For instance, some students may have mastered the skill or ability being tested for a grade at school, but not perform well on tests or on projects presented in front of the class because they are nervous. With technology, in this case podcasting, this type of student will likely do a better job because they do not have the extra stress that comes from pressure in front of a live audience prohibiting them from demonstrating the skill to the best of their ability. In this situation, their only 'live' audience is a computer; the teacher will not be right there in front of them when they do their work. This example is just one of the many ways technology can be a beneficial application to education.

As I continue my work as a college professor, I will always reflect upon my time working with Emily. She has established herself as an engaging student-centered teacher where her students feel loved, challenged, and supported under the safety net of laughter and joy. What does this mean to me today? It means that I need to continue to inspire my cadet teachers to find strength in their dreams and ideals. I need to bring out their areas of interest and help them to develop a passion for sharing these interests with their students and colleagues. I need to really listen to what they are saying and find ways to incorporate their ideals in my own teaching. I also need to continue challenging the myth of the magic filing cabinet and to take as many students as I can on a magic carpet ride.

"Education is not the filling of the pail but the lighting of a fire."
William Butler Yeats

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