Monday, August 24, 2009

A Culture of Mentorship

Well, school's not quite ready to start, but I am, and after a tragically long lay-off from this blog it's time to start thinking about how schools can build faculty competencies and do a better job at that thing we are supposed to do. Our new faculty just completed the new-and-improved 3-day Teaching All Kinds of Minds program to hone their differentiation chops, and this afternoon the big work starts: they meet with their department heads to start working on and reviewing their curriculum and lesson plans for the first month of school, followed by three more days of sessions on school culture and procedures. Last week we also handed them their hardcopies of the Teacher's Guide to Life and Work, 2009-10 edition; they have been able to access this through our new teacher wiki (sorry, access for our folks only, but I'll blog about it later) since July.

We focus on making the orientation program into a real immersion into school culture. The program tomorrow starts with an in-depth, anecdotal school tour where we meet administrators and otherwise see the school from the inside out; we even have a session just on the odd lingo our school uses. (QUICK HINT FOR MAKING THE NEW YEAR A SUCCESS FOR NEW TEACHERS: Start making a little glossary of these terms for your own school, and see how quickly you need to add pages.) By the time it's all over, all the new faculty in both divisions will have met a pretty good range of their colleagues as well as people in administrative functions that bear on their work directly and indirectly, and so when full faculty meetings start next week no one will feel like a stranger.

For the past couple of years we have de-emphasized the artificial "here's your mentor/blind date" thing. Great mentorship programs are built from the ground up and cost serious money when you start easing teaching loads for mentors and new folks and trying to schedule common planning time; I'm all for programs like this, but most schools, particularly in a tough economy, can't afford them. Instead, what we have been aiming for is a "CULTURE OF MENTORSHIP," in which department chairs, divisional and departmental colleagues, class deans, and others in a position to do so understand the needs of each new cohort of teachers and pick up the reins constantly to check in, observe, offer feedback, help, support, and guide the new people into the fabric of the faculty's professional life.

Building a culture of mentorship requires that we be especially explicit and intentional about this. Each group that meets--department chairs, deans--needs to be reminded that "it takes a village to make a teacher successful." It turns out that each previous year's new teacher cohort can be helpful here, too, and we debrief with them pretty regularly throughout their first year. Last year our new teachers took a couple of afternoon retreats with a small group of what we call Lead Teachers--teachers who have piloted program ideas and who have become an important in-house professional development resource for all faculty.

The worry, of course, is that a teacher here or an issue there might slip through the cracks, and we have to keep working on how we do this. But I think that overall the model has some real advantages over the old "blind date" model, which sometimes worked out very well but just as often fizzled after the first couple of weeks of school. I think that all the pre-service work that we do really contributes to success, as no teacher enters our building without a really good grounding not only in the professional and educational culture of the school but also in the critical "who's who" questions: Where do I go for help? What can I expect from (that person or that function)? This matters a great deal.

I still hear stories of schools with half-day orientations for new teachers, or where the half-day program is proudly announced to have become a full day. I don't think that is anywhere near enough time or enough exposure to key people and key roles to truly "orient" a new teacher. I worry that one-on-one mentorship programs added to over-short orientations serve more to isolate new teachers or create a sense of urgent dependency than to give them the confidence and basic knowledge they will need to succeed from Day One.

A culture of mentorship is really another term for a professional learning community, and it would be nice to think that all of our schools would be focused on creating this kind of environment and culture for their faculties. In the meantime, we have to work hard to build in the structures (where we can) and the intention (everywhere) to make coming into a new school as seamless and as success-focused as possible.

1 comment:

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