Stepping Forward by Looking Back

I have been working as a mentor for many years, and most recently, two years with New Teacher Center and the TeamScience Program in Oakland. Mentoring is hard work. It is a constant give and take between building trust and pushing forward, facilitating reflection, and adopting an instructive approach. I find myself in a juggling act – giving my mentee freedom to make mistakes, while keeping a careful eye on the classroom where the urban students in my district really deserve teachers who can make a difference in their lives. It is hard to fully appreciate the impact I am having on a day-to-day basis, but when I do get to see the results of my efforts, it is even sweeter as I know they have been hard won.

I recently had a breakthrough with one of my new teachers, Annette, who works at a small, alternative middle school for struggling students. She is the only science and math teacher on staff. Most of the students at the school are there for chronic truancy, and behavioral problems that prevented them from succeeding in so-called “regular” schools. When I first met with Annette, she told me firmly that her kids could not do labs. “What happened when they tried to do a lab or hands-on activity?” I asked. Annette replied, “They just make a mess. I cannot bring them back. They do not take it seriously. They get too excited and mess around.” I worked all year to encourage Annette to develop the courage to have her students do a lab in class.

Our breakthrough began eight weeks ago. Annette and I had been planning to do a lab in her chemistry unit. She even bought the materials, but when it came time to do the lab in her classroom something was always wrong – the calcium chloride was actually magnesium chloride; there was not enough baking soda; there were no lab supplies at the school – did I know where she could get vials? Discouraged, I talked to my TeamScience mentor and colleague, Phil. We discussed the idea of “just handing her the lab” and cutting through the distractions of being a new science teacher to get to the experience. Later that week I delivered a bucket with the whole lab set-up – correct materials, trays, everything labeled and organized – and a small video camera.

Then, she actually did the lab in class with three of her students! She videotaped the experience and we watched it together. We saw the joy in the students’ faces, the excitement, and discovery. It was amazing to see the transformation in their attitude toward learning. Annette reflected on how her students never had the opportunity to do hands-on activities because of bad behavior. She also reflected on what it meant for her students to have the opportunity to participate in the lab.

Just days after this experience, Annette took this same group of students to a district event with scientists in the community. Her students, labeled as “problem kids” by the district, floored the scientists with their knowledge of the topics they had just learned in the lab. They were able to channel their lab experience into meaningful discourse with industry professionals. Annette was elated by the success of her students and the success of the lab. If she had not given them the hands-on experience, would they have shown up as knowledgeable or articulate?

As we watched the video together again, Annette said, “I just wish I had started earlier in the year. They could have been so much farther along.” (WOW!!) Annette came back to me with an unprompted reflection on how she controls the class in a very teacher-directed style because of her fear of chaos. Then she said, “I used to think that when my students failed at an assignment it was because they could not do it, that they weren’t ready, and that it was not possible to do at my school. Now, I see that when my students are failing at an assignment, I need to analyze what went wrong, and find the pieces that worked. Then I can really create solutions so that they can excel at learning. I am not going to be there for my students forever, so they need to learn how to work together with less structure and that is going to take practice.”

I am very grateful to Phil for pushing me to push my mentee. I am just taking a moment to feel really, really proud of Annette. I never thought I would be here at this place – seeing the success of my mentee, but more importantly what this success has meant for her students.

As we close out this academic year, I encourage my fellow mentors to take time to acknowledge those hard won victories. Celebrate your success and think about the positive impact you have on fostering great teaching to improve student learning.

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