A Personal Aside
This post is a continuation of a series of posts I wrote while I was in academics on the importance of mentorship (collected here). I have considered myself fortunate early in my academic career to be able to surround myself with good mentors. So as soon as I left academics to teach, I immediately sought out mentors to help me. Without my undergraduate research mentor, I would have never figured out what makes a good mentor: reciprocity, mutual respect, clear expectations, personal connection, and shared values. I’ve had some absolutely horrific mentors in academics and as a teacher, thus making me so much more thankful for having these great mentors.
I was thinking about this topic since last week was Teacher Appreciation Week at my elementary school. More to the point, I was thinking about how much the teachers around me have taught me this year. It is no surprise that great teachers are also great mentors if you are willing to learn from them. I was also thinking about how important this mentorship has been to my career thus far. Without their support and mentorship, there is no way I would have made it through my first year as a teacher.
Why is Mentorship Important as a Teacher
One important aspect of special education that is not talked about nearly enough is that it is an “on-the-job” training environment. This is the case regardless if you have 1 year of experience or 30 years. Every year is another set of novel challenges that we are not yet trained for.
As teaching is perpetual on-the-job training, it is not answers that we need to seek from our mentors, it is questions. What this means is that we do not seek specific answers. We seek to learn from someone else’s experience. We have to learn to ask questions like, “How would you approach a student doing X” instead of “How did you stop kids from doing X in your class”. A mentor will then help us find our own way of applying their advice. In this way, seeking advice from mentors makes overcoming learning curves much easier and far more efficient. Mentor advice also prevents new teachers from falling into stupid, easily avoided mistakes. Seeking out an effective mentor is important to any young teacher. Holding onto effective mentors is important for mid-career teachers, as is mentoring younger teachers.
In my experience, my mentors have helped me hone in on what the right questions to ask are. They have helped me see novel ways to approach problems and novel ways to see data. They have helped me see patterns in the behavior of sets of students.
Early Mentorship while a Paraeducator
As soon as I got a paraeducator position, I was able to seek and take advice from the two teachers I worked with. The first was the teacher for the small group autism classroom I was working in. She very early on, I think it was within the first two weeks, notified me that she and the principal of the school were ordering me to apply for teaching positions in the district and offered me all the help they could. That year, this teacher gave me (1) a crash course in lesson plan design, (2) a lesson in winging it when the class jumps the rails and the lesson plan has to be thrown out in favor of behavioral management, and (3) just how much fun running a classroom can be.
These lessons were taught the hard/fun way, when any of the small group autism teachers had IEPs to write and attend, I was sent over to their classes to teach for an hour or so using their lesson plans. They figured this was good on-the-job training for me and it saved the school having to pay for half day substitutes. She also taught me the differential roles of teachers and the paraeducators in the classroom, as well as how to run a difficult classroom. I will never forget the support I was given. They were the first to give me the confidence in my new career choice, something I would be able to remember as times got hard as my first year as a teacher.
The second was the 6th grade teacher in whose class I was working as a 504 aide. What she taught me was the importance of communication between the special education and general education teachers. At that point in time, there was significant tension between the general ed and special ed teachers with regard to having special ed students included in the gen ed environment. The problem stemmed from the special ed teachers telling the general education teachers that such-and-such students were going to be in the general education class for a given subject. Not asked, told. Clearly this was a bad idea.
I knew it was a bad idea to impose students on other teachers, but until this 6th grade teacher showed me, I had no idea just how damaging such mandates from special ed teachers can be. The result of this type of communication was that the general education teachers felt the special education teachers were pawning students off on the gen ed teachers to avoid having to teach difficult subjects (usually math).
After this, I had a lot of very good conversations with the entire 6th grade team about how they want to see inclusion and mainstreaming happen. To be blunt, they wanted a say. They wanted to verify the special ed student would be able to handle the curriculum in their class before inviting the students into class. This is not to say the teachers would say no, per se, but rather they would know what challenges the student would bring to class. When I finally got my teaching job, the 6th grade team let me know that they expected to hear I was actually teaching my students the curriculum, and not farming it out to the gen ed teachers. I took this to heart. I follow their advice every day.
Mentorship as a Teacher
I was fortunate this year to have several very positive mentors within the school. This mentorship has taken many forms. I have had a district mentor as well as an in-school mentor.
A district mentor spent a month in my class and explained what were and were not negotiable requirements for classrooms (e.g., posting class rules and explicit schedule in the front of the room = non-negotiable in my district). She also advised me on how to approach managing different behaviors. We developed a framework for my classroom to help me approach diverse behavioral problems in a consistent manner. In the end, it was a very helpful relationship for me professionally. My district mentor never dictated what I was to do, she told me how she thought I needed to approach problems, given her experience. She then gave me the space to develop my own solution within the framework we developed together. After that month, she has consistently been an invaluable resource for me to ask advice on how to handle delicate classroom situations. She also has an open invitation into my classroom.
My in-school teaching mentor was in the class next door. When the year started, she wisely hung back and let me make my mistakes and learn from them. She gave me the space I needed to to develop my own classroom style and approach. Then, as soon as I needed help, she jumped at the opportunity to help me in every way possible. She and I sat for hours and developed plans for each and every one of my students. This was essential for my classroom success because I had a number of students with profound behaviors and I did not have the experience necessary to handle on the fly. I had ideas on how to deal with these issues, but I lacked the experience to implement my ideas as fluently as I wanted to. These were invaluable conversations. I also had the opportunity with this teacher to build my experience with behavioral analysis because she would approach me with behavioral questions as well, seeking an outside perspective on the struggles within he classroom.
The last teaching mentor I had this year was my mother. She has been a paraeducator in K-12 general education, resource, and self-contained/behavioral unit/life skills classrooms since 1984. She was as a tracker for gen ed and resource students within the school for 17 years. She also helped teach computers, pre-algebra, algebra, and science to gen ed and resource students. She also spent 3 years working with preschool aged autistic students at CBTU (Now the Carmen B. Pingree School). So, as I like to put it, she has pretty much seen everything there is to see. Not once did I ever seek her advice and receive a “That’s a new one” or “I have never seen that before” as a reply. This means I was able to glean some of her knowledge and approaches on how to handle difficult behaviors, particularly as related to handling psychiatric issues or issues related to violence. She always told me what she and her lead teachers have done in the past but exhorted me to find my own approach to handle the problem. It is also helpful that I be able to seek my mother’s advice because I actually think a lot like her when it comes to managing behavior.
I appreciate my mentors in education thus far. I know how much time they spent on me, and that they chose to spend their time on me. Mentoring is not just hard, it is very hard. It demands a lot out of the one being mentored and a lot more out of the mentor. I believe a good mentor-mentor relationship means you place a portion of your future in your mentor’s hands. This being the case, I have worked hard to make sure my mentors and I both are on the same page. I am fortunate that they have been willing to dedicate the time and effort to help me grow. I appreciate it more than I can ever convey.