Mentor, mentor, on the wall…

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CC0 TobiasMuMo

Something I get asked a lot in my work with teachers and leaders across Aotearoa New Zealand is how to ensure people are ‘on board’ with the planned initiative for the school. It isn’t uncommon for leaders to say in hushed tones, “We have a … range of staff at our school, Philippa,” as if that were a situation entirely unique to their context, and not the reality of every classroom and every staffroom everywhere. In fact, the principles of Universal Design for Learning encourage us to recognise the diversity of people and to embrace this as a strength. Isn’t wonderful that we’re all different, with our own backgrounds, stories, brains, and ways of learning?

But I hear the sense of frustration for what it is: the desire of the passionate to share their passion. And I don’t have answers, nor, more’s the pity, a magic wand. But I do have some thinks, mostly due to reading Simple Habits for Complex Times by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson, having my own mentoring relationship through CORE’s uChoose programme, and exploring some of the work of Joan Dalton.

So here are a few things I’ve learned and that mesh with what I consider to be respectful practice.

Garvey Berger and Johnston remind us that we’re not logical beings like Spock from Star Trek. So outlining cold facts about why I should embrace a new initiative isn’t all that likely to be effective. Rather, we need to engage people’s emotions. The way to do this is through story and metaphor. These draw people in and help them to get excited about new directions. Garvey Berger and Johnston actually suggest that the kinds of metaphors that are useful are those to do with journeys – but not destinations. And that giving people the sense that they’ve already started the desired change is important.

I really focus on keeping in mind that everyone is the hero of their own story. This helps me to be curious about what stories other people tell themselves about their actions to frame themselves in this way. Seeking to hear and understand other people’s stories is crucial, in my opinion. And this does take energy, empathy and time.

Which is where I bring the following strategy from Joan Dalton into play:

  • Listen
  • Pause
  • Paraphrase
  • Inquire

For me personally, this is aspirational, but I know that on the odd occasion where I’ve managed this, it can be quite powerful. My goal is to support educators to reflect on the decisions they’ve made and to consider these deeply. What worked? What didn’t? What could I do differently next time?

I feel privileged to mentor some fine educators and am on my own learning journey about how to fulfil this role to the best of my ability, but it is an honour to be gifted with their stories and to hear of their challenges and their successes.

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Advice for a New Teacher

Congratulations! You have scored your first teaching job. Awesomeness awaits you. I remember vividly the excitement of getting keys to my classroom, my teacher code, my pigeon-hole. I felt I had finally made it: I was a bona fide teacher! It was with as much anticipation as nervousness that I set about decorating my classroom, and I wondered what the year had in store for me. So here’s some advice that I wish I had received, or actually taken on board when it was given.

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  • Pace yourself: it’s a marathon, not a sprint

This is one I cottoned onto embarrassingly late – even for someone as organised as me! I use the school’s planner to get a sense of the scope and shape of the whole school year: when reports are due, when parent-teacher interviews are, what school events will disrupt learning time, when meetings are. I then break this down into a personal term planner. To this I add my marking load and personal extra-curricular commitments. Then I can see where I have busy weeks and quieter weeks. I can then use this to plan things I have control over, e.g. what junior marking I have, what units I’d like to plan in advance, when homework might be due. Sure, extra things will pop up, but this method really helps me to feel organised and more in control of the workload.

  • Balance yourself: you’re allowed to say no

Often as a new teacher, you’ll get asked to pitch in with loads of different co-curricular and extra-curricular events. Helping out with sports, art, drama, culture is amazing and an excellent way to get to know your learners in other contexts. I highly recommend it. But choose wisely. Pick a summer and a winter commitment and that’s absolutely your fair share. If you’re not good at saying no when put on the spot, thank the person asking for thinking of you, but say you need to check your diary. Then wait 24 hours, politely email and say thank you, but maybe you can help out next year.

As a teacher, your job is never done. There is always something more you could be doing. A parent to email, some marking to do, some professional reading to engage with, some planning to consider. At the end of the school day, rather than think about everything that’s still to do, instead list what you have done. And be content. You simply can’t be a good teacher if you work all hours of the day and night, get frazzled, and are short with your learners and/or colleagues the following day.

Take time to do what replenishes you.

  • Choose a focus: you can’t be all things to all people

News flash: not all lessons can be all singing and all dancing all of the time. This is okay, and indeed perfectly acceptable. If each class gets a stellar lesson once a week, that’s amazing. I’m certainly not encouraging you to aim for mediocrity, but rather to choose one particular focus – and my suggestion is building relationships – and do your best with this all year. This way, when you’re wondering what to prioritise, the choices narrow. Do what will build relationships – or your chosen priority – first.

  • The first lesson

As a pre-service teacher, you’ve more than likely never taken the first lesson with a class at the beginning of the school year. So here’s what I typically do (keeping in mind my English teaching background): I introduce myself, giving some personal detail to make myself sound human. I state my three firm classroom rules, which are: no swinging on chairs, no swearing, respectful listening – I’ll listen to you actively, and I’d like the class to do the same for me. I then start a group activity. This is often something reasonably trivial, but requires debate and a group decision. This allows me to observe group and personality dynamics, and to rotate around the groups so that I can begin to learn names. I place an extreme amount of importance on learning names as quickly as I’m humanly able.

  • Ask: there’s no such thing as a stupid question

This is a bit of a personal mantra for me. I’d so much rather make a pain of myself asking questions, than to do something wrong. I encourage others to adopt the same position. Don’t know where the toilets are? Ask. Can’t remember how to do the roll? Ask. Got a challenging learner/colleague/parent? Ask. Need help with unit planning? Ask.

Ask for help before it becomes an issue. And ask face-to-face where possible, rather than email. I carry a notebook to jot answers down so I have something to refer back to – I would prefer not to ask the same question multiple times, but I will if I need to! Seek to build professional relationships and a professional network to help with answering your questions. Outside of your own staffroom, check out #edchatNZ, FB, Pond, #WellyED.

Have fun. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. We’re all pretty much making it up as we go along.