By John Clark
Just before the election, more than 100 educators descended upon the U.S. Department of Education – not to lobby for better policy, but to work in conjunction with the Department to raise the bars on enrollment and effectiveness from teacher preparation programs; to find new ways to recruit and prepare the next generation of teachers. I was fortunate to receive an invitation to serve as a team facilitator to one such educator-led project, and the Department calls these facilitators “Critical Friends,” which is a well-thought-out description of the role.
The Department of Education’s Teach to Lead program (a collaborative initiative with ASCD, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and 140 additional education partners) hosted this event, their first topical summit, with a focus on teacher prep. This unique opportunity brought together 16 teams and advisors from around the country to collaborate in a space where, with structure, each group could work through and complete an action plan for their individual ideas on how to place more prepared teachers in the classroom. A loud shout-out to the American Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE) for being a lead sponsor that made this event possible.
The 16 projects selected (pitched by blended teams composed of professionals from higher education institutions and P-12 schools nationwide) were the ones deems most promising in the near term. Quality of choice was very high, as a total of 92 teams applied to take part in the summit. With such a large pool of projects, one might have expected an emergence of diverse approaches to teacher prep challenges. Noteworthy – that was not the case!
More than half the projects shared a central theme: The Collaborating Teacher Fellow. These Fellowships would be the output of an intentional partnership between a school district and a local college of teacher education, with the goal to produce well-prepared mentor teachers who could effectively oversee the transition of a student teacher intern into a successful new teacher. Such an intentionality in the preparing of mentor teachers is a new, and in my mind, long overdue evolution of the teacher preparation journey. I saw it as brilliant simplicity. When I started just 10 years ago, mentor teachers were selected in one of two ways. You either raised your hand when asked who wants to keep an eye on the student teacher or you received a note that you had been “voluntold” to oversee the student teacher coming to your school.
Such unintentional selection of mentor teachers is striking, considering the benefits of a thoughtful match (to both pre-service and in-service educators), and touches close to home. When I first began teaching, I was assigned a mentor teacher, not in my field, whose primary job appeared to be completing required paperwork. She visited my class once, started yelling at the students within ten minutes, and offered no constructive feedback to me. Such a mentoring approach, because it lacked intention, set me up to fail, and I should have. I succeeded only because I secretly had the best teacher mentor program ever devised – I was married to a veteran classroom teacher. I wish all new teachers could be enrolled in such a program!
The more realistic and adaptable alternative to mentoring through marriage is the concept that emerged at the summit. Create a mentor teacher curriculum that would enroll and prepare experienced teachers in the art of mentoring. The teams working on this concept clearly believed that a well-prepared mentor teacher would produce a well-prepared student teacher. After spending two days deeply engaged with my project team from the University of South Florida, I concur, and look to being a future mentor teacher Fellow in their program. To lift a line from a very old Herman’s Hermits song, “Something tells me I’m onto something good.”
A second career teacher in his 10th year, 2015-2017 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow John Clark teaches physics and chemistry at Deltona High School in Florida. He coaches the Science Olympiad, Science Fair, and Physics Olympics teams, also serving on two national standards-focused workgroups with the American Federation of Teachers. John received the 2014 Governor’s SHINE award for inspirational teaching and was a finalist for the 2013 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching.