October 2010 Issue
September 28, 2010

First Person: a teaching partnership

Author: Josephine Giglia-Byrne and Mala Hoffman
Source: NYSUT United

As every teacher knows, sometimes it's hard to go it alone. The classroom, and its added pressures — from following curriculum to dealing with administrative details — can become overwhelming, particularly in someone's first year. That's why the Newburgh Enlarged City School District's mentoring program, overseen by its teacher center, is such a lifeline. New teachers are matched with an experienced guide responsible for meeting with them throughout the school year, including four "mentor days," one for each quarter.

For the two of us, the mentoring program led to more effective teaching and to what we hope will be a lasting friendship. We both work at the Meadow Hill Global Explorations Magnet School, a K-8 school that begins Languages Other Than English (LOTE) instruction in kindergarten. While one of us teaches Italian and the other French, the methodology is the same. And though in our case the mentee already had a number of years of teaching experience, albeit in other settings, the mentor was able to provide the nuts and bolts of this particular program, as well as extensive knowledge of specific students' backgrounds, assessment techniques and the more elusive issue of school politics.

Among the most beneficial aspects of the experience were the "mentor days." Under the provisions of the program, the partners are given four days to meet outside of school, with a substitute provided, to concentrate on whatever area or aspect of teaching they feel they need. For our first day, we took a tour to meet other district French teachers in their school settings, discussing strategies, materials and pacing. These contacts proved invaluable for the mentee later on, when questions arose concerning curriculum and testing.

The second day, taken in the next quarter, was spent at an all-day conference devoted to LOTE curriculum and teaching strategies, many of which we now use. As a major district test approached, we used the third day to devise a review and study plan for the mentee. The fourth day, in June, was spent reviewing and evaluating the year's events and planning for the next.

These opportunities, taken in tandem with our daily contact, required meetings and written reflections, created a solid framework for the mentee, who was able to come out of this experience grounded and inspired.

Though it seems obvious that the program would aid the mentee, providing support and a sounding board in an increasingly complex profession, what surprised us later was how helpful it was to the mentor as well.

The process of sharing her expertise, which had been developed over many years in the regular classroom and several more as a LOTE teacher, and of seeing it applied in different ways reinvigorated her own teaching. The mentee's new perspective "rekindled" her teaching fire and prompted the mentor to experiment with her own strategies.

One example was the use of group learning, which the mentee frequently uses and the mentor later tried. By the end we found we had become more collaborators than anything else. Now, we look forward to working together as colleagues, sharing day-to-day experiences once the next year begins.

While standing in front of a classroom of 24 students can be a sometimes lonely experience, it is the support and understanding of our co-workers that can often bring insights, and humor, to the situation. Mentor programs such as the one administered by the Newburgh Teacher Center are designed to build in that support, leading to a lasting foundation for teachers. The result, one hopes, is that they can then be effective in their main purpose — serving as a springboard for learning for their students.

Mala Hoffman and Josephine Giglia-Byrne are members of the Newburgh Teachers Association. NYSUT has led the way to advance the mentor program and teacher centers.