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The value of teaching mentors

During my first year of teaching I was a “floater.”

I taught a full slate of classes but didn’t have my own classroom. My high school was over-capacity and I was a new teacher, so I shared space with more established colleagues. It wasn’t easy pushing a cart full of books and papers through crowded halls four times a day, but the mentoring I received from the classroom teachers made it worthwhile.

As North Carolina begins piloting new models of advanced teaching roles, I hope that mentors like mine can finally get the recognition and compensation they deserve.

I taught my first period freshman English class in Eleanor Johnson’s room. Ms. Johnson had over 20 years of classroom experience, and when she stepped into the room my students and I stood at attention. She was well-organized and commanded respect. I needed help with both, and she provided it without ever undermining my authority in front of students.

“He is your teacher, and you will follow his rules and procedures,” she told one of my students once after finding trash under her desk. “But this is my classroom, and you will keep it clean.” I later apologized for the mess, but she was quick to laugh with me about kids’ goofy behaviors and send me to my next class on a positive note.

I taught my second period in Laura Brown’s room. Ms. Brown was a young, nurturing teacher with a knack for building positive relationships with her students. I taught a group of just 13 freshman, but one was frequently absent. Ms. Brown told me after class one day that she’d seen the student in a stairwell skipping class. I said I’d document the incident and let an administrator handle it, but she wanted to know more.

“How is she doing in class?” she asked. “Does she read at grade level? Have you spoken to a guardian?”

Ms. Brown wanted me to think more about why she was was skipping and less about the consequence she’d receive. It was my first real look at how I built relationships with at-risk students, and I still think of that conversation when students skip class.

I taught my third period journalism elective in Jeff Lang’s room. Mr. Lang was a 13-year veteran who could teach everyone from the lowest performing freshman to the senior valedictorian in AP literature and composition. My journalism students were a diverse group, and I struggled to keep everyone engaged during discussions and writing assignments.

After an especially raucous day, Mr. Lang tracked me down after school. He told me that I was doing some good things with a tough group of students, but was concerned about one of them.

“She didn’t make a sound, but did you see her reaction today when your discussion went off the rails?” he asked. Normally a hard worker, she’d grown visibly frustrated and put her head down in disgust.

“Some of your kids will do anything you ask,” he told me. “Others won’t want to do much at all. But she’s your barometer. As you work to engage your reluctant learners, don’t let things get so loose that she checks out.”

I still look for “that student” in my classes today. Mr. Lang taught me to know the needs of my students and never let the quiet ones fall off my radar.

I ended my day with a planning period in Amy Pine’s room. Ms Pine had taught in schools all over the country and was always looking for ways to improve her instruction. I watched her sophomores in action as I worked quietly in the back of the room.

While her students worked independently she’d walk past me and share details about her lesson. She’d tell me if she was trying a writing prompt for the first time or frustrated that the same activity generated totally different results in her other class. Whether she knew it or not, she was giving me much needed context as I watched a talented and experienced teacher do the same job as me, but on a completely different level.

This summer, six Hope Street Group Fellows from different parts of the state collected feedback from K-12 teachers about advanced teaching roles in North Carolina. The feedback will help develop pilot proposal for  the General Assembly’s new teacher compensation models.

As the Hope Street fellows asked questions about the characteristics to look for when selecting a teacher for an advanced role, responders noted the “importance of education and experience, with more weight towards experience,” “proven ability to work with other teachers as a leader and collaborator,” and “willingness to ‘go above and beyond’ by successfully participating in other leadership opportunities and sharing strategies with other teachers.”

Responders also believed “these positions should include time as an instructor in a classroom,” and “duties may include peer observation and evaluation (informal).”

When I picture Advanced Teaching Roles in North Carolina’s public schools, I see Ms. Johnson, Ms. Brown, Mr. Lang and Ms. Pine. I see the lesson plans and tricks I borrowed from each of them the following year, when I got my own classroom. I think of the relief I felt the February morning I was in a car accident and they stepped in, covered my classes seamlessly and called me to make sure I was okay. If that’s not leadership, what is?

When I floated in and out of my colleagues’ rooms they received no extra pay, no special privileges, and no title promotions. All they got was less time to manage their own responsibilities in exchange for deep gratitude from our principal. But they made me a better teacher, and it benefitted thousands of students in the years to come.

Ten years later, North Carolina can capitalize on the informal leadership teachers provide every day by taking the mentoring model that worked so well for me and scaling it to provide better learning environments for teachers and students statewide.

Bryan Christopher

Bryan Christopher teaches English, creative writing, and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham. He’s taught for 8 years, all with Durham Public Schools, and was Riverside’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. He is a NC Teacher Voice Fellow with the Hope Street Group.