Gotchas and Gorillas: New-Teacher Mentoring at the Dinner Table
By: Kevin Thienes
Date: March 8, 2012
Summary: Kevin Thienes, from the Boise State Writing Project, describes a simple and effective new-teacher mentoring program.
I spent two years working with a group of Boise State University Writing Project TC's and pre-service teachers in a mentoring program funded by the NWP's Teacher Inquiry Communities Network. Our goal was to better prepare new teachers for entry into the profession. At the end of the program, I realized that the next couple of years for these new teachers could be even more difficult and challenging than their pre-service year. The frightening statistic that 50% of new teachers entering the profession leave within five years, coupled with the large number of people my age who are retiring, compelled me to do something to attempt to stem the tide. I proposed that the Boise State University Writing Project host a new-teacher mentoring program.
There were certain parameters that were essential to this initiative:
- It had to be replicable. Whatever was created had to be something that far outlived the first generation of participants.
- It had to be inexpensive to operate.
- Most importantly, it had to impart value and provide meaningful information to a group of new teachers.
I invited a dozen teachers who had three or fewer year's experience. Two of the teachers invited had been my student teachers. The others were new teachers in my building or friends. The invitation is available in Appendix A (Word).
All-in-all seven teachers joined Julie, a fellow TC, and me for what proved to be an amazing adventure! They were a very diverse group: Sarah, a fifth grade elementary teacher; Andrea, a sixth grade middle school reading teacher; Nicci, a seventh grade science teacher; Thomas, an seventh grade English teacher; Robin, an eighth grade math teacher; Ami, a tenth grade science teacher; and Jody a tenth grade remedial English teacher.
We agreed to meet at my home on Saturday evenings from 6:30–8:30 (and as three of the participants were single, that was a sacrifice!). We followed the same schedule for six months, but they only left by 8:30 on the first evening. The last meeting of the year was still going strong at 11:00.
Each participant was asked to email me one success (we called these "gotchas") and one issue (we called these "gorillas") related to their work.
Articulate what is working for you (known as a Gotcha!). What have you done recently that nailed it, went beyond your expectations, and provided "light bulb" moments for you and your kids? It doesn't have to be earth-shaking, but if some intervention helped get Ethel to bring her pencil 3 out of 5 days last week, that is a victory! We all have expertise, insight, and wisdom to share, and all of us will benefit from what you do.
Identify the 800 lbs. gorilla that sits in your classroom. What issue are you finding most difficult? Be it classroom management, lesson planning, assessment, grading papers, parent, administrative or district expectations, etc.—nothing is off limits. What is it that you find overwhelming, that keeps you from falling asleep and gets you up in the middle of the night?
Everyone emailed the information to me during the week prior to the scheduled meeting. I compiled these into a document for each of the participants.
The first meeting started with the usual awkwardness of any group made up of strangers, but the home environment and the aroma of good food helped overcome the initial discordance. We cleared the table and began the discussion. Julie, my thinking partner, helped carry the conversation while I took notes as the teachers participated in lively discussions. As we enjoyed the meal, we got to know each other and developed friendships. This environment has proven to be one of the most critical factors in the success of this initiative. Excellent food and a non-school atmosphere allowed us to be more like a family rather than disconnected colleagues, and scaffolded a level of openness and honesty far greater than I had anticipated.
We wanted a free exchange of ideas, but especially desired that Julie and I would not be looked at as "fonts of all wisdom." Sometimes that resulted in lengthy discussions that didn't permit us to cover everyone's entries. Participants could re-submit, but no one ever did. Each month brought new Gorillas and new Gotchas. The notes taken as the discussions evolved were then emailed back to each participant. (See Appendix B (Word) for examples of participants' Gotchas and Gorillas).
Even a casual perusal of the gotchas and gorillas shows the overlap of gotcha solutions to gorilla troubles. What became very fulfilling for the two mentors was how a gotcha would be discussed and someone else would realize their gorilla had an answer. Having the answers come from the new teachers validated them and opened their eyes to their own value as educators, thinkers, and problem solvers.
The final meeting of the year occurred in late May with a menu of southern-style comfort food and included an evaluation. (See Appendix C (Word) for the evaluation). Below I highlight some of the items from the evaluation that identified why this process was so successful.
The Setting: All respondents said not having it at school or in a restaurant was very important. Not being in a work environment is obvious, but the former food servers said that groups like us who sat at tables for as long as we did were "tip-swallowing vortexes".
The Meal: Most of them had not been fed like that since they left home. At first, serving them a home-cooked meal might seem superfluous; a deeper examination of how community roots are established validates how vital this small gesture can be. Many early career teachers are loosely grounded in their school communities, often having not yet developed significant collegial relationships. However, even more absent is their connection to the community in which they live, as many are often living far from home. If cooking is not your forte, I am confident that higher-quality takeout would make them happy.
Round Table Discussion: This was the pinnacle for the participants! Being able to share ideas and not have an evaluator around created a collaborative and safe environment. More formal mentoring programs frequently involve a level of evaluation. I want to suggest that some careful thought needs to be given to pairing evaluation and mentoring. A comment made was "I would not talk this openly in my faculty lunch room for fear of who might hear it next!" The camaraderie and confidentiality around my dining room table gave a safe place to talk, to laugh, and to cry. In the highly relational dynamic of excellent teaching, this cannot be overvalued.
The Participants: I believe it is crucial that there be diversity in the participants. We had teachers from three different school districts ranging from fifth grade to tenth grade and a wide variety of content area. I hold that there is tremendous value in finding our commonalities over specific content area challenges. Engaging disinterested students, classroom management, and meaningful assessment tools are common to all levels of education.
The Organization: We learned, through hindsight, that it was better to start with the gotchas than the gorillas. Beginning with everyone's successes helped to create a positive atmosphere and highlighted participants successes and strengths. The conversations in that part of the evening could be remembered and drawn on as we set out to work on the gorillas. Starting with the gorillas could be draining and put a negative spin on the evening, making it harder to figure out how to address them and sometimes using up our time so that we couldn't talk about our successes.
Facilitator's Role: I found myself stretched in these meetings. These were often very emotional meetings. The participants rejoiced at new successes and insights and wept at their frustrations, often during the same meeting. As facilitators, we had to accept that we were catalysts for those emotions and be willing to embrace the wide variety of emotional responses. When we made the conscious decision to change the format and have the gotcha's first, there was palpable change to the climate of the room. It is essential to have flexibility that allows substance to trump form.
There was tremendous power in the reflective conversations that guided these new teachers into conscious competence. Our work in this initiative is done in an environment that encourages us all to be personally responsible for engaging our passion for teaching into creativity and positivity. I believe this program is highly replicable, and as I begin my second year, I fully expect similar results:
This was the best way to mentor teachers. As a "3rd year" it was nice to talk to first year teachers and see how far I've come in my career. Sometimes I forget the things I've accomplished and it was so encouraging for me to talk to them. As a hopeful student-teacher, I never understood why most teachers who quit, do so in their first five years. As a third year teacher, the reasons are very clear to me now. I was a very passionate first-year teacher who quickly realized that working with the public can be a frustrating and thankless job. I also knew that this job can be rewarding. As time passed, I couldn't remember that passion I held my first year teaching. I believe that these sessions encouraged me to renew that passion. As a group, we seemed to band together in this time of uncertainty. It's so hopeful as a new teacher to know I'm not alone. This opportunity showed me that I will be successful. I am and will continue to be a great teacher because of the support that surrounds me. This was a wonderful experience and I hope that others, who may be tempted to throw in the towel and get a nine-to-five job, will find this group. Thank you!