by Nick Ferentinos
JEA Mentoring Committee

Nick Ferentinos

In a presentation at the New Teacher Center’s Annual Symposium in San Jose, Calif., “Leveraging the School Culture to Support New Teacher Mentoring,” Harry Ross and Steve Zemelman addressed the practical strategies taken from their book, “13 Steps to Teacher Empowerment: Taking a More Active Role in Your School Community.” This is the second of two articles. Following each of the tips, I include an observation of my own.

Take action to deal with committees. Don’t hate them, use them. Help make them effective by suggesting strategies like advance agendas, designated roles, agreeing on next steps, individual assignments, and setting deadlines before the meeting is over. Follow norms of respectful communication.

Following up their advice to speak up at meetings, Ross and Zemelman’s suggestion to be proactive in committee meetings is a vital one for new teachers. Far too many school meetings are run badly. Time is not used efficiently. New teachers are wise to suggest ways to make meetings work better for everyone, keeping in mind how some veterans think new teachers should be seen and not heard. The advice to remain respectful is a good one.

Take action to mount a campaign. If there’s something you want to change in your school, lay out a plan with specific steps. Who are the people to talk to first? When and how will you approach the principal? What objections or obstacles will come up? Should there be a pilot effort first? How will you keep things moving?

In 1999 at the school where I was teaching, a first-year teacher saw how woefully inept many of the veteran faculty were at using technology in their classrooms. She asked the principal if she might present a plan to the faculty to inspire more teachers to venture forth. Her energetic presentation was so compelling that instead of being seen as an upstart, she was embraced by the faculty, many of whom followed her suggestions and began employing new tools to assist instruction after her dynamic presentation. When I became a mentor the next year, she was among those in my caseload. She remains my ideal of a new teacher, excited and eager to advance her practice from the very start.

Take action by talking to “the man” (or “the woman”). Consider the leadership style of your principal, as well as your own attitudes toward authority. Don’t wait for a crisis. Find occasion for talk, to build the relationship. Take in account the principal’s point of view, especially when making a request. The authors suggest starting a practice of regular brief check-ins as a way of keeping lines of communication open. Couch requests in terms of the principal and the school’s best interests.

My previous example speaks to this good advice to develop a working relationship with the principal early on. Our profession is so isolated, and the work of a principal is demanding, taking the time to meet and confer helps break down the barriers to good communication. Good principals invite teachers to step into their office and talk about practice. And good teachers invite principals to visit their classroom.

Reach out to parents. Be sure to listen and learn when talking with parents. Share your own stories of learning in school—bad as well as good—to help build relationships. Plan activities that involve parents: writing memoirs together with their children on a family writing night, for example. Use phone calls and home visits for positive communication, not just about a child’s problems.

Especially for a young teacher, speaking to parents can be daunting. As mentors, we need to help those teachers understand that parents are our allies in their children’s education, and that teachers and parents working together strategically can transform a student’s life. We need to encourage new teachers to make those calls home, especially to reinforce successes. I loved hearing from mentees how grateful parents were to hear about their child’s successes instead of their failings.

Reach outside to get grants. The money is out there. Teacher professional organizations often give small grants. Find someone in the district or the community to help you write a proposal. Learn proposal-writing skills: Understanding your audience, showing a need, establishing your expertise and preparedness, and avoiding jargon.

One organization that can be very helpful is Teachers post requests for resources on the website and indicate the cost. Donors can then search for projects they would like to support, usually for very little money. Donors commonly don’t try to pay for the entire request. Donations can be large or small. A quick look at the website makes it clear that it’s a helpful, easy-to-use source for support for a teacher’s classroom.

Reach outside and forge partnerships. Business and non-profit organizations can connect learning with real-world experiences and reduce schools’ isolation. Negotiate a partnership clearly, as your goals and those of an outside organization are likely to differ. But teachers and the outsiders will learn along with the kids.

Local organizations, public and private, are often looking for ways to connect to schools. Service clubs want to help their community, and by reaching out, teachers can help enlighten community leaders about the real work of schools. Libraries and community recreation programs are just a couple of examples of public organizations that might be interested in establishing partnerships.