Mentoring New Teachers Toward Innovation

I’m in a very exciting position right now – I’m transitioning from having taught 7th grade science at my school for the past 8 years to now beginning a new position as the lead teacher of our new makerspace. But I normally would have been quite hesitant to take such a position… I adore my 7th grade science program, my students, and my teaching team, and – being the perfectionist that I am – would have worried about being able to find a new science teacher who could continue moving the program forward.

I was able to take my new makerspace position with absolutely no hesitation because we already had our new 7th grade science teacher: a young woman, recent college graduate with an ecology degree, who has spent the past two years as a teaching assistant and substitute teacher at our school. Kiki knows our quirky kids and our school values, and she has substituted for me when I was gone for long stretches at conferences and on class trips. I’m confident that Kiki is going to kill it as our new 7th grade science teacher.

She and I have been meeting to plan the coming school year, including both content and structures for a positive, growth mindset-oriented classroom environment. Below is a semi-comprehensive list of the work we’ve been doing and plans we’ve been setting to hopefully set her up for success.

Planning for regular weekly check-ins:

  • Our fabulous upper division assistant is scheduling at least one class period per week for Kiki and me to meet and discuss progress. This basic step is vital. With both new teachers and new-to-us veteran teachers I’ve mentored before, we’ve used this one class period per week to discuss background on entrenched school topics that arose in faculty meetings, to plan next steps for students reflecting on class projects, to troubleshoot class culture snags, and more.

Planning the year’s content:

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas
  • In planning content scope and sequence for the year, we started with the NGSS disciplinary core ideas. The middle school science team divvied up the core ideas a couple years ago, so we already knew the set that were needed in 7th grade life sciences.
  • From those core ideas, we drew from activities in my own previous units and tweaked to outline a general sequence for the year, aligning each unit with specific content goals.
  • With the sequence laid out, we planned alignment with the NGSS science and engineering practices. Since our school doesn’t give “grades,” our narrative reports to parents include explanations of each child’s growth in specific skills. For our science program, we report on growth in the eight NGSS practices. By aligning learning activities with those practices, Kiki will be able to easily point out to students what skills they are working on when, as well as track each student’s progress on each skill.
  • Kiki is designing this fabulous “Scientist of the Month” routine in which each class will Skype with a different scientist each month to learn about their research and then create a little bulletin board display to share their learning with the other classes. She’s putting together a schedule already, and focusing on women scientists and scientists of color.

Planning classroom routines/structures:

  • For each unit, Kiki will keep a bulletin board following the learning arc of the unit and showing how the activities build to reach the learning goals. The kids will have a similar sheet of paper in their notebooks to track how well they show their learning and understanding at each milestone through the unit.

    “What We’re Studying” board from Pinterest
  • Kids will keep their science notebooks in binders, to allow for lined note paper and teacher-printed scaffolds like project trackers and sentence starters. I lent Kiki Questions, Claims, and Evidence to think about those scaffolds.
  • For reading and comprehension activities – like evaluating reliable internet information sources, or reading articles reporting scientific research – Kiki will demonstrate her own thinking processes first. I also lent her my (very old, 2000-edition) Strategies That Work for non-fiction reading comprehension.
  • DON’T. GIVE. EXTRA CREDIT. As I mentioned above, we don’t give grades, so extra credit is essentially meaningless anyway. But even in a learning environment that requires grades, “extra credit” implies that there are other elements more important than simply showing learning. If a student can hide misunderstanding by completing extra tasks, then the “grade” doesn’t reflect the student’s actual growth.
  • Similarly, THOROUGH is more important than ON TIME. Narrative reports give us space to comment on a student’s learning and separately comment on executive functioning if really necessary, so students should be encouraged to be thorough and re-try assignments rather than forced to demonstrate understanding at one specific time.

  • We found these awesome wall-mount magnetic organizational cups – Urbio – that can be fantastic for storing classroom supplies in kid-accessible locations.
  • Kiki is in the excellent position of getting a new classroom this fall, so her physical space won’t be “in the shadow” of being my former space. For other new teachers, I always recommend that they re-arrange their physical space in at least a few substantial ways, to make clear that it’s a new learning environment

Planning positive communication with kids and parents:

  • A good-old piece of advice that remains true in any classroom: always greet students with a smile and by name.
  • Post LOTS of pictures to help parents peek into their children’s learning.
  • Send home at least two emails per day to parents just to share something great their child did that day. Keep a checklist to ensure that every parent gets that email every several weeks. (This is an idea I stole blatantly from a friend on Twitter, and it helped my students’ parents always know that I adore their children even if I’m also sending home an email about a concern.)
  • If a student is struggling to understand a concept or demonstrate a skill, or falling behind in a project, catch it early. Before sending home an email to parents, check in with the student to form an outline of a plan. That email home to parents should include both the concern and the plan!

Many new teacher guides focus on carefully planning your gradebook ahead of time, but an innovative teacher should always plan learning outcomes first. Similarly, many new teacher guides recommend laying out your classroom rules and disciplinary structures immediately, but an innovative teacher should plan to get to know their students as individuals and create learning plans or disciplinary plans in collaboration with the student who needs it.

The idea of providing new teachers with a specific mentor is becoming more and more widespread – certainly much more so than when I was a first-year teacher. As we develop these mentorship programs, we need to ensure that our new teachers are receiving guidance towards better teaching practices, and the books and guides available to new teachers need to catch up.

For more blogs by Lindsey, check out:

Lindsey Own

Lindsey has been a STEM educator for over 2 decades, in a teaching career that has been interspersed with research-based curriculum development and professional development leadership. She is an internationally-recognized leader in the educational makerspace community, including earning the 2018 FabLearn Global Excellence Practitioner award. Her love is in the classroom: supporting her students in understanding themselves, their growth, and the great impact they can have on the world.

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