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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Two Faces of Mentoring: Stepping Up the Teacher Training

A Rhode Island program uses teachers and technology to prepare educators.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team

Teachers in the Rhode Island Teachers and Technology Initiative (RITTI) received intensive training and laptop computers at the Mandela Woods Elementary School in Providence.

Credit: The Rhode Island Foundation

The Rhode Island Teachers & Technology Initiative (RITTI), a project of the Rhode Island Foundation, is the state's most comprehensive professional development program for teachers.

Now in its third year, the program offers teachers two weeks of training during the summer, a free laptop computer and software, and an e-mail account. Teachers learn how to navigate the Internet, integrate video into presentations, design spreadsheets, and work with databases. This past summer, training for more than 1,100 teachers brought the total to 2,400 -- an impressive 25 percent of the state's teacher workforce.

RITTI Fellows are mentor teacher-trainers who are graduates of the program. Four of them gathered recently to discuss the role of mentoring. Their conversation reveals not only their wealth of teaching experience, but also their generosity of spirit. The session was moderated by Jean Cohoon of the Rhode Island Foundation.

"How is mentoring different from other professional development models?"

Jackie: One main difference is the development of a relationship -- two teachers actively involved with the learning process and sharing ideas. I'm contrasting this to a workshop and staging situations that may not be real. The best way to learn teaching strategies is to observe and discuss methods with a peer.

Jane: Mentoring is better; it's more personalized. In a one-on-one situation, [mentees] are more likely to disclose their own weaknesses and talk about how they can strengthen them.

Denise: Most professional development is either a one-shot deal with an in-service or a course that begins and ends and that's it.

Ron: It's very important to have a tolerance for different teaching styles -- not to impose your teaching style on another teacher, but try to guide that teacher to develop his or her own style.

Jackie: As a special education teacher, I have gone into regular classes. Often, the eighth-grade math and English teachers had never used technology. I said, "Tell me the standard and I will write a lesson. If we can integrate technology, I will assist you and take the kids to the lab. We will do whatever we need to do." The teachers were 100 percent receptive. Initially they would ask me for further ideas, but they now like to plan lessons on their own.

"What do you gain from mentoring others?"

Jane: I learn a lot from observing other teachers and seeing how students learn differently. It also energizes the teachers to see what other teachers and students do. They stop you in the corridor and say, "Gee, we tried such and such and we really liked it." They're gaining a deeper understanding of their content and a bigger bag of tricks to explore.

Denise: Mentoring at its very base is teaching. The same things that have drawn me to become a teacher have drawn me to relish being a mentor. Often in our classrooms we're isolated from other teachers, but we enter into education because we're people-centered. Mentoring relationships bring us together with other colleagues. Mentors exhibit two kinds of qualities: They have craft knowledge and are truly exemplary teachers. Secondly, they're very generous in sharing their knowledge, time, and materials.

"Have you experienced mentoring relationships that didn't work?"

Jackie: On occasion, if I was not there with physical assistance for teachers in the area of technology, they were still reluctant to try it on their own.

Jane: I can think of one teacher [who finally] had a breakthrough this year and realized, "Wow, these kids do learn best having that technology." That person had a parent night where she showed off a Web page her kids had designed.

"How has technology played a role in your mentoring relationships?"

Jane: Technology's played a strong role in my mentoring relationships. Working in four different schools, I [use e-mail] to have a constant rapport going between 400 teachers. If I want to [know] what's being covered in third-grade science next semester, I can get feedback instantly. So the technology itself helps technology be implemented.

Denise: Geography List is one listserv of Rhode Island geography teachers. I am a part of a whole online community that a few years ago I never knew existed.

Jackie: I'm not sure this should be asked of me! I'm camping this week in a screened tent with my laptop computer. I had a cell phone sitting next to it and Family PC [with] a survey on whether you're a compuholic! Technology is something I cannot separate from teaching. Children with disabilities, who don't speak in classes and don't come forward, now have their own Web pages and will communicate to me through a Web page.

Ron: For the first time this year, a couple of parents started to use e-mail to get feedback on their children. I see that as a very growing kind of thing. So often I let a phone call fall by the wayside because I feel I'm playing phone tag.

Jane: Letting that phone call go by sometimes leads to a parent not knowing that a child has been unsuccessful. Then it's a week later when they see the effects on a quiz. With e-mail, you can intervene more quickly.

[Students and parents] can e-mail any of us. As a compuholic, I check my e-mail at least three times a day.

"We'll get Jackie at her campsite and Jane in the middle of dinner! Shall we end on that note?"

Ron: I think that's a good place.

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