My first teaching gig was at a small independent school in New Orleans. I taught 7th through 11th grade Social Studies and History, and I coached several sports and clubs. As a green teacher with multiple preps, I spent most of my time learning on the job. The curve was steep and the climb was brutal. Most days, I felt like Sisyphus pushing a block of chalk up a dusty blackboard. Apart from the occasional faculty meeting, I hardly ever interacted with my peers. I taught from alarm bell to alarm bell with my door tightly sealed. In educational jargon, “I was siloed.”
A few weeks before I left to teach in another state, I ran into one of those seldom-seen colleagues in the faculty lounge. Her classroom was only a hall away, but it may as well have been on the other side of the planet. We shared a cup of coffee with chicory and discussed “surviving yet another year in the trenches.” We immediately hit it off. She was like an older version of myself. She was the teacher I hoped to become; she was my educational soulmate! As we departed, I said, “I wish I had met you in my first year. I would have learned a lot. And, you would have saved me - and my kids - a mountain of grief.” The encounter was like a scene from the film, Sliding Doors.
Scheduling a Date with a Mentor
I was the founding school leader of an arts integrated charter school. When I set out to recruit faculty and staff, I looked for folks who were willing to venture way outside the box, take chances and try new things. Not surprisingly, I ended up hiring a bevy of young teachers. “What they lacked in experience,” I thought, “they would easily make up for with enthusiasm, flexibility and grit.” I was wrong. I spent the first six months putting out fires and mopping up tears. I had to constantly reassure my shell-shocked recruits that things would eventually (hopefully) get better. I was more of a social worker than a principal.
One afternoon, I spent almost two hours consoling a particularly distraught teacher. Finally, she perked up a bit and said, “At least my love life is going well.”
“That’s great,” I said. “It’s important to have a good work-life balance.”
“Yeah,” she said, “because of my work, I really don’t have times to socialize or go out to bars. Instead, I used a dating app. I immediately found someone who was compatible. It was pretty cool. He’s a first-year teacher like me. We spend a lot of time cuddling and commiserating.”
"Interesting,” I said. “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a dating app to connect teachers to mentors? It would be called OkMentor, Tinder for Teachers, or simply Match.edu.”
The next day, I sat down at my desk and started splicing together a survey for my staff. It began with simple questions about teaching experience, schedule and interests. It then continued with a large skills inventory, which included both teaching methods and classroom management techniques. For each question, there was a Likert scale that went from “novice” to “expert.” For example, a teacher might say, “I’m a real pro at KWL, but my Excel skills are significantly below subpar.” Finally, I had them write a short blurb about their educational philosophy, and list their favorite, most influential books and films on education. We called it “The Knowledge Bank.” I posted the results on the wall of the “Collaboration Station,” our name for the faculty lounge. “At least this way,” I told my teachers, “everybody knows who knows what.”
The next year, I used the data from The Knowledge Bank to schedule instructional rounds and to assign mentors to struggling teachers. For the most part, it worked out well. An Algorithm to Personalize PD Educators, including myself, like to talk about the importance of personalized learning and differentiated instruction for students. “Every child learns differently,” we proclaim! “One size doesn’t fit all!” Rarely (and strangely) though, do we say the same thing about adults. Professional Development or PD at most schools involves a series of random, whole-school workshops, in other words, “one size for all adults.” It’s like making a salad in a crockpot.
The best PD, like the best teaching, is tailored to the individual learner. It’s based on identified strengths and challenges, and it takes into consideration different learning styles and interests. It allows teachers to hone in on practices they need to know, want to know, and are excited to learn. And, the knowledge and skills are “delivered” in a way that works for each individual learner. Some schools try to accomplish this by hiring an instructional coach or DCI, Director of Curriculum and Instruction. The DCI makes observations, provides feedback and models “best practices” for individual teachers. It’s a great idea, but it doesn’t always pan out. Unfortunately, the coach isn’t always the right coach. I once had a teacher who referred to his DCI as “The Grim Reaper.”
“She sucked the life out of me and my classroom,” he complained. Hiring a full-time DCI also requires taking someone out of the classroom, who, ideally, should be IN the classroom. Also, teachers often resent the fact that that person is no longer in the trenches WITH them. Another common (and often mandated) approach is for an administrator, e.g., the principal, to observe teachers using an observation checklist or rubric. They provide “objective” feedback to the teacher and then, based on the “data,” help them create a “professional growth plan.” For obvious reasons, not the least of which being the precarious boss-employee relationship, the practice has its limitations. A third option is for schools to assign a mentor to inexperienced or struggling teachers. Again, the challenge is finding the right match, Mr. Miyagi for The Karate Kid.
It all comes down to relationships, which brings us back to the aforementioned “dating app”. Dating apps rely on algorithms to calculate probability – the probability of having a successful relationship. An algorithm, according to Dictionary.com, is simply “a set of rules for solving a problem in a finite number of steps.” The Google search engine for example is nothing more than a big, powerful algorithm for solving the problem of how to find stuff on the World Wide Web. For us, the problem is finding the ideal mentor for an eager and willing protégé. The algorithm could be as rudimentary as my makeshift knowledge bank, or as sophisticated as the formula used to propel OkCupid’s arrow with its red, heart-shaped tip. It could be customized to fit a school’s particular mission and vision, or it could be built around an entire district’s long-range strategic plan. It could be limited to a single campus, or it could be open to the entire world. It is actually conceivable that a teacher in Toledo could have a mentor as far away as Timbuktu or Katmandu. Or, with the right algorithm, that first-year teacher (me, many years ago) treading water in the trenches, could find a lifeline just down the hall…
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