Professional Learning

Ted Nellen and Barry Sweeny: Perspectives on Mentoring

How the Internet can provide mentors for teachers.

September 1, 1999

An enduring image of teaching is one of isolation -- the lone adult working in a closed room with a group of children. But most teachers recognize the limitations of this image. And many move beyond it by incorporating their work with other adults into their view of what it means to be educators.

For at least two such individuals, Barry Sweeny and Ted Nellen, the online environment has opened up a new world of possibilities for connecting with other adults in the service of better educating young people. Each has a different story, but both have extensive expertise in mentoring and have used the Internet to expand their roles way beyond their own classrooms.

Becoming a Teacher Twice

Barry Sweeny's passion for mentoring derives from a frustration with the isolation he experienced as a new teacher when no formal program nor any mentor teacher was available to guide and support him. As a result of how difficult this beginning was, he "became a teacher twice."

He started, as many do, fresh out of college in 1967. After six difficult years in the classroom, struggling with the self-doubts that cause so many new teachers to give up and with no one to provide perspective on his experience, he decided to try other pursuits. Partly as the result of becoming a parent, however, Sweeny began to realize that he could develop some of the skills needed to be a successful teacher.

Three years after leaving the classroom, he returned to teaching with a new, broader commitment. "I didn't want to perceive myself just as a teacher, but as an educator," he explains. "When I became a teacher a second time, I also wanted to be a resource to my school and my colleagues, to make a difference beyond what I do with my students." Buoyed by this commitment, Sweeny spent twenty-two years teaching science and art while also leading a number of initiatives -- such as coordinating a new teacher mentor program for his district -- through which he increasingly developed expertise in mentoring and staff development.

Mentoring Mentors

Currently, Sweeny devotes himself full-time to supporting mentoring, teacher induction, and the ongoing professional development of other teachers. He runs Best Practice Resources, his own consulting service, which provides guidance, articles, practical research reports, tips and advice, and other information on such topics as peer coaching, school improvement, and assessment.

He also continues to contribute to a national network that he co-founded in 1991 -- the Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network. An affiliate of the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, the network started with a newsletter and occasional journal but began to use a Web site to share expertise and create an online community that helps members to "access the best practices in mentoring and induction and to create a 'mentoring initiative' across the U.S.A."

The process of developing Web sites to reach other teachers has profoundly changed Sweeny's work. He recalls first thinking of the Web as a place for posting an "electronic brochure" of text documents but soon realized that the ability to hyperlink ideas "can change the way I write ... maybe even how I think and structure ideas."

As a "mentor of mentors," he is always looking for ways to work with others along a path defined by the learner's needs rather than being "linear," and the Web provides an excellent medium for doing this by allowing others to individualize the support that he offers. "I don't just want to use the way I think to structure how people learn," Sweeny claims, preferring instead for people "to use my Web site to access and structure information for themselves ... to select how they want to access the resources and the knowledge that I provide. The choices that the Web provides force me to think more flexibly about multiple ways of learning."

In addition to being an information source for others, the Web site adds to Sweeny's own understanding of the teaching-learning process. "It shows us a lot about how differently people learn. ... It helps us discover tools that take our ability to be good teachers way beyond what we currently know." In essence, the Web can provide "a way to help teachers to experience engaged learning themselves, perhaps for the first time. Through that experience teachers can learn how to provide more engaging learning opportunities for their students."

Going Online to Find a Community

Using the Web to expand learning possibilities also hooked Ted Nellen, a teacher with twenty-five years of experience in the classroom. Like Sweeny, Nellen found himself without the kind of support he wanted early on. "When I first started in the New York City schools," he recalls, "I worked with a teacher who was very good but intimidating. ... She had a style that was not like mine." In fact, Nellen did not find anyone immediately around him with whom he had a close affinity. In a Web article about his development as a teacher, he writes, "I was more concerned with content and less with presentation. After all, I argued, many of the great writers had great editors. ... I found it hypocritical and useless to pursue a mechanical writing class instead of the intellectual writing class. ... I was concerned with the students spending time on thinking and writing."

Finding few kindred spirits in his own building, Nellen eventually sought mentorship and community for his work by going online. "In the online world you can pick and choose," he explains. "You can pick someone who fits your style." He argues that online communication is different from face-to-face encounters where there is so much potential for prejudices to be triggered by a focus on looks and behavior. By contrast, in the online world, "it's all intellectual, there's nothing else involved."

Technology and Relationships

Ted Nellen has brought an online world to his students. In his course called "CyberEnglish" for eleventh and twelfth graders at Murry Bergtraum High School in New York City, Nellen has combined modern technology with the basics of relationship building to create an environment of sharing and learning.

Students keep folders of their work, which they display on individually created Web pages. The Internet, in turn, has opened up the students' work to a new audience. In Nellen's classes, business people, community members, and teachers have written to students offering HTML assistance, given writing tips, and provided advice. "It became a great success. Rather than having only one teacher, each student was adopted by several others. One student gathered ten mentors," says Nellen.

In addition to working with his own students, Nellen has become a mentor to other teachers and student teachers. He has helped to set up a mentoring program for teachers to learn about using technology in their classrooms and helped many other teachers interested in his CyberEnglish course.

For example, he provided inspiration and practical guidance for a teacher in Spain who set up a Web site similar to Nellen's. Through Nellen's own Web site he provides information, resources, and links to help others with mentoring, particularly telementoring, and many other issues that are important to his teaching.

Just as Sweeny's Internet-based interactions allow people to personalize how they learn from him, Nellen values the online environment for its ability to open up his work in many different ways. Making their work public and providing so many resources allows people around the country (and world) to create multiple paths into learning from the work of these two individuals.

As Nellen notes, the Web "allows you to have many mentors. ... I can't work with all people, and they can't work with me." Instead, people "create their own vehicle through a hybrid of what we provide." Sweeny and Nellen are not the only people providing resources and mentorship for other teachers. But their examples offer a compelling image of the possibilities opened up by the Internet for expanding the expertise of teachers, bringing people together, and thereby improving the education of students.

Noel White formerly served as a research associate at GLEF and is now a communications associate at WestEd in San Francisco.

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