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Making the Case for Mentorship: Part II

(This article was originally posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.comhttps://ejewishphilanthropy.com/making-the-case-for-mentorship/)

Last week, we introduced the concept of mentorship in the development of new teachers, and how it has had a major impact in our work at MTA under the Jewish New Teacher Project program. Here are some reasons why I believe mentoring can be such a powerful tool in promoting both individual growth and changes in school cultures:

1) Healthy PD. Many stakeholders in schools have come to appreciate that good professional development is less about a one-shot workshop with an outside expert, and more about a structure that gives teachers the time and space to continuously learn from each other. The goals for growth are driven by the new teacher instead of being dictated from the top down, and the mentors are trained to facilitate a reflective conversation. A classroom observation, where individuals open their teaching spaces to someone else, will always be somewhat intimidating. But in a culture of successful professional development, it will be framed as an opportunity to learn and grow. Critical are the tools for a mentor to observe, collect data that the new teacher is interested in and serve as the non-judgmental mirror for that teacher, tools like those provided by JNTP.

2) If It’s Broken…Fix It! All schools have dysfunctions. Often, they are overlooked, not because of a lack of desire to fix them, but because those of us who have been in the school setting for a while are used to them or have come up with a workaround. But through the mentoring of our new teachers, we began identifying more problems and coming up with solutions to fix them. My colleague and fellow mentor Ms. Megan HL. Zacks astutely pointed out that having new teachers will often bring into sharp relief some of the problems that an organization may have, since new faculty raise the issues that they don’t know how to work around. Having the opportunity to discuss these items with our new teachers through the mentorship process gives us a direct path to make continuous improvements by solving the problems they uncover.

3) Power of the Network. There is a fantastic array of opportunities for school leaders at all levels to come together as part of different networks. While these different groups have been absolutely transformational for me and colleagues of mine, imagine what it might look like for a new teacher to become part of a cohort from the time they join the field? The new teachers participating in JNTP are grouped together and encouraged to learn from each other. Moreover, in MTA, where we have a critical mass of newer Judaic faculty, we have established a cohort that, in addition to their regular individual sessions with a mentor, also meets regularly as a group. These gatherings are effective in combating the isolation that new teachers can sometimes feel, and they also powerfully model to new teachers the value of these networks as ongoing sources of growth and learning throughout their careers.

4) Mentors Needed. I have to admit that when I started training as a JNTP mentor, I had no idea what I didn’t know. I thought that we would learn how to offer some words of comfort to a new teacher struggling to make it through their first parent-teacher conference sessions, or how to check the boxes on a lesson plan. I did not appreciate the depth and power of mentorship, and the different mental muscles I would need to exercise to be effective in this capacity. I was taught to withstand the urge to simply sit my new teacher down and tell them everything I know about teaching. Instead, I am learning to ask more questions, and approach the new teacher’s challenges from a collaborative and curiosity-driven perspective. I am learning how to practice active listening, trying to really hear the teacher without turning the wheels inside my head preparing an immediate response. I am so grateful for the skills that I have learned and continue to try and hone as a mentor. It has shown me how to be more collaborative in so many other relationships, with colleagues, students and even family members. What I also love about this process is that it demonstrates to new teachers how important it is to have mentors throughout one’s career. Having a coach can spur on a real paradigm shift in one’s thinking and practice, and JNTP is effective at showing teachers that mentors are not just for administrators and school leaders. They can start right away.

5) Supercharge Staff Growth. Part of our job as educational leaders is to invest in our staff. On one level, investing in a program like JNTP is putting our money where our mouth is, ensuring that new teachers are given an opportunity to grow and ultimately succeed in the short and long term in our school. But beyond that, a mentorship program provides another avenue for staff growth: creating teacher leaders. So often in our schools, career advancement is presented as a binary choice, where one can either teach, or enter school administration. In creating a cohort of teacher mentors, we are building a cadre of teachers who lead by example and through collaboration. Having a strong cohort of teacher leaders who are more active and invested in school direction and policy makes MTA a stronger school and gives our teachers a valuable opportunity to grow while still maximizing their impact in the classrooms they passionately lead.

The greatest support we can provide for our teachers is to set them up for success, be it as new teachers or as emerging leaders in our school communities. This in turn makes our schools stronger, and ultimately helps us progress towards our ultimate goal, of educating and inspiring our children. Mentoring programs like JNTP that offer a well-developed structure that can be shared with many schools are valuable investments because they provide a variety of pathways to help provide this support.

By Rabbi Dov Emerson


Rabbi Dov Emerson is the director of teaching and learning at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA). Dov can be reached via email at [email protected], and on Twitter @dovemerson.  

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