Ingrid Rodenbeck is very good at her job as a program support teacher and mentor for special education at Thoreau and Falk elementary schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). She knows there’s always more to learn, but says “If I take time out from school to go to a meeting or seminar, it has to be worth losing those hours where I could be getting my work done.”
One of about 55 mentors at MMSD who took first-year, two-day mentor trainings designed by the New Teacher Center (newteachercenter.org) and offered by the Dane County New Teacher Project this year, Ingrid completed all four in the series.
She said she found the workshops extremely validating to the way she had been working, and complementary to a previous supervisory course she took to oversee student teachers. Tools and formal conversational protocols presented in the workshops were new, and useful, to her.
The last workshop, Designing Effective Instruction, called for participants to tell a story, in the format of their choice, about a mentoring success as a method to reflect upon professional growth and set next steps.
That resonated with Ingrid. But, as it happened, she’d had a spectacularly stressful year in terms of her personal life, coupled with the never-easy stress and time crunch within her school day. She felt her greatest success over the past year didn’t lie specifically in mentoring (her two mentees were new to the district, not to teaching), but in simply meeting the high standards of her professional duties while at the same time managing several crises within her family. She made a poster of herself keeping many plates spinning in the air. Her partner in the activity loved it, and immediately snapped a photo.
Ingrid says her poster shows everyone, not just her, and that’s a guide with her mentoring practice. “Everyone struggles. Mentors help…if they’re the right one.”
Careful mentor recruitment, selection, and training are high on the list of standards of successful beginning teacher induction programs. Mentoring, when done right, is not prescriptive. It embodies a growth mindset; knowing that qualities and skills can be changed with focused work and dedication. Mentoring should address growth from the perspective of the new teacher.
Ingrid says “It’s important that the right people are mentoring. You can learn the tools, but still not understand how to move someone to where you know they should go. Not everyone can understand that people will go farther if you help them achieve their own goals, rather than prescribe your own opinion on what their goals should be.”
“You listen to what the person wants to improve, and then help them find ways to do that. Even if you can see an area of need—let’s say, improved classroom management—you can work to make progress in their chosen areas, while guiding them to realize the connection you want them to discover.”
It’s not just about training. “The ability to build a relationship is also very important. A mentor with too little time, rushing from building to building, is not great. A beginning teacher needs time to trust enough to ask for help, and that means someone who is nearby, or someone you see outside of mentor meetings.”
Mentors who are program support for cross-categorical special education teachers have a special complication in building that trusted mentor-mentee relationship. That’s because their job has two components: mentoring with added responsibilities of providing professional development and corrective feedback. Ingrid believes it’s not optimum to do both, and in a perfect world would separate those roles.
Special education is driven by specific, legal requirements for students that are often deadline-driven, and it is Ingrid’s responsibility to oversee compliance. “I share the processes that must be explicitly followed and also monitor compliance of paperwork and programs for the same people that I also mentor. This component is very different from mentoring; it’s a corrective role.”
That’s another tricky, spinning plate Ingrid keeps going, as she helps her mentees do the same with their own spinning plates.