By Shawna Coppola
Author of Renew! Become a Better—and More Authentic—Writing Teacher
As a first-year teacher, having a mentor can make the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling exhilarated. We invited Stenhouse author and experienced educator Shawna Coppola to document her experience with mentoring Laura during her first year as a kindergarten teacher. Please join us and follow their six-episode podcast (links below) as they experience Laura’s first year in her classroom.
When Stenhouse asked me if I wanted to mentor a new teacher through her first year and record the experience for posterity, I barely took a breath before saying yes. As someone who has taught for nearly two decades, I still feel the desire to be mentored, to surround myself with supportive individuals who understand the joyful, yet challenging, life of an educator and who can occasionally offer a sage piece of advice, a thought-provoking question, a listening ear, or a much-needed laugh.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway, and loudly, for those sitting in the back) that teachers are engaged in some of the most complex work imaginable: making hundreds of important decisions (often on the fly), masterfully integrating a seemingly endless variety of skills, and cultivating a near-superhuman capacity for empathy and grace.
When I met Laura, an educator in her first year, I was so impressed with her thoughtful, reflective approach to teaching. A kindergarten teacher in a K-6 public school serving approximately 300 students, Laura told me during our very first conversation that she knew from early on that she wanted to work with children. That first year, she taught 22 children largely independently, with only occasional access to a classroom aide. She described her students as kind, motivated to learn, and, for the most part, happy to be in school.
As we got to know each other, investigating together some of the challenges of that first year, we covered a lot of territory. Laura and I discussed social-emotional learning, managing a large group of children, a variety of literacy practices, how to balance short- and long-term demands, and the value of using mentors to teach writing. It was such an enriching, pleasurable experience for both of us!
Like many teachers, Laura found it difficult to balance building positive, healthy relationships with her students alongside managing them as a whole group. Her biggest challenges were related to planning and making decisions both ahead of time and in the moment. She worried about how to fit in valuable instruction around skills that many perceive as “non-academic” or “soft” along with more traditionally-recognized academic skills.
The first time we met, we discussed the enormous, all-too-familiar challenge of “fitting it all in”–particularly with regard to literacy–and how to maintain a daily schedule for her students that is meaningful, engaging, and developmentally appropriate. I advised her to keep a close eye on the big picture when it came to her students’ literacy experiences and to try to identify the experiences that gave both her and her students the “best bang for [their] buck”—a difficult, yet important, task.
[Listen to Episode 1]
As Laura continued to experiment with how to incorporate literacy instruction into her students’ day in a way that felt more integrated and less piecemeal, she reported that she was beginning to feel challenged by the social/emotional demands of her kindergartners. Like many classroom teachers, Laura was forced to juggle a wide variety of student needs with very little sustained guidance. She felt as though she was “drowning in behavior charts,” which ran counter to her desire to co-construct a healthy classroom community with her students. We agreed that social-emotional learning is at the heart of all good teaching.
[Listen to Episode 2]
As we worked together, Laura reported that she was seeing marked improvements. Her students were adjusting to the routines they’d established around their classroom literacy centers. Frequent check-ins were helping students develop their ability to reflect on their work in peer partnerships. With literacy centers running more smoothly, Laura decided she wanted to broaden literacy activities. Facilitated guided reading groups could help her support her students as they read connected text within their zone of proximal development. I offered Laura some advice for how to begin the challenging work of facilitating effective guided reading groups without becoming too overwhelmed.
[Listen to Episode 3]
By mid-year, assessment results indicated that Laura needed to invest more time in helping her kindergarten students practice decoding and encoding words. We discussed how she could modify some of what she already does with her students. We brainstormed ways she could incorporate additional multisensory work with letters and sounds to help students create even more neural pathways in the brain. I shared with her the many missteps that I and other teachers have made when helping students become more independent readers and writers.
[Listen to Episode 4]
So many options exist to elicit creativity from young students. Mentors—both professional mentors and student mentors—can inspire students to write while also opening up a world of possibilities for how they might make decisions as composers of text. Laura said her students benefited greatly from two things: noticing the different and varied craft moves of such beloved authors as Kevin Henkes and Mo Willems and trying them out in their own compositions. She said their excitement over the realization that they, too, could use these moves in their writing was palpable!
[Listen to Episode 5]
As we came to the end of our mentoring sessions, we talked about how to incorporate strategies to help students learn and retain sight words. As many teachers who work with our youngest students know, it can be enormously difficult to balance phonics work and word play with opportunities to listen to and read connected text—not to mention everything else that teachers must juggle within what often seems like a few short hours! Laura and I also reflected on this unique experience we shared and the many ways in which it has impacted our work as educators.