Three views from the trenches

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Mary Hanson

Photo by John Booz

Mary Hanson

Research shows that teachers who receive support from mentors are more likely to stay on the job than those who are left to struggle through their rookie year on their own.

Consulting Editor Lorraine Forte and Associate Editor Debra Williams spoke with veteran teachers Mary Hanson and Brenda Humphrey and newcomer Margaret Evans about the challenges of being a first-year teacher, what good mentors provide and what keeps teachers in the classroom.

Hanson recently won the Kohl-McCormick Early Childhood Teaching Award and is a National Board-certified preschool teacher at Healy Elementary in Bridgeport; Humphrey mentors new teachers, is a facilitator for the Chicago Teachers Union Quest Center and teaches 4th grade at Woodson Elementary in Grand Boulevard; and Evans, who came to the district this year through Teach for America, teaches 6th grade at Pope Elementary in North Lawndale.

In your first year on the job, what was most frustrating, and what kind of support did you get?

Evans: My principal is very supportive of what I’m doing in the classroom. She definitely has a vision for how our school should be run and makes sure we’re always working together. She’s very supportive of me being able to reach parents, or intervening with students that I’ve had classroom management issues with. Most frustrating to me is the students have come to trust me and share with me some of the issues that they have outside of school, and I really want to help them.

Humphrey: When I was a newcomer, I found it extremely difficult. We didn’t have the support like teachers have now in terms of mentors. But the principal was very welcoming and inviting. She took me under her wing and showed me the ropes in terms of the rules and regulations of the school, how to talk to parents and things like that. I did receive some of that information in pre-service [training] but it was not what I had expected. I also had the help of some of the other teachers.

What do you mean when you say training wasn’t what you expected?

Humphrey: Pre-service education prepared me, but not to the extent that I could come in and feel comfortable with what it was that I was supposed to do, [such as] lesson plan design, not to mention discipline problems and communicating with parents.

Does this sound like what you hear from new teachers?

Hanson: Absolutely, along with getting kids motivated and convincing them that [education] is important and making it interesting and exciting. Kids are easily distracted and to really light a fire under them and have them take ownership of their learning is a challenge.

Have any of you considered quitting and if so, what changed your minds?

Humphrey: I never considered quitting. I was willing to fight the fight. I engaged in a lot of professional development and did a lot of reading and research on my own. I was willing to stay because I truly thought I could make a significant difference.

Hanson: Exactly. There hasn’t been a time when I wanted to quit, but there’s definitely been days I’ve gone home and just cried. But … I really felt the bond was starting to come with my students and that’s why I wanted to stay committed to them.

What does it take to be a good mentor?

Hanson: Taking people from where they’re at, looking at them as equals, finding out what they need and listening and not having your own agenda. Find out where they want to go and what you can possibly do to help them. Or just encourage them. I’ve taken away so many fantastic ideas from the classrooms of [teachers] I’ve worked with. I’m not coming in as an expert. I’m coming in as a colleague and somebody with a little bit more experience.

Humphrey: Mary made a good point. It’s important that you give your mentees the feeling that you’re coming in to facilitate them colleague-to-colleague, not to judge them. You learn more from them than they learn from you. New teachers come in with a wealth of knowledge. With my expertise and what they’re coming in with—that’s a dynamite package.

Do you have a mentor?

Evans: Yes. I actually have kind of a team of mentors. (Laughter) I can go to different people for different things. And I agree with everything they just said. Take people where they’re at and try to figure out their goals. I have one mentor who is always accessible. She has given me her cell phone and home phone and I can call her whenever. I’ve taken advantage of that.

What can other teachers do if they’re not formal mentors but want to help out new teachers?

Evans: I’ve had fellow teachers come in and help me set up my classroom or get the bulletin boards done. The gym teacher at my school is so supportive. She’ll just come in on her own time and observe me and give me exactly what you’re talking about—encouragement, support, answers to questions that I have about what went wrong in a lesson or what went well.

Humphrey: That’s fantastic. She knows what you’re experiencing [because] you’re in the same environment dealing with many of the same children. That really is a helping hand that you need to get through this exhausting job.

Do you think paying teachers more to work in hard-to-staff schools would help keep them there?

Humphrey: Money might help, but it’s not a major issue. What would really help teachers to stay is having mentors in place. You need to develop a sense of community within those schools. Then and only then, I think, will new teachers stay.

Hanson: Money might attract teachers initially to go into more challenging situations. But unless there’s support once they get there, I don’t think all the money in the world is going to keep them. When you look at schools with long stability, teachers there 15, 20, 25, 30 years—there’s a good reason. The [principal] is crucial to what happens in setting the tone. I’m also a union delegate and so many times I’ve seen principals look at teachers as though they’re the enemy. That makes for a bad teaching environment.

Evans: I take classes with fellow first-year teachers and really the make-or-break [issue] is safety. If the school is not safe, no matter what you’re being paid, teachers are not going to want to stay there.

Has your experience made you want to stay in teaching?

Evans: So far, I love my students. I’m very fortunate with the leadership at my school. I think I will stay in it, but it’s exhausting. I never realized how many hours it takes to plan the next day. I’m literally up until 2:00 in the morning and running until I go to bed at night.

Humphrey: It will get easier. (Laughter)

What have you learned about how to deal with parents?

Humphrey: The more they yell and the more they become angry, you just lower your voice. You have to let them know that you’re not the enemy. Most parents have fears of school. You have to be calm and let them know that you hear what they’re saying and you just want to help.

Evans: That has really made the difference with my parent relationships. In the first two weeks of school I called every parent [to say] I’ll be teaching your child, and this is something great that he has done. Ever since then, I really try to maintain a balance by making sure that every conversation starts off with something positive about their child. That has helped parents be open with me about what’s going on and how I can work with them.

What personal qualities are important for a new teacher?

Humphrey: Dedication and understanding. You have to show a whole lot of love. You have to find out what it is that students like and use that to build upon, to help you facilitate their learning process.

Hanson: You have to love children. I know some people may disagree with that, but I agree with Brenda. Your heart has to be there. When kids know you care—I don’t care what age they are, if it’s pre-K or high school—they will come around, they will respond to your respecting them and listening to where they’re at. The more challenging they are, the harder I have to try.

Evans: Definitely. Caring is number one. You have to care about your students. They can tell whether you do or not. You have to be an excellent problem-solver and really perceive yourself as the leader, telling them that we’re all going to do this together.

Any parting advice for newcomers?

Hanson: If you’re thinking about quitting, don’t. Maybe the school’s not the right fit. Don’t write off the whole profession because of one bad experience.

Humphrey: I agree. Just because that particular school is not working out for you, don’t leave the profession. Each school has its own culture and if you like working with kids, stick with it.