In contract negotiations, let’s bring mentor teacher program into the discussion

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Gina Caneva is a veteran teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood.

Gina Caneva is a veteran teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood.

For as long as I’ve been a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, my district and my union have been in conflict.  This conflict came to a climax during the 2012 teachers’ strike, and we seem to be on the brink of another come September.

Although most negotiations deal with talks about salary, pensions and/or fair labor practices, some also deal with educational reform that can support teacher classroom practice.  The Consulting Teacher Program is one such example, one that the CTU and CPS compromised on during negotiations years ago to help support teachers in need of remediation. Through participating in the program, I learned of the impact it could have on both the teacher in need of support and on myself, the mentor.

After receiving an email from my district that I was eligible to apply for the consulting program because of my years of experience and high rating levels, I decided to give it a shot.  I went to a one-day training, which consisted of a PowerPoint, a manual, and teacher-mentor role-playing.  I filled out the appropriate paperwork. This was all it took for me to be considered a consultant teacher. One suggestion: The program could improve this one-step training by adding on meetings for consulting teachers while we are serving as mentors.  During my mentorship, I often wondered if I was on the right path while working with my teacher. Having time to talk with my mentor colleagues would have helped me sort through and figure out where I was succeeding and where I might have been falling short.

With help, a teacher makes continuous improvement

The second semester of this past school year, I was matched with a teacher who was under a remediation plan.  He was tenured, but he had received two years of lower scores on his classroom observations.  With the consulting teacher program, he had 90 days, with two more scored observations, to work with me to improve; if he didn’t, he would lose his job with CPS.

After initial conversations with the teacher and the school administration, I observed his classroom.  For the first few weeks, it was difficult to remain just an observer. The teacher struggled with classroom management and creating worthwhile instruction.  Afterward, I often felt that my debriefing with him consisted of an extremely long and overwhelming list of suggestions. Still, after those first few weeks, I could see that he was taking some suggestions to heart, so I began to focus in on two to three areas for making suggestions each time we talked.  Whether it was a suggestion to speak with a firmer tone to the class or time activities to help with pacing a lesson, I learned that less was more.

I also saw the impact my suggestions had on his students.  They began to actively participate in class and engage in his lessons in ways that only a handful of students had done during the first few observations.

As our time together continued, I saw the teacher improving on a weekly basis.  In part, it was because his attitude towards the coaching and remediation was very positive and open.  He was never combative or overly defensive about his teaching methods.  Having this attitude really fueled his improvement. After 90 days, he was taken off the remediation plan.

Near the end of the process, the teacher and I discussed the consulting teacher program. Both of us came to the conclusion that one reason it had been effective was because I was coming in from a different school.  I knew little of his school’s culture, which allowed me to focus solely on his classroom and his teaching.  I couldn’t say, “Well, most kids at this school react to teachers in this way,” because I had no idea what happened in other classrooms at his school.  I had to make connections back to my own classroom and back to the best practices I had learned along the way.  My coming from another school also allowed him the freedom to not feel ashamed about the remediation in front of his colleagues, who might already be succeeding at his school.

Equally important, I wasn’t entering into his classroom as an evaluator. At no time did I report back to his administration about his pitfalls or his successes.  Knowing this allowed him to trust me that I was there to support him and his students, and not pass my judgments on to his administration.

By expanding mentorship, we can prevent remediation

We also agreed that we would have loved to have this type of mentorship available during our first few years of teaching.  In CPS, mentorship programs vary from school to school.  According to a 2014 Catalyst Chicago article, Chicago faces an annual teacher turnover rate of 18%.  Imagine how much lower that percentage would be if we became a district that supported new teachers in similar ways that we support those on remediation plans. What if our efforts could prevent the need for remediation from even occurring down the road?

Furthermore, this program made me realize that even though our district is large, as educators, we share a lot of the same issues with classroom management, building applicable curricula, and dealing with the social and emotional needs of our students.  We manage all of these issues with a lack of resources, and are often caught in the middle of a public fight over our compensation and effectiveness.

The consulting teacher program is unique in that it builds a sustained relationship between two colleagues. This program can really help a teacher improve, thus helping their students improve.  My only wish is that CTU and CPS could further compromise during contract negotiations so that we invest more of our resources in this type of teacher support throughout a teacher’s career instead of waiting until a teacher is on the brink of failure.

Gina Caneva is a 12-year CPS veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood. She is a National Board Certified teacher and an alumnus of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship, which helps teachers become involved in policy-making in their local school district.


  • Northside

    Consulting teacher program is a good idea. However some teachers are put in it because they were given two satisfactory ratings in a row for political reasons When this happens it can be a huge embarrassment for a teacher and demeaning. Sometimes the teacher under remediation is just as good the mentor.teacher. you sound like.a good.mentor…some.mentors.actually become “dementors”…so.I agree the program needs improvement but so does.the process to put them there. Because Gina even a teacher as good as you can find yourself. On the bad side of a principal and end up being placed under.remediation too..I think when a teacher gets placed under remediation we must first find out if their placement and rating was just .we can’t assume we are somehow superior until we learn about their circumstances . Some teacher’s naturally assume teachers are inferior to us. It’s so sad to see how teachers can quietly belittle teachers who are being demeaned and tormented by principals. Again most of.our ratings are deserved…but some are given as punishment and can lead a teacher to lose all confidence …

  • Bill Colson

    Four years ago, after twenty years of high ratings, and at a Lane 5 salary level, a new interim principal dropped many older teachers at my school, including myself, to Unsatisfactory. We appealed, and he backed off, but all this did was give us No Rating, so essentially we started from scratch the next year. The next principal, whose previous experience was in elementary schools, gave me a rating of Unsatisfactory the next year, which put me on Remediation for SY2015. I had a wonderful consulting teacher, and it was nice to have a trained and trusted observer once a week to give me suggestions and a fresh perspective on my lessons, as well as help with my lesson planning. Unfortunately, my principal did not observe the course we had planned together, but instead chose to evaluate my Film Study class. I tried to incorporate her requests as much as was possible without cheating my students (show no more than 15 minutes of a movie per day, do very little talking myself, stop the film every five minutes, focus on a single standards-based skill, follow a very rigid lesson “Direct Interactive Instruction” format, etc.), but still only ended up being bumped up one level. Under the current system, since I did not make it to Proficient, this put me on suspension without pay and a Do Not Hire designation (though I could still teach at a CPS charter school) prior to being fired. I could appeal, but according to my CTU representative, this could take 5-6 months and go all the way up to the ISBE level. I would likely not win, and moreover, CPS could rescind my 225 day sick bank to recoup legal costs. As I had just turned 60, I chose to retire. I go into all this detail to make the point that the consulting teacher program is not where reform is needed, except for the excellent suggestions made by Gina Caneva. It is the evaluation and remediation process, which seems to be mainly chasing older, more expensive teachers out of the system or into non-CTU charters. Even the author of the checklist which forms the basis of the CPS Reflect and Learn system has publicly criticized CPS’ usage of her research in teacher evaluation.

    • Northside

      So sad..but nice that you got to retire. Im still in my 40s so I cant. But I’m about ready to just throw in the towel and find something new Cps has become so snobby yet so disorganized that it makes me sick. I don’t understand how an organization so disorganized and toxic and snobly cab be dishing out evaluations
      …..I was dinged on one the domains because I had a Coke on my desk. It’s all insane …I liked my consulting teacher too..but his idead where different than my principals “my way or the highway” attitude …luckily I won my evaluation like you …yet I don’t see how my principles orginal evaluation can even be considered. They should knock us up to proficient just for the almost illegal practice …..and I just think some teacher’s have such a holier than thou attitude …..and treat teachers in distress with such contempt…but they never know when they are next to get the double satisfactory road to unsatisfactory …so sad

  • Concerned Parent

    CPS does not put more into teacher support because they do not want to and they do not know how to. No support – great way to get rid of more teachers from CTU and save money too. It’s a win win for them.

    • Northside

      I agree but now they can make it look like a “objective” rubric of teacher performance. however, some principals (mine included) went around the room looking for negative narratives for her fact sheet. even though I taught in small groups all over the room (which was required) she some how omitted and claimed that I didn’t do certain teaching requirements, yet this would be impossible to know since I was in five different places during the day….very subjective. the 1000 teachers who lost their jobs this week probably were given low ratings due to subjective and unfair ratings. NOT ALL. but some were definitely unfairly rated with low ratings. when they go to “apply” for one of the 1000 open positions …they will never be considered because of their supposed poor performance. very unfair. again not all teachers were unfairly rated…I know I was and it was proven after taking my rating to arbitration.

      • Concerned Parent

        Shame on CPS for allowing this to happen. All the more reason for arbitration. Wonder what the average years of experience is and or certification for laid off teachers? That data just might be extremely interesting. Hopefully worth an inquiry by Catalyst.

        • Concerned Parent

          Add the racial make-up of those laid off.