A Window and a Mirror: Summer Mentorship at Inspired Teaching

Zia Hassan, Inspired Teaching Fellow (’13) reflected on his experience as a Teacher Mentor for 2017 Inspired Teaching Fellows during Summer School at Capital City Public Charter School.

A Space for Inquiry

It’s 2pm and I’m standing in a classroom in northwest DC holding a yo-yo.

Two brand new Inspired Teaching fellows (teachers-in-training) are standing next to me, asking me questions.

“Do you, uh, think you can do a trick with the yo-yo called ‘walk the dog?” one of the teachers asks.

The other one offers: “Could you maybe try, like, throwing it sideways? Do you know what I mean?’”

“Uhh… maybe?” I respond with a shy smile. I have no idea how to do a ‘walk the dog’ but I do try to throw the yo-yo sideways and end up accidentally dropping it on the floor. I walk away in frustration.

On this particular afternoon, I’m in this classroom because I’ve volunteered to play the role of a mock student, and the fellows have been instructed to teach me how to use a yo-yo… but only by asking questions. No statements allowed.

So the fellow pauses for a moment and then asks: “What do you think you need to do to be successful with a yo-yo?”

My eyes light up. Unlike her first few questions, she doesn’t know the answer to this one. It’s all on me. She may not realize it yet, but this is the space where the magic of learning happens.

“I think,” I say, after genuinely thinking about it, “that I need to just be able to do 5 regular swings without stopping.”

Now we have a new lesson plan – and I, the student, am in charge of my own learning.

This is what teacher training looks like in Center for Inspired Teaching’s Summer Institute, a 3 week long jump start for teachers who are just starting the Inspired Teaching Residency.

It’s an exercise that helps new teachers learn how to provide a space for inquiry instead of a list of directions. And the reason I know this activity so well because I was brand new teaching fellow myself, standing in this very same classroom and doing this exact same activity, 5 summers ago.

This summer, however, I’m returning to play the role of the summer mentor. And while I’m stepping into the first year fellows’ classroom to help out, my primary responsibility is to advise the second year Fellows.

Details Matter

The second year Fellows have just completed their residency year. They’ve been watching, learning from, assisting, and occasionally taking over for their lead teacher, someone who has modeled great teaching practices for an entire year. Now, they’re starting from scratch, in their own summer school classrooms with one of their fellow cohort members. They’ll lead a class together for four weeks and then transition into the lead role in their full-time classrooms starting in the fall. I’ve been assigned to help two teaching teams, four teachers total.

As the summer begins, I watch my mentees struggle with the fact that, with a brand new class coming in next week, there’s no veteran teacher to set everything up. It’s a bit like learning how to drive a car for an entire year and then finding out that you now need to build your own car out of spare parts. And quickly.

“So the students will come in in the morning and do morning work,” one of my mentees explains to me. “After that, we start morning meeting and brainstorm ideas about classroom expectations.”

“Sounds good,” I tell her. “But let’s back up. How will they walk in? What will their volume be like? And how will you communicate these expectations in that first moment when they walk in?”

Just like the first year fellows asking me questions about a yo-yo, it’s not rhetorical. I don’t know the answer to the question I’m asking. My goal is to push her thinking so that she can decide what specific environmental factors she and her students will need to be successful.

She turns to her teaching partner with a quizzical look. They realize, in this moment, that they haven’t thought it through. It’s one conversation of many that they will continue to have as the summer progresses. It’s one of the first of many revelations that they will have the summer: the details matter.

The Gap

Even though summer school is only a month long, it can sometimes feel like an entire school year stuffed into four weeks. It’s not uncommon for teachers in summer practicum to re-connect and disconnect multiple times with their passion for teaching. It’s not uncommon for teachers to discover just how much of a gap exists between the teacher that they are and the teacher that they want to be.

And it’s not uncommon for those teachers to work excruciatingly hard to close that gap before the summer ends. This, I know.

I know this because I see their long and thoughtful texts to me late on a Saturday, about their ideas to address kindness issues in their classroom.

I know this because even at the end of a hard day, they receive long hugs goodbye from their most challenging students.

I know this because that was me, five years ago. Staying up late writing journal entries about my students and their needs, knowing that I needed to learn as much as I could from them as quickly as possible to be the best teacher I could possible be in the fall.

And the result of all of this reflection and learning is evident because somewhere toward the end of the summer, I notice that my mentees’ teaching powers have grown. It’s nothing short of remarkable.  At the start of the summer, I would often take copious notes while observing a mini-lesson. I’d analyze every movement the teacher made, every word that they said.

And now, at the end, I find it hard to even find a place to take notes. Classrooms are bustling with students in every corner, working on interesting projects and directing their own learning. Teachers are no longer standing at the front of the class asking for quiet; instead they’re getting out of the way by observing and occasionally asking a provocative question to a student in need.  The hum of learning is ever present.

At the end of the summer, during our final meeting, I ask one of my mentees a question to which I did not know the answer. “So now that it’s almost over, do you feel like you’re the teacher you want to be?”

“No,” she laughs. “That will take a while. But before the summer started, I hadn’t even thought about what kind of teacher I wanted to be. Now, it’s something I ask myself every day. My vision is much more clear.”

Remarkably, she is learning to ask herself questions that don’t have an immediate answer.

I’m fascinated.

A Window and a Mirror

I’ve said before that the role of a teacher is to offer their students a window and a mirror. A window with which to see the world through many different lenses and perspectives, and a mirror to allow students to understand the power of their own perspective and potential.

But as a summer mentor, I came to terms with something else: a teacher must also stand in front of their own mirror. After all the lesson plans have been written, it is there, in the glow of their own reflection, where they will do their most challenging work. They will confront every imperfection.  They will think about what they will do differently tomorrow. They will, simultaneously, berate themselves and strive for self-acceptance. They will do all of this for the good of themselves and the good of their students.

For a new teacher, looking into the mirror is the scariest part of the job. For a pro teacher, this is the job. And it occurs to me that I, the summer mentor, have very little to do with the mirror. But maybe, in this case, I hold the window.  If I was able to help these wonderful teachers catch a glimpse of all incredible possibilities that lie ahead, then, mission accomplished.

An abbreviated version of this blog post was publish on the Catalogue for Philanthropy of Greater Washington’s blog!

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