Inspired Teaching Fellow Sam Clark (‘13) is a 6th grade math teacher at Capital City Public Charter School who is passionate about helping her students develop a love for math.
Inspired Teaching interviewed Sam about her experience as a summer mentor for the 2017 Fellows who co-taught summer school as they prepare for their first year as teachers of record.
What do you find the most rewarding about working with teachers?
Working with the Fellows, who are new teachers, is really different than I expected—it is much harder, and it is pushing me to think about the training I’ve done—but I’m absolutely loving it. My biggest concern was whether or not I was being helpful when the Fellows are so overwhelmed, but I’m feeling really successful. I’ve made strong relationships with the Fellows and I really like that mentoring them isn’t a top down approach; I know what it is like to be in their shoes. That makes me feel more comfortable.
Are there any takeaways from your time with Inspired Teaching that still impact your practice today? Any “ah-ha!” moments you still remember?
All of them! I think really specifically about math because now I’m only teaching math. I think about the classes with Inspired Teaching staff members who showed us how to create fun math lessons all the time. I think about ways math can be a backwards design, grappling and exploring to inspire math in a different way.
I also think back on Summer Institute often. In particular I remember a day I wrote about the most negative experience I had with a teacher, and it was with my math teacher from my high school AP Calculus class. He crippled my love for math. He made me feel so unsuccessful that I thought I wasn’t a math person. Reflecting on that experience really made me realize that a teacher can make or break your interest in a subject. I hadn’t recognized how much of an impact this one teacher has on me until writing about it that day. I didn’t realize I had loved math until he’d broken that. Now I teach math today and that moment in Institute sticks with me. Inspired Teaching helped me put joy as the forefront of my focus.
I make sure to intentionally embed social emotional learning into my math lessons. I really appreciate teaching math because it helps me teach growth mindset by showing how everyone is a math person. I have a big poster in my classroom that says “Mistakes Allow Thinking to Happen” and I feel connected to Inspired Teaching in this way.
One of my proudest moments so far was when representatives from the Aspen Institute came to my classroom to highlight Social Emotional Learning. It was such a proud moment because Capital City is such a special place and it is so aligned in philosophies with Inspired Teaching, I was so happy to have it highlighted.
How have you noticed the co-teaching model influence the summer school experience here (for teachers, for students, for mentors)?
I think the co-teaching model is so important. Not having a co-teacher is much more challenging, not just for the teachers, but also for the students. In terms of summer school, it has been really interesting to see the Fellows grow and it reminds me of my own experience. The Fellows are working with a cohort member who they’ve known all year, but now they are working together in a whole new way.
I think co-teaching presents some challenges no matter how you do it. Trying to form the co-teacher relationship so quickly over the summer is hard and the Fellows are totally rocking it. They’re doing a seamless job and the kids really see that they are a team. Both teacher pairs that I mentor have different personalities, but they are willing to bend. They’re flexibility and commitment is supremely impressive.
How does the Inspired Teaching training prepare Fellows to effectively navigate their roles as co-teachers?
I think the Summer Institute before the Residency Year is something you’re eternally grateful for. You feel like your cohort is family. During Summer Institute, you talk about serious things, you shed tears, you get to be silly. From that first week, you feel so close with those people. The summer as a co-teacher feels almost like an echo of your first summer during Institute because you have to jump right in with that your cohort member and put it all on the line.
How has mentoring this summer made you reflect on your own practice as an educator?
In so many ways I can’t even list them all! It’s made me reflect on how much I’ve grown over the four years. There are suggestions I’m able to make because they’re things I’ve tried, or a quick trick I can offer.
Being a mentor has also made me think a lot about what grade levels I’ve taught and what grade levels I want to teach. When I first started the program, I wanted to teach first grade, but I was placed in 6th. I think Inspired Teaching knew me better than I knew myself because I love working with middle school. I love the content levels. The students get my sense of humor. It’s a great fit. This past week, I went on a field trip to the zoo with the first graders and I was surprised by how much I loved it. It made me think about if I should to mix it up and teach a new grade level.
What advice do you have for the 2017 Fellows as they begin their first year as teachers of record in their own classrooms?
I think my biggest advice is to cut yourself slack and don’t feel like your first year has to be perfect. I remember my mentor telling me that all of the time. I felt there was so much pressure on myself. It is also so important to remember balance. It can be so hard to have any sort of balance with teaching and taking graduate classes, so I tell new teachers to try to remember to take a minute when you can to take care of yourself — shower, eat some vegetables! Give yourself some room to learn; be willing to try again and accept that things will not always go perfectly. Even with years of experience, I’m still trying things that are completely different. We all have to realize that every year we will get better possibly forever, and allow ourselves to take the space to fail forward.