Why was this teacher silent for the first three weeks of pre-calculus?

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Carrie Wagner

For the first three weeks of the year, Erin Woods did not say a word to her students during precalculus class, and they were furious. She was their tutor last year, and they knew she was great at Math, so why would she not help them? In fact, she was under strict orders from me to observe and observe only.

Erin is a Math Fellow at City on a Hill Charter Public Schools, for which I am the Director of Teacher Development and Licensure, and was in her first weeks of City on a Hill’s Urban Teaching Fellowship. As a fellow, her priority for the first three weeks was to learn by watching every move of her mentor, Joanie Decopain. During those crucial weeks of putting in place classroom expectations and the systems and routines that students will follow for the whole year, Erin watched silently and absorbed every detail.

Pure observation—so rare for teachers who have thousands of interactions with their students every day—allows teaching fellows to pause and reflect on “teacher moves” that might otherwise go undetected and unexamined. As an observer, Erin took notes on what she saw and recorded questions to bring to Joanie for debriefing. When Joanie chose to stop the class to reset expectations, for instance, Erin asked how she chose that moment to do it.

Researchers have suggested that teachers make four educational decisions every minute or more than 1,500 educational decisions every day. That is not something a new teacher can be expected to do well without the proper training and practice. Many teachers have no idea of the demands they will face until the moment they are in front of their own classroom and either sink or swim.

The Urban Teaching Fellowship at City on a Hill is based on the notion that great teaching is something you learn through authentic experience and practice. Fellows complete an Ed.M in Curriculum and Instruction at Boston University while serving as full-time faculty members at City on a Hill. For four months, they ramp up gradually from observation to working with small groups and leading chunks of class. After the first three weeks of learning through observation, fellows are released to engage with students and take on select teaching responsibilities.  In January, fellows take over as the lead teacher for two classes, and at that point the mentor teacher leaves the room and returns just once a week for observation and feedback.

A few years ago, Joanie was a fellow herself, and she is committed to passing on what she learned now that she is a mentor. From her perspective, the strength of the program is the relationship between the fellow and the mentor. Of her experience with her mentor Allison Curran, now the Math Instructional Content Specialist for the City on a Hill Network, Joanie says, “We knew we were in it together. We were going to be together for the whole year. We had goals we were both working on, and we helped each other achieve those goals.” 

Now that she is a mentor, Joanie is discovering that she has plenty to learn from that experience as well. Erin often observes interpersonal dynamics going on in the classroom that she puts on Joanie’s radar for the next day. This gives Joanie the opportunity to reflect aloud and problem solve with a thought partner who also knows the students well. Being a mentor puts a teacher in the vulnerable position of being observed every day, sometimes at their best but sometimes at their worst too. Joanie says, “It’s a risk, but it allows me as a mentor to grow as a teacher too.”

The Urban Teaching Fellowship embodies the belief that teaching is a complex craft that requires training and practice. What does Erin have to say about that?

“Students cannot achieve excellence if they do not have teachers who can get them there, and teachers cannot achieve excellence for themselves or their students if there is no model they can learn from.”

Erin frequently expresses her gratitude for Joanie’s mentoring, but the real beneficiaries of Joanie’s expertise will be Erin’s students next year. They will have a teacher who is ready on Day 1, and they will learn more because of it.

Carrie Wagner is the Director of Teacher Development and Licensure at City on a Hill Charter Public Schools.

This article was originally published on the blog of the National Association for Public Charter Schoools.