Mentoring Matters: Focus on the Students
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We know from our own academic and professional experiences that mentoring models are varied and dynamic, changing with our experiences and situations. Whether the mentoring relationship is structured and traditional, less structured and “organic,” or perhaps mutual between peers, the goal is the same-to learn and improve through the sharing of skills, perspectives and expertise. In this column, we are asking you to share stories from your mentoring journeys in the hope that your stories will spark other fruitful learning partnerships.
My first mentor on my journey to becoming a World Language educator was my supervising teacher, Pam Fedie. I was a “non-traditional” student teacher (translation:..”older”) when I returned to the university to earn my secondary teaching certification. Yes, we were “Frau Fedie” and “Frau Fowdy” in one classroom. Pam had built a very successful German program at a small rural school south of Greeley, Colorado. She was known as a leader in the state foreign language association and the achievements of her students were widely recognized. I was a LUCKY student teacher! Pam’s mentoring molded not only my classroom instructional techniques, but my perspectives throughout my entire professional career. In trying to sort through these perspectives, I can identify three main areas of influence.
1) Curriculum and lesson design: Pam was a recognized expert in Madeline Hunter’s Instructional Theory into Practice Model. She helped me to shift the focus from “What will I teach?” to “What will the students be able to do?” through setting learning objectives that were clear and demanding, but achievable and supported. In following years, this focus on performance objectives was at the heart of standards-based curriculum design I embraced. Whenever I was bogged down in a myriad of instructional resources trying to decide what to teach in the next unit, I would hear Pam’s voice in my ear, urging me to make choices based on what will lead to the students’ success in the unit objectives.
2) Student-centered classroom: Students enjoyed being in Pam’s class. The lessons included resources, games, and activities that were engaging, but they were clearly chosen to provide effective practice for the learning objectives. We laughed a lot in Pam’s class, but always within the boundaries of the respect she had for her students and the respect she expected them to have for each other. Mistakes made by the students and the teacher were accepted, and even expected, because we were all learning. Although she was naturally funny and entertaining, the focus was not on Pam’s performance in front of the classroom. As a student-teacher participant in that classroom, I realized that her focus was on the individual challenges and successes of the students, both in the classroom and in their lives beyond school. Her classroom was a safe place for all. What a powerful lesson for a new teacher to carry forward into the inevitable challenges of this important profession.
3) Learning beyond the classroom: Pam had a well-established school partnership and student exchange through C.I.E.E. The nature of the home-stay and school experience made the exchange affordable for her students who were primarily from middle to lower income households. I established a similar school exchange in my first year of teaching in Monroe. Just a few years later, my colleague founded a similar exchange in Costa Rica for the Spanish learners. Both programs are still going strong over thirty years later. Thanks to Pam, the inspiration and role model for these exchanges, around 600 Monroe High School students have traveled to Germany and Costa Rica and even more have hosted partner students during their exchange experience in Monroe.
Mentoring matters. What I learned from Pam through the formal supervising teacher/student teacher mentoring relationship and through the less formal every day experiences and conversations had an immeasurable impact on my professional career. I will always be grateful for her expertise, guidance, generosity of spirit, and patience and for that voice in my ear telling me to “focus on the students.”