Becoming A Mentor In Your Own Classroom

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flickeringbradby Jane Healey, Ph.D.

Most educators have heard the current mantra about their role in the classroom: teachers are not delivery systems, filling empty vessels with acquired bits of knowledge. The image of a master in the front of a room lecturing to students furiously scribbling copious notes is outdated and anachronistic. Beyond the mantra, what role does the teacher play if not the expert in the room?

The obvious answer is the teacher must learn to guide students as they navigate a knowledge-rich world. Information is ubiquitous today, so students need to develop skills to work with the plethora of data: discovery, interpretation, analysis, organization, practice, and discussion. Skills-based teaching is a more nebulous enterprise than fact-based delivery. Here’s a few tips for the bold souls venturing forth:

Let Go

The struggle begins with the voice in our heads that warns, “But don’t they need to know that?” Usually, we’re talking about a name, a date, a formula, etc.  Here’s the quick answer, ”No, they don’t need that discreet bit of information.”

Even when we include every critical detail into a class period, we can’t guarantee students will remember it. Research indicates that if fact-based lessons aren’t connected to previous materials, they fill a student’s cognitive dump truck that tips and empties every 20 minutes. For fact-based knowledge to stick, it must be attached to a larger pattern or thread that flows throughout the course—like stitching a tapestry that covers the full course curriculum.

Facts don’t educate children; patterns lay the pathways to authentic learning.

Filling Time

The next concern many teachers have is what to do with all that time in the classroom if we’re not talking? The best strategy is to consider the overall goal of the unit you’re studying and find a moment in the curriculum that can serve as the wheel hub for spokes to attach to. Design activities in the center of the topic for students to muck around with relevant materials and gain first-hand experience.

Obviously, project-based learning sounds like a perfect fit. Students complete active projects and learn important information in the process. The danger is simply stringing together one project after another without the final product in mind. Keep the course goals primary and vary methods to touch the many ways students learn things:

  • Visual imagery: sketch, describe, create graphic organizer, etc.

  • Personal relevance: think, write, or speak about a connection.

  • Act out: role-play, pantomime or debate.

  • Create: produce a product or make models.

  • Cross curriculum: identify similar themes in another class, put a character in another world, etc.

  • Be kinetic: measure the hallways, take photos of words on posters, etc.

Students retain lessons if their touch points vary and involve senses and emotions.

Our Classrooms, Our Sanctuaries

As teachers, we are very aware of the physical space we operate in.  We design our rooms to fit our pedagogy.  What design suits a mentor?

Clearly, rows don’t work. Students need to confer in a natural manner to explore materials. Some teachers enjoy a horseshoe where students can move chairs through the open end and face peers during collaborative moments. Others like pods—groupings of tables or desks that optimize physical proximity to motivate collaboration. The critical aspect of the space is that it needs to be flexible and fluid. Furniture moves and shifts as the activities do, including solitary reflection.

Mentors move, too; they don’t sit or stand still—especially not with arms crossed over their chests like judges or officials. Mentors need space to walk around unobtrusively, so they don’t distract students. Students also need to move around to record information on a board, draw on a large span of butcher paper or practice a skit. Research says students learn more when they avoid settling into a habitual rut/spot in the classroom.

And walls need to be converted into exhibition spaces for the products students create. They need visual reminders of previous lessons to see thematic patterns. As current thought says, make the students’ learning visible so they can refer to it and incorporate it into succeeding activities.

One of my best mentors said, “Your job is to build the sandbox for them to play in.”

Prep Time

Probably the biggest fear teachers have about transitioning to a mentor position is the amount of prep time they’ll need to get ready for the new role. It’s tough, but front-loading the learning process means the students do the heavy lifting in the classroom while teachers monitor, redirect, nudge, and compliment—lots of positive feedback, because students learn best when they feel good about their contributions.

Creating effective activities requires strategic thinking, collaboration and plenty of energy. Thinking ahead is the best way to organize a full lesson. Work backward from the end goal, laying the ramp to get there. A group math quiz using mini-white boards to record answers and display the work means acquiring the supplies ahead of time. Often a colleague has the items to share or knows where to find them.

Patience and Tolerance

The most salient ingredient to a successful mentoring relationship with students is learning to live with low-level chaos and uncertainty.  Whew, that’s really hard for teachers who are experts and like to show it. I once had a colleague from a neighboring school visit my Sophomore English class when the students were debating if Rochester should have told Jane about Bertha or not. Afterward, the only comment he made was, “You tolerate a lot more than I would.”

That traditional teacher missed the action and meaning that occurred right in front of him. As the students’ passions flared, raising their voices in indignation, they were citing passages from the book, interpreting the character’s motivations, comparing him to characters they read about in other books, and pronouncing personal judgment on a dubious fictional hero.

During all of that commotion, I furiously took copious notes on the board, capturing students’ exact phrases, marking concepts mentioned multiple times, and linking related ideas (case-study method). I did not intervene in their argument even when I knew a student was “wrong”. After I called a cease-fire, and the students rearranged themselves and calmed down, I directed them to the board and asked each one to proclaim his/her final stance on Rochester’s culpability.

While not perfect, the Mentor-Based Learning approach goes a long way towards promoting the kind of deep learning we all strive for.

Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad; Mentor-Based Learning: Becoming A Mentor In Your Own Classroom