How I Became the Teacher I Hoped I’d Be

New teachers need more than luck to do their jobs well. I know. I was one.

I taught special education on Chicago’s South Side, in a high-poverty, high-crime neighborhood. I did not go blindly into teaching in a tough area like this. I was excited to help my students see the opportunities around them, and to know their own potential. I believed I could rise to the challenge.

But I got quite a shock when I arrived to set up the seventh grade classroom I was hired to teach. I learned I’d instead be the only special education teacher for kindergarten through third grade. It was incredibly isolating. I knew it was essentially up to me to make sure students who needed my help got it.

The first day went okay. The kids and I didn’t really know what to expect. But it soon became clear that their ability levels were lower than I thought. I had no way to know their exact reading levels. I just knew the books I had were too advanced. We spent a lot of time unproductively reading textbooks out loud. I felt like I wasn’t helping my students learn at all.

Within a month, I was completely overwhelmed and wondered if I’d ever be the teacher I hoped to be. Three months in, I was completely disillusioned and ready to quit. But I didn’t.

That’s because I was assigned a mentor, an accomplished teacher released from her own classroom to become a full-time coach for me and other new teachers. We started meeting once a week, and I noticed a difference immediately. She showed me how to find the kids’ reading levels, and then guided me in finding the best books for each level. She helped me look at my students’ work and assessments, so I was able to see that they were making progress. I felt re-energized.

It was so encouraging and exciting to see my students learning. Not only did their test scores and reading levels improve, they started to see themselves as successful. One mother told me her son never wanted to read before, but he started bringing home books to read all the time. Hearing that, and seeing the positive change in my students, was absolutely amazing. My mentor helped me understand how to make a difference.

Not all new teachers get so lucky.

That’s why, after teaching for more than five years, I am now a mentor for 12 beginning special education teachers as part of the New Teacher Center’s teacher induction program in Chicago Public Schools. I wanted to help other new teachers become more confident and effective, and help improve the lives of more students.

I continue to see the challenges new teachers face. They struggle to meet the wide-ranging needs of students with disabilities. They lose precious class time while managing students’ behavior. Their students are just not engaged in learning.

I work closely with these teachers, as they plan lessons, look for resources, communicate with parents and teach. My work is based on the New Teacher Center’s new teacher induction model. Some new teachers I work with tell me they would have quit teaching without my support. I am convinced that the intensive, on-the-job coaching mentors like me provide is the critical difference between disillusionment and development for beginning teachers…and their students.

As a mentor, I have grown so much. I am helping more teachers and seeing more classrooms; so I am becoming a better teacher. I’m also part of a really strong community of leaders and learners, my fellow mentors. Together, we participate in and lead trainings, and we regularly share ideas about what we can do to bring out the best in new teachers. I know being a mentor is preparing me to have a greater impact, to level the playing field for kids from underprivileged backgrounds.

New teachers become more effective when they receive expert guidance over an extended period of time. Effective teaching helps students succeed, which is what we are all striving for. Learn more about  new teacher induction, and share this information with a teacher you know or with a school in your neighborhood.

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