Monday, April 21, 2008

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…

As a new teacher with big ideas and no social life outside of school, I spent much of my first years planning elaborate lessons and exciting projects. Many of them bombed due to my lack of experience with classroom management and my failure to recognize that what I deemed engaging wasn’t always what my students found interesting. But I did develop a pretty killer unit on Romeo and Juliet.

I had a mentor teacher for my first two years of teaching and she was assigned to me by the district through a program designed to halt declining teacher retention rates. She was a veteran teacher with about 25 years of experience. When you stepped into her room it was easy to imagine that she was a creative teacher. There were bright floral displays everywhere, student projects hung on the walls, and colorful cabinets and bins made everything look quite orderly. On closer inspection one noticed that most of the projects were a few decades old, and the bins contained stacks and stacks of worksheets that were all copied a year in advance. So, while my mentor might have been an Inspired Teacher in her past, she’d slacked a bit over the years.

The same year she became my mentor her straight run teaching the same special education English class over and over again was disrupted. Because so many kids had failed the Freshman English exam the previous year, the 9th grade English classes were huge and they gave her one to teach. I was teaching all freshmen that semester so it seemed like a great opportunity for me to learn from my mentor.

She took her mentoring seriously. She left me happy notes at least once a week. But when it came to learning about how to teach she was remarkably silent.

She was required by the district to observe my class once a month and she always had the nicest things to say after her visit. A cheery note would always greet me following an observation saying something like “Keep up the good work kiddo!” It seemed strange that for all the notes she took, I usually only got one line of “feedback.”

When it was time to teach Romeo and Juliet I noticed that my mentor was observing me more than once a month. She spent a lot of time in my classroom and asked a lot of questions about the unit. About a month later it was announced at a faculty meeting that she was chosen to present a workshop on teaching Romeo and Juliet at a statewide English conference. When she gave an overview of the presentation to our staff the material was strangely familiar and completely un-attributed…

My real mentor, my mother, offered her usual response to my outburst on the phone that night. As the oldest child of 3, she has used this phrase many times: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

I think that’s really only true if your imitator admits what he or she is doing. But my experience with my mentor taught me that all teachers can learn from one another regardless of their level of experience.

While her support didn’t improve my practice it did help me feel loved in a very lonely and challenging phase of my life. And for her, I hope teaching Romeo and Juliet my way turned her on to a different kind of instruction and rejuvenated her enthusiasm about being in the classroom.

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