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The Mentor as Learner:
Classroom Veterans Stand to Learn a Thing of Two from Student Teachers

Voice of ExperienceEducator Arnold Pulda reflects on a couple of mentoring experiences. The first was a pretty dismal failure, but his second attempt at mentoring a student teacher taught him a thing or two about teaching. Included: Why two such different experiences?

Arnold Pulda

The best year I had in the classroom was the last of my eight years there. It was the best year for a handful of reasons

I was lucky to get a good schedule.

I had regular access to the history department's well-outfitted computer room, which I used often and, I think, well. I was really hitting my stride in utilizing online resources in the classroom.

I had a terrific group of about 125 students.

I was a veteran of one more year of teaching; I was just that much better at, and wiser about, what I was doing than I had been a year before.

One more thing: I served as mentor to a student teacher.

Serving as a mentor teacher was the icing on the cake. It was that factor, probably more than all the others, that made my last year as a regular classroom teacher such an unforgettable one.


I had mentored another student teacher two years earlier. And I had done a terrible job at it. I had not devoted the time, energy, or attention to it that I should have. It didn't help that the student teacher wasn't gung-ho about the prospect of becoming a teacher and that his mastery of the subject matter was not impressive. But that year I was too distracted with other things to do a good job mentoring him. The results showed. The student teacher learned little or nothing from the experience. In fact, I think the experience probably had the opposite effect. I've no doubt the experience left him with a decidedly unfavorable impression of the profession.

This time around, I was determined to do better. After a long conversation with my department head, I volunteered to mentor another student teacher. This time around the student teacher was, right from the start, terrific. Erin was smart, energetic, enthusiastic about teaching, very well versed in the subject matter, and totally open to advice and guidance from me.

Erin and I spent plenty of time together: before school, during planning periods, at lunch, and after school too. Often I stressed to Erin that classroom management was, in my opinion, the key to succeeding as a teacher, so we spent most of our conference time going over the practices, techniques, and tools of classroom management. I shared my thoughts, we talked about techniques used by colleagues in the school, and we gathered additional ideas that master teachers and experts published in books and online. We both learned a ton from those resources, and we applied many ideas that we found.

Another important reason this mentoring experience was such a successful one -- perhaps the most important reason -- was the salutary input from Erin's college advisor. Her advisor came to school for meetings once a week, at pre-planned times. Sometimes she met with me to discuss Erin's work privately and frankly. Other times Erin was included and her opinions were solicited. The advisor's involvement was executed according to a careful, written plan that was presented at the start of the internship. We were scrupulous in following the schedule, objectives, and tactics of that plan.

Erin's internship lasted for about 10 weeks, from mid-January to April vacation. Throughout that period I carefully followed the agreed-upon schedule. At first Erin observed, then I became a passive observer in the back of the classroom and, finally, Erin was flying solo.

Those ground rules had been carefully explained to students too; and we reiterated them at suitable intervals. One of the most important ground rules was that when Erin took over the class, the class was hers. Students were told that they should not look back to me for guidance or approval. At first, students strayed a bit from strict observance of that rule, but I would simply respond, "Ask Erin. She's the boss here."


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Of course Erin and I had countless informal one-on-one meetings too. As Erin began taking on her own classes, we met to critique her performance. But the most important meetings for me were the ones when we talked about the rationale behind many of my own policies and practices. As we talked and analyzed, I found that most of the things I did made sense. Her close questioning, which I encouraged, helped me see exactly why most of those practices worked, and our conversations gave me an opportunity to tweak and improve those things that might have needed adjustment. Indeed, I even discarded a few practices that I found, upon analysis, added little to the teaching and learning exchange between my students and me.

Even though I was the mentor in this relationship, the process of reviewing and analyzing my own teaching practices was turning out to be a most beneficial experience for me -- an experience that helped improve my teaching!


One of my favorite poems is "Schoolsville" by former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins. Collins, writing from the point of view of a retired teacher, tells us at the beginning that

"Glancing over my shoulder at the past
I realize the number of students I have taught
is enough to populate a small town"

Collins goes on to write, "Needless to say, I am the mayor." And, indeed, sometimes I think of the thousand or two students I have taught in that same way: as the residents of a small town. And, just as I am the mayor of my small town of students, just as every teacher is the mayor of his or her town, Erin, for whom I served as mentor, is now building her own town as a teacher, and I am sort of the co-mayor of that one. Who could ask for more than that?

I recommend mentoring to all veteran teachers. The experience can help not only an aspiring teacher but yourself as well!

Arnold Pulda is a liaison for gifted and talented student programs in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Article by Arnold Pulda
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