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Episode 15: Educator Mentorship, Long-Term Professional Growth

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


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Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.

I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest. I'm your host, Ken Bond. We at the Department have been thinking a lot about how we can help districts during these unprecedented times. We've been posting on social media to keep everyone updated about their colleagues and about information from around the state. We've posted FAQ guidance documents on our website and done a plethora of other things.

Today's episode is going to be focused on mentorship. We know that there's so many things going on and there are so many topics that we could cover.

I recorded this episode before many schools in New Jersey had to go virtual due to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. I believe that it is so important that we as professionals and as colleagues reach out to each other in mentorship and mentee roles, and that we check in to

see how others are doing, whether that's virtually, over the phone, or however we can do that in these times.

This episode was deeply personal I got to interview

my mentor and one of her mentees at Somerdale School District, as well as two inspirational educational leaders from Neptune.

I hope you enjoy this episode and it can bring a sense of normalcy to your week. Thanks.

Somerdale School District

Susan: I’m Susan Ratajski. I am the eighth grade ELA teacher, and, here at Somerdale Park School.

Ken: Great.

Jess: I’m Jess Palo. I’m the eighth grade math teacher at Somerdale Park School.

Ken: So I wanted to start by just asking you about what mentoring has been like for you. Can you remember a time when you had a mentor and what that – what that process was like?

Susan: Yes, I can remember 'cause I went back to college later on, to finish up, and I had a mentor in 1996 who was very different from me, but we were a great team together. So that piece of it, I always took away, because I was the mentee.

So when I mentor someone I always had to remember how I felt. My mentor was very laid-back, and you know me Ken, I'm very high-energy. So people were saying to me, "Oh, you two will never get along."

She was great for me because she was very calm, and her rule was, when we'd have to go to meeting, someone has to be first and someone has to be last and we'll be last.

So that was, kind of, it was like “okay.” It taught me to kind of breath a little bit.

Ken: Something that can often be the case, especially when technology is involved, is that the mentee and mentor relationships can get flipped. One thing to think about, if you are a mentee and everything’s gone virtual, your mentor may not have as much technology experience and you have. And it may be the case that you need to reach out in a mentorship role to your mentor to help them through that.

Listen to what Susan says about her experience learning from her mentee.

Susan: We use OneNote here and, um, our former superintendent had us doing our lesson plans, and we were teaching and using it. So, that that was really new for me, um, being the old dog. I had to learn a new trick. But the good thing was we were learning together. Jess was learning. I was learning.

And I remember one day going to you, Jess, and saying “I have to sit here, and you have to talk me through your OneNote.” I couldn’t figure it out. So I – she saw the fact that I didn’t know everything. That I – I was coming back to her, the person I was mentoring, and it took her 30 seconds. She talked me through it and like “Oh, now I understand.”

But we did that for each other. She came into my room. I came into her room. You and I did that. I think that piece of going into each other’s room and understanding how that person teaches, because in the end, as the mentor I learned just as much as the mentee.

And that was my piece I always took away is “I’ve got something to learn. I don’t have all the answers.” But a lot of times when you’re working through a problem together, I think the bond that you have because of that. And for us, I mean, we mentor each other every day.

We’re at a different spot right now but because we share kids, the informal mentoring continues [unclear].

And I find it easier to do with Jess because we’ve worked together for seven years, and I was there day one and—and saw how she operates. And that piece, for me, has made me be a better teacher, so.

Jess: Uh, Susan mentoring me, as her mentee, it never felt structured to me. It always felt like an even give and take, which is not what I was expecting as a brand new teacher coming into the school. I was expecting someone to tell me exactly how it is and exactly what to do, and it wasn’t really like that at all.

It wasn’t as terrifying as I thought it was gonna be and Susan was not as a terrifying as I thought she was going to be…not because of her, just because a mentor, in general.

And she…in the beginning, my first year, it was definitely…she made sure I did everything and hit every bullet point that needed to be hit, but she also made me comfortable enough that I had her come in and observe me.

As my mentor, come and observe me. I wasn’t nervous for me to seem me do something wrong. And I was confident enough and comfortable enough to have her come in and do that.

And I think that’s what being a mentor is and eventually we came friends. And yeah, our relationship has definitely changed over seven years.

Ken: Teaching can be hard, right? Teaching can be very difficult. And it’s not a profession that just kind of, you know, leave everything at the office and then come back right—right at the start of the school day and pick everything back up.

Can you think of any examples of times when people have been really frustrated with teaching as a profession, but because of the mentor-mentee relationship, they've been able to have new and fresh perspectives that have helped them continue and persevere.

Susan: Back when you [Ken] were here, what we used to also do when somebody was new, you—you be—and they didn’t need a mentor, you were their buddy. So when I came here, I was hired for sixth grade. So they were in my class. I had the inclusion class. And Barb Reppy, for whatever reason, she thought I was nice or… she was very kind to me. She came down and said to me, “Anything you need, come to me.”

And I was thinking at first, like, “Well, what will I need?”

Well, what I needed was, you know, I came from Collingswood, my kids went to Collingswood. I knew how to do the lunch form. I knew lots of things that…because I lived in the town and I worked in the town.

Where here, I didn’t know. Talk about lunch tickets. We used to give out these lunch tickets. I didn’t know I was supposed to count them.

Where Barb took it upon herself to teach me those things, you know. How it was here. How this doesn’t work here. You know?

And I remember, we had to re-interview for our jobs that first year because things got cut back, and the question was “what’s one thing that made me uncomfortable here.”

And I said because I was always the go-to girl, and I didn’t always know who to go to, but Barb stepped up.

And that’s when we decided there would be – you would get a buddy. So if you didn’t need to be mentored, you were hooked up with somebody. And you were just there, and they knew they could come to you. They knew that you could look, you know, go into each other’s classes, help each other in our preps.

Having the informal, and I forget how we picked them. Maybe we just asked who it – who would like to be that person’s buddy. But you had to be willing to stay after school and give that person what they need. Because sometimes they needed just to unload, you know, or just have a conversation.

Ken: One additional question I wanted to—wanted to jump into real quick has to do with advice for mentors first and then mentees second.

Jess: Being a mentor never ends. Even when formal mentoring is over, she’s stuck with me.

Susan: [laughing]

Jess: So as a mentor you need to be open to the possibility of not only just formally mentoring your mentee, but also continuing to be their buddy or just being there to help them with information or collaborate together or just being a friend.

As a mentee, having a mentor is extremely important to your career. And you may not be assigned to the greatest mentor. You may be assigned to a great mentor, like Susan. But regardless of who your mentor is, you need to find someone that you can trust and who is going to be there for you.

So, a buddy system would also be good once you’ve move on from your formal mentoring. You can find a new buddy that’s going to be there to guide you along your way, because mentoring does— it truly does not end.

But definitely being open to the mentoring and not, when you get overwhelmed, don’t shut that person out because that person is there to help you in your career and further your career, not to overwhelm you.

Ken: As my mentor, I think that there’s times where I would have given up on teaching, very possibly, if you weren’t there to talk me through, you know, the fact that, really, it’s not about the adults, it’s not really about myself, but it’s about the students that we serve.

You know, I just—I just wanted to thank you and say that my career in education is , a lot of it is due to your passion, your example, and to the teacher and person that you are. So thanks.

Susan: Thank you.

The other part of that, Ken, is you, like Jess, very open.

I often think about the fact that those people who I deem to be successful teachers, were the ones who were open. Who I had to say the hard things like, “Let’s stop. Let’s think about this.” That’s the success.

Because we, like I said, we all come out, we think we know and…we know ourselves.

Year to year, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s about – it’s about the students. And we have to remember that. It’s not about us and about how much we’re gonna put on Twitter, though we have to do that now. So we have to [let] everybody know what we’re doin’.

But on the other side of it, there’s that piece that we can never lose of. It’s – we’re here for the kids.

[end of section]

[transition music]

Neptune School District

Ken: My next interview is with two staff members from Neptune School District. I’m thrilled for you to be able to hear from them about what they’re doing to scale mentorship up in their school district, and to make sure that it’s woven into the fabric of what they do to support staff.

Allyse: Hi, I’m Allyse Hall. I’m a teacher here in Neptune School District.

Matt: Hi. I’m Matthew Gristina. I’m the assistant superintendent of schools for Neptune Township.

Ken: How do you define teacher mentorship?

Matt: This is Matt. So I would define teacher mentorship as a method of support for novice teachers. We’ve had some great success here in making sure mentorship contains a few certain things along the way. So definitely, face-to-face contact, regular meetings.

But, um really, in terms of a definition, it’s “produce growth in the mentee and produce a good professional experience and growth for the mentor as well.”

Allyse: This is Allyse. Along with what Matt said, it's about long-term development. It's a relationship that should go beyond the year that they are required to be mentored. And it's something that, um, is important for teachers because in that first year they need the support. And so that wisdom that a vet teacher will give them is essential.

Ken: From what you’ve told me, Neptune has made a really, really, large commitment to teacher mentorship. And you made a financial commitment. You’ve made a commitment with personnel and time as well. So how—how has that commitment manifested itself? What steps have you taken to make that commitment clear to your staff and to really follow through on that?

Matt: Well, we noticed years back that there was a need. We were following mentorship guidelines, and at a minimum. People had mentors but the training for the mentors was minimal. There were really no opportunities for mentors to get together to develop a—a—a program of sorts.

And, uh, we just saw the need in terms of the professional capacity of our new staff. We wanted to provide them with more. And we knew that, from an administrative perspective, it would be difficult to assign that task to as administrator.

So, uh, administration got together with the union. And it was something we worked very closely on in deciding to dedicate a teaching position to professional development staff coordinator, as we refer to it.

And uh, we selected Allyse for this, very much because she’s, um, a long-standing employee that is very well respected within the district, and a very successful teacher, and has a passion for developing teachers and helping staff.

Um, it allowed us- that commitment allowed us to really develop a full program, a district mentor handbook, before it was required. A district mentoring program, before it was required. And it’s really grown since then.

We stole some ideas, some good ideas. Monroe Township was actually well ahead of the curve on this too and I’d like to give credit to them because they were very helpful and had a wonderful program that we look a lot from, as well.

But, that’s where the commitment was born. And we saw a difference within a year or two in terms of the quality of mentoring, the training we were able to provide just dedicating a full-time employee to it. It’s really grown and it’s been wonderful.

Ken: And as the coordinator for mentorship and mentees, how has that commitment played out in your role? How have you been able to invest in staff and systematize this and scale it district-wide?

Allyse: This is Allyse.

I think that being able to do this in a full-time position was essential, especially at the beginning because you have to the learn…the district. It’s not just one school, it’s—it’s the entire district. And in order to do that, I needed time. So I was given that time and it really proved to be the best thing that they could have done.

Because there are a lot of districts that have this position and the teachers are still in the classroom. And while I miss being in the classroom, I’m able to get into the classroom with teachers because I need to see how, you know, the vet teachers, I need to watch them. And they were amazing about allowing me into the classroom to see what they’re doing. They didn’t have to do that, but they opened their doors.

And so I got to see who was doing really incredible things and that way I was able to guide the mentees to people, even if it wasn’t their mentor, for instance. I knew that were teachers, that this teach was working on something and they needed to see someone. I was able to share who they could go to because I was able to have the time to go into classrooms

Ken: So, we’re talking about teacher mentorship that can be both formal and informal. What do you do in Neptune to make sure that you build an environment that maximizes both the formal, required mentorship process in New Jersey, as well as informal mentorship between colleagues who may not have been formally paired together, but that are able to grow and learn from each other, especially for new teachers learning from more experienced, or vet teachers, as you refer to them?

Matt: This is Matt.

So I think when we first developed the program, we really focused on the formal part, because that’s what was really missing for us. I think our district, Neptune, has always had a pretty robust informal structure of helping each other as colleagues, but adding the formal component of that also enhances the informal component by really creating opportunities for collaboration.

So, of course, you know, we developed our mentor program. We developed our mentor handbook and that became kind of formalized. Allyse did a great job of developing actual workshops that take place over the course of a one-year period, a two-year period, and a three-year period.

So novice teachers…it’s kind of a differentiated program depending on what year they are in, right?

The formalized program also helps nurture the development of other mentors, right? So we see people wanting to return as a mentor after they’re done being a mentee.

But it really impacted the informal process as well, because we started to see that through these formal workshops we were holding, we were able to create more opportunities for collaboration. So, you know, guest presenters at her workshops, that wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t develop workshops.

We then trained our administrators to utilize Allyse as a resource. So when you go in and observe a novice teacher, and you have some critical feedback, we made sure everyone Allyse was a resource. So in a recommendation in a formal report, you can say to the novice teacher, “Make sure you reach out to Allyse Hall. She can set up a visitation schedule so you can go watch your colleagues.”

We thought it was really important when we set up the structure of this program that everyone understood Allyse’s true role. She retains the title of teacher. Um, we involved some union leadership in the development of Allyse’s role.

Allyse and I have some very strict rules we follow. I can’t go to Allyse, and in how we’ve set up our rules, and say “You know, I’d really like you to go into Mrs. Smith’s room and help her out.”

We tried to set it up so that we put that burden on the--the teacher, the novice teacher, and our role as administrators is to provide recommendations for growth.

Allyse: This is Allyse.

Just going off of that, you talked about the formal and the informal. A lot of vet teachers want to see other and so that’s something that has grown from the formalized program.

And as far as my confidentiality, the teachers know that I’m there to support them. They know I’m not evaluative. There is nothing that I say that goes out of the room, of those four walls, which gives them a comfort level. They know I’m not gonna to be speaking to their mentor about it. I’m not…it’s just between the mentee and myself.

They know that, uh, when it’s on their evaluation, you know, “check in with Allyse,” I might know that just from the principal saying, “You know, I put that on there.” You know? But I don’t go to them and say, “Oh, you’re supposed to check in with me.”

And like Matt said, they absolutely come to me and say, “Hey, this was in my report. What can I do? Who can I see?” And it becomes less scary to them when they know that they have a person that they can go to first and say, “who can I go see?” Because when they’re new, they don’t know what teachers to see.

And I had an instance yesterday where a teacher said, “I want to see this person, this person, this person. Is there anybody else that you can allow me to see?”

So it’s opened up the doors, very much “pineapple hospitality.” People are just like, “Oh yeah, some in and see me. Oh, they don’t want to see me in that class.”

It’s become an honesty thing, also, because a vet teacher will say, “If they want to see this, this is when they should come. And if they want to see how I’m just struggling sometimes myself, this is when they should come.” And that’s very honest of them to say, “Well, I’ve got a plan.” Instead of saying, “I’ve got a planned lesson. This is what they should come see.” It’s just “they should come see what’s real.”

So that’s been something that’s born out – has come out of the formalized process. That this informal process is just I have teachers calling me saying, “Hey, if you want somebody to come in, I’m doing a good lesson today on this or that.” And that’s something that might not have happened before, but it’s really just happening all the time now.

Ken: So it sounds like you do invest a lot, too, into release time. Is that true?

Matt: Yeah. So we’ve been working on that. It’s really grown, uh, over the years. It’s—it’s hard to work on release time. Our superintendent has been great in terms of showing her commitment to walk-throughs, release time, colleagues modeling for each other.

I really like to embrace the model of the teaching hospital, right? I think school districts have a responsibility to be teaching districts. It’s – it’s our profession. We see the value of it. Teachers provide us, um, with really positive feedback in regard to classroom visitation. Um, and we just have come to realize it’s a really important part of peop—professional development.

Ken: Teaching can feel…very intuitive to seasoned teachers. How can they focus their mentorship to make sure that they aren’t overlooking things and they aren’t missing things that novice teachers need?

Matt: So this is Matt. I think Allyse will be able to offer a pretty detailed answer here, because I think that’s a crucial component of our program. And one of Allyse’s main roles is, she develops not only workshops for the mentees, but also for the mentors.

Allyse: This is Allyse. In our mentor handbook, we have from September to June, just things that as vet teachers we intuitively do. We do this paperwork. We set aside a ream of paper when paper runs out. There’s all sorts of things that we do that we’re not even thinking about. It’s not purposeful. It’s just what we do.

And so in the handbook we have from September to June, you should tell your mentor to do. And it’s a checklist. Every year I ask the teacher,  because an English teacher might not do the same thing as a math teacher does, that might not do the same things that a pre-K teacher does.

So I ask them every year to give me suggestions about what should go on the list. So that eventually the list will be on its ways to being very unique to each grade level and/or subject matter, because we do different things.

So that’s something that – that absolutely has been a help to the teachers. They go, “You know, I forgot. I wouldn’t even have told them to do this.” So that’s helpful, to just have an actual, physical list of what they should be doing by month.

Ken: Can you think of examples of a time when mentorship really changed [the] trajectory of a teacher’s experience, a teacher’s professional life?

Matt: This is Matt. So, so, one of the things we hear from mentors is how it has kind of rejuvenated their professional experience, right? So when they are, you know, finished with mentoring a mentee, they’ll provide us feedback and say, “They’re--- they were so excited to do this. They’re gonna do this again. They’re gonna get their neighbor across the hall to do it.”

Because it’s fun too. You know? The time constraint isn’t that much, you know. There are some workshops they need to attend. Allyse does a great job with some of the events being, like I said, a little more global.

Uh, we do a speed-dating activity as one of the activities, where administrators and teachers get involved, and mentors and mentees. But the mentees get to, kind of, go around and talk to a bunch of people and ask questions.

So she does a really, great, great job of making it a rewarding experience for the mentors.

So that’s some good feedback we get.

Allyse: This is Allyse. I have one example that always comes to mind for me is a mentee came into, uh, a middle school position. Fresh young teacher. And was just in tears a lot of times because she just felt like, “I don’t’—I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.”

But her mentor was wonderful. They still have a very strong relationship. I guess it’s eight, no seven years later, and this mentee is now a mentor. Um, and she said, “I can’t believe that I went from crying almost every day to telling someone else, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’ll be okay.’”

So, I guess the question was “have you seen a different trajectory?” This particular person, I mean there are other, definitely, other examples, but this particular person really said, she always says to me, “Do you remember when I used to cry like every other day and call you up and say, ‘I can’t do this.’” And now she’s a person that even vet teachers go to because she’s perfect her craft in such a – such a way that she can see what other going through and she’s able to help them and it’s wonderful.

We have, nationally, we have about almost half of your teacher population dropping out after five years and saying, “I can’t do this. I need to do something else.” And so for someone to go from crying to, eight years later, helping and saying, “This is what I want to do for life,” is really important.

I know I had a mentor that I still have a relationship with 27 years later. We go out. She’s retired now. I’m sad for all students that didn’t get to have her. But I think it’s important that teachers who have been teaching for a long time realize that these new teachers are coming to us and they really need our help. I would not still be a teacher if it weren’t for my mentor. I’m sure that I’d be doing something else if I didn’t have her words to look back on and her example to follow.

So I think it’s important just to realize that it can’t just be mentor – a mentor program can’t just be “this is what we have to do.” It’s something that – it should be “this is what we should do.” It’s – it’s how we’re gonna grow the teaching profession. It’s how we’re gonna be able to be respected as teachers. If we’re sharing our knowledge with – with new people. So, I think that’s important to know.

[end of section]


Ken: I hope this episode got you thinking about how you can support your mentor or your mentee during these uncertain times. On April 21, at 8:30 pm, we’re going to have the #NJEdPartners Twitter chat where we’ll be able to talk about this topic and think about how mentorship overlaps with where we are, today, in our current educational space. Please join me.

I’d also like to thank my guests from the Somerdale School District as well as the Neptune School District. In addition, thanks to Elizabeth Thomas for transcribing this episode and making sure that it’s accessible to all.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone, in the Apple podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening.

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