From Surviving to Thriving: The Power of Mentorship in a Teacher’s First Year

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Ravenswood City School District and the New Teacher Center came together together in 2014 to train and mentor new teachers and provide professional development throughout the district. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative sat down with two teachers who benefited from this mentoring to hear how it helped them, and what they love about teaching.

Amazing things happen in the classroom when teachers have the time, support and resources to collaborate and learn from one another.

That’s why the Ravenswood City School District and the New Teacher Center came together two years ago to train and mentor new teachers and provide professional development throughout the district. The New Teacher Center is a national nonprofit organization focused on supporting new teachers through highly trained, full-time mentors. The K-8 Ravenswood school district serves East Palo Alto, a largely low-income community. Both organizations believe that the key to improving student achievement was to create environments in which educators wanted to work and felt supported.

They also know they needed to try something new to better support students in East Palo Alto, as less than 40 percent of students in the district were proficient in state tests in English Language Arts in 2013. Early results are promising. While the program is still new, the New Teacher Center saw students’ reading levels increase after just one year.

We sat down with two teachers who benefited from this mentoring to hear how it helped them, and what they love about teaching.

Ji-Wook Choi, 3rd grade teacher, Brentwood Academy

Ji-Wook Choi 3rd grade teacher, Brentwood Academy

How long have you been teaching? How did you decide to become a teacher? After I graduated college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I couldn’t just stay home doing nothing, so I got a part time job as a TA at an elementary school by my house. After working there for a couple of months, I got laid off so I started subbing. One day I realized, “Hey! This is kind of fun! I can do this for a living!” So that’s when I decided to get my teaching credential. This is my third year as a classroom teacher and I’m loving it!
What are you excited about for this school year? This will be my third year teaching and I’m super excited for this school year. I think I’ve always had very high expectations from all my students, but this year I’m planning on raising the bar even higher. In fact, I think it will be a challenge. It’s been just two weeks of school and I have a handful of kids that are really struggling in different areas, but my students deserve the best education that I can provide them, so I’m really pushing! I’ve been to several workshops and PDs these past two years and I’ve always felt overwhelmed by all the information. I feel that this is the year to go back and try to implement all the great things that I have been learning. This is the year to do it!

This year, I’m planning on raising the bar even higher. – Ji-Wook Choi

How was your second year different than your first year teaching? My first year of teaching I was in “survival” mode. I was always rushing and worrying about lessons, students, paperwork, meetings, IEPs …there was so much to learn! My first year was a real challenge. Everything is just thrown at you! However, it was a great learning experience. My second year was amazing! Teaching makes so much sense. There is an “aha!” moment in teaching. I know what my students need. I know what kind of teacher I am. I know what to expect from my students. All the struggles that I went through in my first year helped everything become seamless in the second year.

Ji-Wook with her NTC Coach Cathy.
How did you use the New Teacher Center? I feel so blessed to be paired up with my NTC coach Cathy. Doing induction work could be tedious at times, but working with Cathy was easy. All the work that we did was very meaningful and purposeful, and I feel that I had learned so much from each meeting I had with her. She understands my struggles and we both try to come up with strategies that would work for me.
Sometimes, some strategies don’t work for certain teachers, but with Cathy, we would come up with strategies that I could implement right away, and they were all strategies that I would feel comfortable trying. Cathy is very intelligent, approachable, efficient and caring. It is very clear that NTC coaches have been trained to work specifically to support teachers. I feel so much more comfortable inside the classroom, and I owe it to my NTC coach!

Hans Schmitz, 8th Grade English Language Arts teacher, Cesar Chavez Academy

Hans Schmitz 8th grade English Teacher, Cesar Chavez Academy

How long have you been teaching? How did you decide to become a teacher? This is a question that has a more complex answer than it should! This is my fourth year in the classroom, but my 12th year in education. I originally began teaching through Teach For America in 2005 and after my two year commitment, I decided to move back to California. When I moved back, I decided to see what other positions were in the education realm before settling on the classroom. I spent three years training teachers and administrators on how to use data to drive instruction and how to use technology to access that data.
Then, I spent five years with a national nonprofit organization designing and implementing Literacy and Math Interventions as well as highly academic after school programing that aligned with the school day. In the spring of 2015, after the birth of my twin daughters, I found my way back into the classroom. Originally, I wanted to go to Law School after Teach For America. However, after seeing the immense impact you can have on students when working with schools and students directly, I couldn’t walk away!

After the birth of my twin daughters, I found my way back into the classroom. – Hans Schmitz

What are you excited about for this school year? I’m incredibly excited to continue to improve my practice as a teacher and help my 8th graders prepare themselves for the rigors of high school. After four years in the actual classroom, I’ve honed my skills in classroom management and am now really diving deep into the pedagogy of teaching the English language in a meaningful way, and it feels great to be focusing on such an integral part of what makes students successful.
How is your fourth year different than your first year teaching? As I mention above, getting past the struggles of finding your style with classroom management is a huge hurdle, and now that I’m in a better place with that, I get to focus more intentionally on my curriculum. I get to spend my prep periods and my days understanding better ways to sequence my instruction, more ways to help students visualize their learning, and more time differentiating my instruction so that I can meet the needs of all my students.

Hans Schmitz with his 8th-grade students at Cesar Chavez Academy
How did you use the New Teacher Center? My New Teacher Center (NTC) coach, Kat, has played a vital role in helping me meet the demands of returning to the classroom after such a long hiatus! Since leaving the classroom in 2007 and returning in 2015, our nation has launched a major initiative and revamped the way that we expect our students to learn. This overhaul has led to more complex curriculum that pushes our students to think more critically about their learning. Gone are the days holding your Teachers Edition close to your heart and reading a script. NTC has helped me to map out the Common Core and its expectations.
As well, through their Professional Development, they have helped me to understand our districts approach to curriculum and instruction. NTC has been fundamental to my understanding of how to not only map out the standards, but how to sequence them, what visuals to provide students and what the steps are to scaffolding and differentiating so that my students can actually access the learning.
Through bi-weekly in-person coaching, Kat has helped me not only understand what to teach, but has assisted me in improving the way in which I deliver that instruction. We all know that the best laid plans are bound to not go as planned, and Kat acts as a safety net and mirror to help me understand what went well, and how I can push myself as a teacher (and life-long learner!) to become an all-around better teacher.
I actually can’t imagine what my re-integration back into the classroom would have looked like without NTC!
As another school year begins, join us in celebrating these two dedicated teachers and the NTC coaches who ensured they’ll have an even greater impact on their students.

I can’t imagine what my re-integration back into the classroom would have looked like without the New Teacher Center. – Hans Schmitz