In contract negotiations, let’s bring mentor teacher program into the discussion

Gina Caneva is a 12-year veteran teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood.

For as long as I’ve been a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools and a member of the Chicago Teachers Union, my district and my union have been in conflict.  This conflict came to a climax during the 2012 teachers’ strike, and we seem to be on the brink of another come September.

Although most negotiations deal with talks about salary, pensions and/or fair labor practices, some also deal with educational reform that can support teacher classroom practice.  The Consulting Teacher Program is one such example, one that the CTU and CPS compromised on during negotiations years ago to help support teachers in need of remediation. Through participating in the program, I learned of the impact it could have on both the teacher in need of support and on myself, the mentor.

After receiving an email from my district that I was eligible to apply for the consulting program because of my years of experience and high rating levels, I decided to give it a shot.  I went to a one-day training, which consisted of a PowerPoint, a manual, and teacher-mentor role-playing.  I filled out the appropriate paperwork. This was all it took for me to be considered a consultant teacher. One suggestion: The program could improve this one-step training by adding on meetings for consulting teachers while we are serving as mentors.  During my mentorship, I often wondered if I was on the right path while working with my teacher. Having time to talk with my mentor colleagues would have helped me sort through and figure out where I was succeeding and where I might have been falling short.

With help, a teacher makes continuous improvement

The second semester of this past school year, I was matched with a teacher who was under a remediation plan.  He was tenured, but he had received two years of lower scores on his classroom observations.  With the consulting teacher program, he had 90 days, with two more scored observations, to work with me to improve; if he didn’t, he would lose his job with CPS.

After initial conversations with the teacher and the school administration, I observed his classroom.  For the first few weeks, it was difficult to remain just an observer. The teacher struggled with classroom management and creating worthwhile instruction.  Afterward, I often felt that my debriefing with him consisted of an extremely long and overwhelming list of suggestions. Still, after those first few weeks, I could see that he was taking some suggestions to heart, so I began to focus in on two to three areas for making suggestions each time we talked.  Whether it was a suggestion to speak with a firmer tone to the class or time activities to help with pacing a lesson, I learned that less was more.

I also saw the impact my suggestions had on his students.  They began to actively participate in class and engage in his lessons in ways that only a handful of students had done during the first few observations.

As our time together continued, I saw the teacher improving on a weekly basis.  In part, it was because his attitude towards the coaching and remediation was very positive and open.  He was never combative or overly defensive about his teaching methods.  Having this attitude really fueled his improvement. After 90 days, he was taken off the remediation plan.

Near the end of the process, the teacher and I discussed the consulting teacher program. Both of us came to the conclusion that one reason it had been effective was because I was coming in from a different school.  I knew little of his school’s culture, which allowed me to focus solely on his classroom and his teaching.  I couldn’t say, “Well, most kids at this school react to teachers in this way,” because I had no idea what happened in other classrooms at his school.  I had to make connections back to my own classroom and back to the best practices I had learned along the way.  My coming from another school also allowed him the freedom to not feel ashamed about the remediation in front of his colleagues, who might already be succeeding at his school.

Equally important, I wasn’t entering into his classroom as an evaluator. At no time did I report back to his administration about his pitfalls or his successes.  Knowing this allowed him to trust me that I was there to support him and his students, and not pass my judgments on to his administration.

By expanding mentorship, we can prevent remediation

We also agreed that we would have loved to have this type of mentorship available during our first few years of teaching.  In CPS, mentorship programs vary from school to school.  According to a 2014 Catalyst Chicago article, Chicago faces an annual teacher turnover rate of 18%.  Imagine how much lower that percentage would be if we became a district that supported new teachers in similar ways that we support those on remediation plans. What if our efforts could prevent the need for remediation from even occurring down the road?

Furthermore, this program made me realize that even though our district is large, as educators, we share a lot of the same issues with classroom management, building applicable curricula, and dealing with the social and emotional needs of our students.  We manage all of these issues with a lack of resources, and are often caught in the middle of a public fight over our compensation and effectiveness.

The consulting teacher program is unique in that it builds a sustained relationship between two colleagues. This program can really help a teacher improve, thus helping their students improve.  My only wish is that CTU and CPS could further compromise during contract negotiations so that we invest more of our resources in this type of teacher support throughout a teacher’s career instead of waiting until a teacher is on the brink of failure.

Gina Caneva is a 12-year CPS veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy in Englewood. She is a National Board Certified teacher and an alumnus of the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship, which helps teachers become involved in policy-making in their local school district.