The Rewards of Mentoring

Sherry Rasmussen, DePaul University

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The first time I was asked to mentor an intern, I was honored – I was still an adjunct instructor at the university, not full-time faculty – but also a bit intimidated. Could I be a “perfect” enough teacher to be a role model for someone learning how to teach ESL? It didn’t take me long to figure out that being a “perfect” teacher is not the goal at all, and while one hopes to use best practices in the classroom, mentoring an intern means showing the real world of the classroom: the students, the teachers, the facilities, and the entire university experience. 

If you think about when you did your practice teaching, you probably spent the first days observing, and that’s what I ask an intern to do. (I recommend watching not only my classes, but ask colleagues if the intern can observe a few of their classes during the term.) Although I teach 3 classes per term, I ask the intern to assist me with just two of them. The intern gets a copy of the syllabi and textbooks, and we look through them together, talking about the objectives of the course and how the textbook meets (or doesn’t meet) those objectives. Interns may also observe the placement process to discover how students are tested and placed at the different levels in the ESL program.

Before each class, the intern and I go through my lesson plan, and I explain why I’ve chosen to do what is in the plan, often with supplementary materials. The education, of course, really happens the most during the class, when the intern can see how much you follow the lesson plan, if you change it during the class, how well the supplementary materials work (or not!), and how the textbook gets integrated. In our 90-minute classes, the intern also witnesses how an instructor keeps students engaged, with individual, pair, and group work. The intern sees how an instructor can use the board, the computer, and A-V materials, all while managing the class as a whole.

Will your intern witness certain problems during the class, or even see you “mess up” at times? I certainly hope so! How else can an intern see how you fix those problems during that class or mend them in the next class? Also, if you think back to your interning days: How would you have felt if you’d had to emulate a seemingly perfect teacher? How could you ever have felt good enough when it was time to start your teaching career?

After each class has finished – either immediately afterwards or at the end of the teaching day, we talk about what happened during the class(es) – all the facets: how well the materials worked; what the students seemed to learn; how they interacted with each other and the teacher; how we ended up using the board, etc. This leads to what we will want to keep in mind when planning the following lesson, which may not happen until the next day.  Interns often have a variety of questions and observations that inform your own practice as well as their own.

Depending on how experienced your intern is, and how long your term runs (ours is 10 weeks), your intern should teach part of a lesson as soon as possible. Just as you structure your ESL lessons with appropriate scaffolding, you do the same with your intern, again depending on that person’s teaching experience. And then, (mostly) let them go while they teach! Of course, if the intern needs help during the lesson, forgets to do an important part, could benefit from writing something on the board, etc., you can step in.  However, if the students are benefitting from the lesson as is, try not to interfere. You can always talk about the lesson later.

When we do our feedback session after the intern has taught, I like the interns to express how they felt about the lesson and how well it met the objectives. This can lead into how the practice could be improved. Of course, just as you do with your ESL students, you select the most important points to focus on, not all of them, even if the lesson was a “disaster.”  And this is where some of the real-life learning comes in – how to come back to class the next time to better meet the needs of the students.

As the term goes on, the intern can get more and more involved: creating materials, writing quizzes, deciding what should be taught and how, and executing those lesson plans during class, all with your feedback. Ideally, by the end of the term, the intern should be able to manage a complete class with which both you and the intern are happy and comfortable. An intern also needs to see how students are evaluated during the term and at the end. 

Watching an intern grow and develop as a teacher is incredibly rewarding. Mentoring reminds us just how complex teaching is, and also how fortunate we are to work in a field that encourages us to continue educating and stretching ourselves. At the same time, we must recognize that interns are going to see your good days and bad days. They are going to hear you complain about some students and rave about others.  They’ll watch you interact with students, colleagues, and the director of the program. They’ll hear you curse at the photocopier that has broken down and praise the printer that is finally working. They’ll see you enthusiastic but also exhausted. In other words, they will see the real world of teaching ESL, and if you have offered them that experience, with guidance along the way, you have done your job as a mentor.

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The ITBE Link - Summer 2013

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