“Am I in trouble?” responded the early childhood teacher when her education coordinator asked if she would be her mentee.
“No, not at all,” insisted Kristen Lariviere. Kristen went on to explain that she was learning how to become a stronger mentor so that she could give teachers more professional support. She promised the teacher that although she does conduct the more formal evaluations as an education coordinator at The Children’s Workshop in Central Falls, her work as a mentor would be entirely separate.
Kristen is participating in a program that The Children’s Workshop, a network of six early childhood centers in Rhode Island, launched in the fall. The organization contracted Ready to Learn Providence to work with representatives from each of its centers to help them grow as mentors and coaches. Some of these representatives are education coordinators like Kristen, but others are talented classroom teachers. For this first year, each of the participants in the program will mentor one teacher.
The program is intended to serve several purposes, explains Julie Boutwell, chief education officer of The Children’s Workshop. First, of course, is to increase quality in the classroom so that children can flourish. “But we also see it as important to give early childhood teachers more support in their professional careers,” she says. “We’re grooming master teachers – not only the mentees but also the mentors.”
One of the biggest challenges facing early childhood centers in Rhode Island is attracting and retaining qualified teachers. “If teachers feel the program is invested in supporting them professionally, and helps them to hone their craft, I think they’ll want to stay,” says Deb Morelle, one of two facilitators from Ready to Learn Providence who is leading the mentoring program.
Once a month Deb and Christine Chiacu-Forsythe meet with all the representatives in a group known as the Education Committee. (This group also includes representatives from former Children’s Workshop centers that are now part of Cadence Education.) Each month Deb and Christine focus on the social and emotional development of young children and how coaches can help teachers promote it. “Social and emotional development is somewhat abstract,” notes Julie. “Teaching teachers how to help children regulate their behavior, for example, is a lot more difficult than teaching them how a child should hold his pencil.”
“The Education Committee was not only ready for this, but they can’t get enough of it,” says Bailey Kent, president of The Children’s Workshop. “Deb and Christine both bring energy and joy to the room.” Deb and Christine also meet each month with the mentors at their sites to provide them with more individualized assistance and to follow up on what was discussed at the previous Education Committee meeting.
Jordan St.Clair, also an education coordinator at the large Central Falls center, voices a concern common among mentors and coaches. “I had a hard time coaching teachers who had more experience than me or who were older than me,” she says. She and Kristen say they lacked any formal training in coaching when they were promoted to their positions, and they felt awkward coaching those who they saw as peers. This program, they say, has given them the skills and confidence they had lacked.
“It’s important for any school or teacher to recognize they can do better for their children, but it’s sometimes hard to accept without a little defensiveness,” says Bailey. “This program makes it clear that the mentor and mentee are in a safe space, and that its only purpose is to help the person develop as a teacher. We’re building relationships among teachers.”
“We’re grooming master teachers – not only the mentees but also the mentors.”
Indeed, the teacher who initially worried that she was in trouble is now fully engaged in her mentoring relationship with Kristen. “Before we started doing this she hadn’t been open to asking for things,” Kristen says. “Now she goes straight to me for any help she needs. She picked the goals we’re working on and she feels much more comfortable with me in her classroom.”
Jordan’s mentee welcomed the help from the start. She’s a first-year teacher with an undergraduate degree in biology and a passion for young children, but she knew she needed help with classroom management. The composition of her class made it particularly challenging – seven boys and two girls. “We want to keep new people like her,” notes Deb. “If she doesn’t feel supported, she’ll leave the center, and maybe even leave the field.”
Although many of the mentors are education coordinators, some are high-functioning classroom teachers. It’s important, Christine notes, that they feel they can progress professionally and yet stay in the classroom, which is what they love.
When Ready to Learn’s contract with Children’s Workshop ends in June, Christine and Deb want to leave them with a curriculum and documentation that will help them continue this work. Bailey and Julie say they are fully committed to sustaining it, and are already discussing a second phase. “Everyone at Children’s Workshop wants good things for the children,” says Deb, “and they know that supporting teachers and improving staff performance are the key.”
Top photo: Christine Chiacu-Forsythe discusses an issue with mentors at the monthly Education Committee meeting.
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