Why would a practicing teacher need a Mentor?

Is the idea of mentoring teachers an unnecessary element in our Schools?

by Jim Martin

If you were to trace your ancestry 25,000 years or further, you’d find that your forebears read no books about the natural environment. Nor did they answer multiple choice test questions about it. They lived in it, and learned in it. The environment is where they developed the capacity for critical thinking that we carry with us today.

We try very hard to continue to teach critical thinking in our classrooms, but all you have to do is look around, and you have to conclude that classrooms don’t teach critical thinking very well, if at all. However, walk into a classroom in which the curriculum is built upon experiences in the real world, and you will see critical thinking, critical writing, involvement and investment in learning, commitment to growth, and active environmental stewardship. You’ll also encounter enthusiastic, empowered people. Environmental education is demonstrably an effective vehicle for learning for understanding in all subjects, and is the crucible for the evolutionary development of our central nervous system, “the brain,” which we use every day to learn. We learn best in the real world; the learnings we acquire express themselves in personal growth, improved education, and a commitment to stewardship.

Studies on teachers who decide to take their students into the real world reflect what I’ve heard from other people who train teachers or are teachers who have taken their students outside the classroom. Even my own experiences teaching classes in fifth-grade through college, and helping teachers learn to do that too, all say, in one way or another, that it takes three to five years for a teacher to move from not having taken students outside the classroom, to being comfortable using the world outside to deliver curricular content. (That’s a long sentence; I’ll follow with a short one.) It works. Takes time and patience, but it does work.

Might mentors assist teachers to develop their capacity to use the environment for teaching and learning?

Hopefully, many of us know that our students, and their children, will have to understand ecosystems and climate change if they are to cope with the brunt of the effects of climate change. That means we have to teach these subjects in our schools. The studies I can find of how well-equipped we are to meet this real need say that fewer than half of us have the college-level background and understandings we should possess to teach the environmental science to meet this need effectively. We really must take some first steps in filling this vacuum as a professional responsibility.

In previous blogs we’ve looked at an outline of how to approach the training that teachers need to enable their students to approach global warming effectively. Another component of an effective response to the problem is a mentoring program to help more teachers through these three to five years it takes to become proficient in using active learning outside the classroom to teach ecosystem science. Mentoring is a model that business and industry use routinely, but which is relatively rare in schools. Just now, we are the only ones who can begin to build capacity for this developmental model in our schools.

Over the years, I’ve worked with teachers making their first forays with students into the world outside the classroom. For a large fraction of them, their main concern on this first trip is the head count going onto the bus, and the head count getting on the bus for the return trip. This concern of theirs about not losing a student highlights a pertinent piece of the act of moving outside the classroom to generate curriculum – how we, the teachers, feel when we step outside the familiar safety of our classroom.

What can mentors actually do for teachers?

Those feelings, anxieties, tend to carry through that first day. Another common teacher concern at the site during a first field trip is about student behaviors as they work and move through the site’s stations. When we are anxious, our brain’s response is to seek safety instead of attending to the learnings on site and developing conceptual schemata that will help us do a better job of teaching. On that first day, teachers should have the support it takes to enjoy the field trip, and be sorting through it to re-think what will follow once they are back in the classroom. Mentors can fill that need, helping teachers grow as they experience active learning in the world about. This can involve and invest them in the work, and empower them as teachers. A mentor is another human to walk the road with. Then, the work, not concern about what might happen, will carry the day.

For teachers on a first trip where their students are actively involved in learning on-site, a mentor is an ideal person to point out the content the site contains, and how to fill in areas the teacher is weak in. They also would have the knowledge, skills, and experience to recommend particular things the teacher can do to help their students discover that content embedded in the environment. At the same time, a good mentor would also be able to make suggestions about supervision and management skills that the teacher may not be aware of. It takes time, years, to become comfortable and proficient at using the real world to enhance student learnings.

The payoffs of making mentors a part of classroom and environmental education are worth the investment it takes to get them there. One powerful tool in making this happen is attracting seasoned mentors to help teachers navigate this part of the education world. Both environmental educators and teachers. We need to build this capacity into teacher training now.

There are teachers in most school districts who do take their students outside the classroom, either on the school grounds, the neighborhood, or a natural area. Many of these teachers who take their students out of the classroom for part of their curricula have, in the past, been willing to help other teachers who think they would like to try it, but are understandably unwilling to risk it alone. They constitute a component of an ideal mentor pool. Adding environmental educators, a critical component in the pool, should double its effectiveness. We’ll take this up in the next blog. Meanwhile, if you have an interest in this topic, leave a comment below.

jimphoto3This is a regular feature by CLEARING “master teacher” Jim Martin that explores how environmental educators can help classroom teachers get away from the pressure to teach to the standardized tests, and how teachers can gain the confidence to go into the world outside of their classrooms for a substantial piece of their curricula. See the other installments here, or search Categories for “Jim Martin.”