Heidi Strate and Danny Salaz team up to grow together. Excellent teacher-mentors have a secret in common: They remember what it’s like to be new to a campus community or new to the profession altogether. They remember the chaos, the nerves, and the spinning wheels; they remember the passion, excite

Aug 07, 2017

Heidi Strate and Danny Salaz team up to grow together.

Excellent teacher-mentors have a secret in common: They remember what it’s like to be new to a campus community or new to the profession altogether. They remember the chaos, the nerves, and the spinning wheels; they remember the passion, excitement, and earnest anticipation of impacting young lives. And then, with the wisdom and experience they’ve accumulated, mentors also understand why quality relationships with new teachers are so critical in Arizona, where low teacher retention is a frightening reality to the profession.

The Arizona K12 Center has been home to Arizona’s Master Teacher Program for more than 10 years. The program’s mission is straightforward: to build teacher leadership while supporting Arizona’s newest teachers to the profession. The program places experienced, high-achieving teachers into non-evaluative leadership roles in schools to serve as mentors and coaches for their colleagues. Participating in the Mentor Academy is a rigorous commitment for both mentors and mentees, and it yields results in both personal and professional growth. (Learn more about Strate’s experience here.)

Take a moment to soak in this Q&A session with Master Teacher Heidi Strate and her mentee, Danny Salaz. When Heidi’s not teaching eighth grade math at Balsz Elementary (go Tigers!), she’s a part-time instructional coach on campus. She worked with Danny last year when he was teaching sixth grade. This year, he’s leading a fifth/sixth-grade combo ELD classroom.  

On Being a Mentor, With Heidi Strate:

Working with beginning teachers can often bring back memories of what it was like to be brand new to the profession. What old memories does observing your mentee bring back for you?

Mostly, I remember my early days of teaching as sheer chaos! I was working late every night designing lessons that I hoped would reach my students, always nervous about turning my back to kids, getting phone calls from the office every other day that I had forgotten to take attendance or to turn in some form or another, and rarely getting through a lesson by the time the bell rang. Teachers do SO much for their students and campus and have so much on their plates! That’s why I love the proverb that we heard in our first year of Mentor Academy: “A mentor isn’t meant to add more things to a mentee’s plate; a mentor helps them hold the plate.”

I didn’t have the guidance of a mentor my first few years of teaching, and so I tried on a lot of different instructional strategies and “tricks” from other teachers and tried to make them work in my class. Mentoring other teachers now makes me remember those frantic days of trying out anything and everything to help my kids learn. I was over-planning my lessons with activities and ideas that were only loosely related to student learning, and I was vastly overextended emotionally and mentally! I wish I had had a mentor in my first years of teaching to help guide me toward the instructional practices that were most impactful for my students’ learning and to find simple ways of implementing them in my classroom.

I hope that I help teachers manage that over-extended feeling and really pare their classroom and instruction down to the essential practices that increase student learning and help them let go of the ones that aren’t as effective or useful. I always try to keep sight of ways to make effective instruction streamlined and simple to implement for teachers — sometimes it means ditching the complex projects and activities, the laptops, and the fancy anchor charts and focusing instead on the actual thinking and working that we’re asking students to do. That’s a huge mental shift that I’ve made over my career in the classroom, and it’s really a joy to help new teachers navigate it as well.

New teachers often bring fresh energy and perspective to campus. What are some skills even the most experienced teachers can learn from new teachers?

New teachers often bring enthusiasm for the profession, a flexible “roll with the punches” kind of attitude toward the inevitable setbacks and a deep care for and advocacy for kids that veteran teachers sometimes have lost sight of. Mr. Salaz, in particular, brought to our school a profound care for families and the community and an authentic connection with his students that was deeply inspiring to me. He always reacted — even to difficult behaviors in his classroom — with compassion and a desire to understand kids and where they were coming from. I know I’ve sometimes lost that perspective about student behaviors, and I think that new teachers, like Mr. Salaz, can remind us of the great power of a teacher who inherently cares about students and sees parents and families as essential partners in our work.

How have you grown alongside your mentee?

Every year, mentoring challenges me to make deeper connections between specific instructional practices and the mathematical concepts that we’re asking students to understand and master. Mr. Salaz, in particular, asked deep, conceptual questions both about mathematics and pedagogy and was always willing to try out new strategies or bring a new concept into his teaching. He really pushed my coaching to keep up with his thinking and connections. I especially grew in the ability to listen intentionally, ask thoughtful and probing questions that would move his practice forward (asking great questions is definitely a skill that mentoring has helped me to hone!) and make space for him to work out his own thinking about his instruction.

After going through Mentor Academy, I am very cognizant that I’m not trying to just make “copies” of myself as a math teacher, or force my mentees to do things in their classroom exactly as I would, but really push their individual practice forward towards excellent and effective teaching. Working with mentees, certainly Mr. Salaz, helps me grow in that area even more, and made me even more aware of how I shift between what the New Teacher Center (NTC) calls the three stances of mentoring — instructive, facilitative, and collaborative — in my conversations with my mentees.

On Being a Mentee, With Danny Salaz

Student learning increases when a child has a high-quality teacher. How have you seen this to be true in observing your mentor teacher or in adopting techniques or strategies from your mentor?

I had the distinct privilege of observing my mentor teacher deliver highly effective instruction on multiple occasions. In each of these observations, there were several factors I witnessed. First, students were keenly aware of what they would be responsible to learn by the end of the lesson through an articulated objective, which was referenced throughout the lesson. Second, my mentor teacher skillfully chunked the segments of the lesson so that she could administer formative assessments in order to gauge mastery of student learning at key moments. Third, through a variety of techniques, she made it mandatory that all students were actively participating in the learning. Fourth, my mentor teacher placed differentiated scaffolds so that each student would be successful at their own level of their productive struggle. Most importantly, however, my mentor teacher created a positive learning environment where students were receptive to their learning.

How has being under the wing of your mentor been transformative for your development as a teacher?

Being under the wing of my mentor teacher has been transformative for my development as a teacher because I have a colleague I can trust. I feel like I can go to my mentor teacher to help me develop my skills in planning, executing, or evaluating my teaching in a form that is honest yet supportive.

Tell us a specific story about working with your mentor teacher that holds a special place with you.

My mentor teacher and I were having a discussion on what I felt I wanted to work on to be a better teacher. Based on our discussion, she offered to model a lesson for me. She took time out of her busy schedule to plan and prepare a lesson she delivered the next day after we met. She followed through with her lesson with a discussion of my observations of what I felt I might be able to adopt or adapt to become a better teacher. For me, it showed a clear willingness and ability to help me become better at my teaching. While there were specific items I was observing, I came away knowing so much more about being an effective teacher.

New teachers often face unique struggles, which can lead to high turnover. How has your mentor helped you feel confident in your abilities and future? 

There is a variety of times my mentor has helped me. One case, in particular, involved the creation of a model, which explained the division of a fraction by a fraction. My grade-level colleague and I decided we needed some additional support presenting the model to our class. Within minutes of asking, my mentor came to help us. She was able to explain the model in a way that made sense. She went above and beyond by finding manipulatives I could use to go along with my lesson. I was able to take what I learned from my mentor and teach it to my students. Feelings of frustration and worry about teaching a poor lesson turned into feelings of anticipation and excitement that students would be able to learn a difficult concept. My mentor followed up by asking how the lesson went and offered additional support if I needed it. Not only is my mentor teacher a master of content, she does an exceptional job of coaching.

Arizona K12 Center’s Mentor Academy: Professional Learning Series Year One kicks off Oct. 2. In these four, two-day sessions, you’ll focus on instructional mentoring, observation and conferencing, using data to inform instruction, and designing effective instruction based on the learning needs of students. Register today!

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