As the school year began, I was excited not only to be teaching at CSS again and teaching a new grade, but to wear the moniker “mentor.” I thought, albeit naively, that I had a great deal to offer my new teaching partner, who with just one year under her belt was considered a newcomer to the profession. After nine years in the classroom, I assumed I would share all that I know about teaching and in return, she would learn. I have never made a worse assumption in all of my career. My belief about “mentoring” and what my role would be was completely outdated. From various academic journals and through countless discussions, I quickly realized how wrong I was.
The “old school” mentorship model partners an experienced teacher, me, with a ‘protégé’ teacher, Deirdre. It places all knowledge and expertise in the hands of the mentor, while discounting any expertise the protégé may have to offer. This relationship is based solely on a passing of knowledge, which means new strategies and approaches are not being developed, discovered, or explored. After our first couple of days of planning, I began to recognize the many faults in my assumptions about mentorship. Deirdre has a wealth of knowledge, a plethora of ideas, and an enthusiasm for teaching that is nothing short of contagious. Combined. In partnership. As equals – we have so much more to offer. This is when I began reading and researching more on the concept of “communities of practice”.
A community of practice, according to Crafton and Kaiser (2011), occurs when teachers interact with each other on a regular basis; they participate in something that matters and because of this, their practice improves and often changes. It also requires teachers’ willingness to share, develop and adapt in the company of others. Examining the relationship between teacher practice and student learning is essential. Especially if teachers want to develop and have an even greater impact on the students who show up in classrooms every day. Establishing collaborative, learning cultures for teachers is necessary in order to meet the ever-changing needs of students. Deirdre and I, as a team, have created a community of practice where together, we are far more effective than we would be alone.
“When teachers participate as knowledgeable professionals, capable of engaging in reflective practice and collaborative inquiry, that is who they become” (Crafton and Kaiser, 2011, p. 212). This, in and of itself, is the essence of the model and it accurately describes our professional relationship. If more first year teachers had the opportunity to engage in this form of quality professional development, I think the result would be far reaching; in that fewer teachers would feel isolated, the attrition rate would be significantly reduced, and teachers would have increased job satisfaction (both experienced and beginning). In my opinion, the practicality, strengths and benefits of communities of practice, if done properly, are endless.
I have been in the classroom for nine years, yet this is one of the first times where I have felt competent and confident of having a positive and significant impact on other teachers’ practices, while simultaneously improving my own practice. Through team-teaching, collaborative planning and ongoing, reflective conversations with Deirdre, I am – correction – WE are learning and growing as educators. Through digitally documenting the process of learning (for both our students and ourselves), I am confident we will gain a great deal, both personally and professionally and additionally, we will be able to share the process with others. Communities of practice are clearly a critical component to sustaining a collaborative culture at my school or at any school for that matter.
The journey we are on is one that is hard to describe. It is why I became a teacher and why I wake up every morning excited and happy to be going to “work.”
Crafton, L. & Kaiser, E. (2011). The language of collaboration: Dialogue and identity in teacher professional development. Improving Schools, 14(2), p. 104-116. DOI: 10.1177/1365480211410437