-by Krista Taylor
On the first day of school in a new building, I got called into the principal’s office.
I was mortified. This had never happened to me before in all of my years in the classroom – not as a student, and certainly not as a teacher. But on the first day of school in my first year of teaching at Gamble, Jack stopped into my classroom and said, “Ms. Taylor, can you please come see me before you leave today?” Whoa boy, nothing like getting the blood pumping just a little bit faster on an already anxiety-ridden first-day! With trepidation I went down to the office after dismissal. Jack’s first words to me were, “You came from a top-down school, didn’t you?”
“Ummmm . . . I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You came from a school where administration did the disciplining, right?”
“Well, Gamble is a team-based school. You sent Denice down to the office today, but generally that kind of situation would be handled by the team.”
I left his office not much clearer than I had been when I entered. I now knew I shouldn’t have sent Denice there; however, I remained clueless about what I should have done when a student wasn’t following directions, walked out of the classroom, and refused to return when told to do so repeatedly. And I was also left wondering what exactly a “team-based school” was.
I seemed to keep embarrassing myself like this. For weeks, I didn’t know that I could enter the building directly from the back parking lot rather than walking all the way around. The first morning after someone kindly informed me of this, I found myself looking at the many unmarked doors at the back of the building trying to determine which was the one I needed. One of them was propped slightly open – surely that must be it. I confidently proceeded, and that was how I inadvertently walked directly into the boys’ locker room. Thankfully, no one was in there at that time. I rapidly retraced my steps praying that no one would see me.
About a month into the school year, the secretary stopped me and said, “You haven’t been signing in. You’re supposed to sign in every day.” Oops. Once again, no one had told me.
These were simple things that a building tour and a daily procedures explanation would have covered, but it was no one’s job to do this for me, and I simply didn’t think to ask.
So how do we help people who are new to our building acclimate to both the simple things – we have to sign in every day – and the more complicated ones – here’s how we handle discipline in our building? Not to mention the basics like which door to use!
My blunders led me to strongly advocate for a Teacher Mentoring program at Gamble. It wasn’t that the staff at Gamble wasn’t helpful – they were happy to answer any questions I had. It was just that I didn’t know what questions I needed to be asking, and there was no one explicitly tasked with showing me the ropes.
I wanted to create a mentoring process that would do three things.
- provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building
- assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations
- include a deep sharing of the school culture.
Essentially, our mentoring program would cover all the layers of What We Do Here. It would also provide a consistent person that a new employee could comfortably turn to who could patiently provide answers and guidance as often as necessary.
It took me awhile to convince Jack of the importance of creating something like this, and once I did, his first question was, “Well, how do we do that?”
“Ummmmm . . . I’m not really sure. New staff need to understand the basics, as well as all the things that happen during the year, but it also has to be more than that; they have to know who we are – at our heart.”
Neither one of us was entirely certain how to put all that together into a workable structure.
Fortuitously, that summer, Jack was on jury duty, and one of his fellow jurors happened to be Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s (a local pizza chain). Jack managed to get us a meeting with him to discuss their “Onboarding” process.
LaRosa’s makes pizza. We educate children. What could we possibly learn from them?
As it turns out, we learned a tremendous amount. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about.
A number of statements stood out to me during that meeting.
- The employer has a responsibility to grow team members
- You need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish
- The best teachers are your peers
- In order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller
Their program included all three of the layers we had identified as important for teaching “What We Do Here.”
An overview of expectations and procedures is covered in their pre-orientation requirements – essentially a reading of the staff manual. Following the pre-orientation, instructions for how to handle a variety of situations are given during an in-person orientation session. But the most important thing that Mr. Cundiff shared with us was the importance they placed on sharing the Buddy LaRosa story, with every employee and every customer. This is the story that every new employee hears.
“As people traveled to Buddy’s original pizzeria to satisfy their hunger, sharing pizza, smiles and stories together he quickly saw that the more his guests smiled, the more often they came back. As his business grew, Buddy began to realize that the making smiles part was the most important work he did – LaRosa’s reason to exist. Reach Out and Make Smiles was born soon after as Buddy’s Service Philosophy.”
During the summer before the 2014-2015 school year, using what we had gleaned from LaRosa’s, and, adding some additional pieces to support the complexity of a teacher’s job, we set out to craft our Teacher to Teacher Mentoring Program at Gamble.
The most important component of our model is that teachers new to Gamble are paired with carefully-selected veteran teachers. This one-to-one pairing allows for a high-level of consistent support provided by a reliable and knowledgeable peer.
We put together a booklet (linked here) to serve as our overview of the basics. Most importantly, it includes a checklist of important things for mentors to cover with mentees before school even starts –among other things it includes:
- A building tour
- Where to sign in
- How to use the copier
- Where to find various supplies and materials
- How the discipline policy works
- An overview of emergency procedures
We also schedule periodic meetings throughout the year which cover a variety of topics such as:
- An overview of Montessori philosophy
- The requirements of our teacher evaluation system
- Testing protocols
- Professional development requirements
- Monthly 1:1 check-ins to problem-solve concerns and provide encouragement and support
But all of these pieces – the before the school year overview, the monthly meetings, and the 1:1 check-ins – are all about the nitty-gritty of the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that arise so frequently in a school building.
None of them touch on the bigger piece – the piece that explains who we really are as an institution, what the culture of our program is. What is our pizza paddle, our fundamental values, our whole point? How do we share our heart and soul with new staff?
LaRosa’s had taught us the importance of telling our story, but what was our story? We quickly realized that we didn’t have just one story, we had many. A re-telling of the stories that exemplified us at our best would convey our fundamental values – our heart and soul. Instead of a pizza paddle what we had discovered was our Montessori Great Lesson.
The Gamble Great Lesson is a re-telling of the stories where we live into our values. As such, although every part is true, it holds a somewhat mythical status, and it serves as a foundation for our Mentoring program by defining the deepest parts of What We Do Here. It is the kind of thing that Marta Donahoe, founder of CMStep, and a mentor to both Jack and me, would say needs to be experienced again and again, so “they feel it in their bones.”
In light of this, we hold 2 Mentoring meetings before the school year even begins. One for mentors only, to define the role and describe expectations of the program, and one for both mentors and mentees, which serves as a get-to-know-you gathering. Jack tells our story, The Gamble Great Lesson, at both of these events.
And in what always simultaneously seems as short as the blink of an eye and as long as an epoch, we will be wrapping up our year of mentoring, and celebrating the end of the school year together. In my mind, each year is a success as long as no one got called into the principal’s office on the first day of school, or inexplicitly found themselves in a locker room! However, I hope that our mentoring program provides so much more. I hope that it provides our new teachers with an easier transition. I hope that it serves to powerfully share the remarkable place that our school is. But mostly, I hope it provides a friendly face and a safe forum in which to ask questions, share concerns, seek solutions, and feel assured that they are not alone. After all . . . it’s what we do here.