As a student teacher, Marlene Levin got the distinct impression that her supervising teacher didn’t want her there: She told her to sit in the back of the classroom and watch. “The most I could do was run off copies of papers,” says Levin, now a special education teacher at Ravenswood Elementary.

Despite years of experience, teacher Marcey Siegel says she was not prepared to be a mentor when she was tapped at Perez Elementary. “My principal knocked on the door and told me I had been chosen to mentor a student teacher,” says Siegel, who now works as a curriculum coordinator at Corkery Elementary. “The whole experience was awkward. I didn’t know what to do. I had no guidance.”

Now, a local university is stepping in to provide veteran teachers with the mentoring skills they will need to work effectively with student teachers. This summer, the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Council on Teacher Education offered mentor teachers a three-day seminar covering such topics as linking education theory to practice, what a good mentor says and does and what the university expects students to gain from their teaching experiences. Roosevelt University held a similar one-time session, but UIC’s seminar is believed to be the first extensive training offered for mentor teachers. The program attracted 62 mentors from 40 schools that work with UIC student teachers.

“Mentors can either make or break future teachers.” Siegel says. “They are key to the learning process.”

UIC Dean of Education Victoria Chu, agrees: “Teacher mentors are the most critical link for teacher preparation. But it’s the area that is most often glossed over and overlooked. Usually, we [universities] send mentors a letter or something about expectations or hold a half-day inservice, but that’s it.”

If the program improves the classroom experience for student teachers, they may be more likely to accept a job in a Chicago public school, Chu adds.

“It’s a sneaky way to do it,” she laughs. “But the bottom line is we are trying to prepare as many qualified, good teachers as possible to be in the lives of Chicago public school students.”

CPS Human Resources Director Carlos Ponce agrees that UIC program for mentors will help him recruit teachers. He recently hired a student teacher coordinator so his office could identify mentors and facilitate their work with student teachers.

“We want to have a supportive role,” explains Ponce. “We can’t tell schools [what to do] but we’d like to make suggestions or help make the experiences better. For example, we’ve talked … about ways to make lesson plans for students available on a web site.”

At UIC’s seminar, mentors learn how to teach someone to be a teacher. A few tips from the course include:

Don’t just welcome student teachers to your class, take them on a tour of the school and introduce them to other staffers.

Think aloud when planning lessons so student teachers can follow your logic and learn how to align a lesson with standards.

Allow student teachers to have authority; let them be “the teacher.”

“We talked about issues that normally mentors don’t get to talk to anyone about,” says Levin, who is now a mentor herself. “How do you give feedback to a student? How do you critique effectively? What do you do if the [student teacher] is not strong and needs help?”

Mentors must also take into consideration how their instructions may be interpreted by a novice. For example, when a mentor tells a student teacher she has five minutes to wrap things up, the mentor has in mind “five minutes to wrap up this lesson, pass out the lunch tickets and get the kids lined up to go to lunch,” says Levin. However, a student teacher likely will think she has five minutes of instruction time left, she says.

Says Siegel, “The university’s goal is to allow teacher candidates to gain experience and see what real teachers go through, then they will have a realistic idea of what it means to be one.”

UIC’s council got the idea for the institute two years ago, after it convened a group of mentor teachers to brainstorm what it meant to be a mentor, what worked or didn’t work and what they wished they had known. UIC invited six of them, including Siegel and Levin, to come back a year later and plan the program.

“It was a learning experience for everyone,” says Michelle Parker, who coordinates UIC’s elementary education program and helped plan the seminar.

“It was a nice two-way street,” adds Chu. “Talking to mentors keeps us up-to-date with ‘real’ teachers.”

A grant from the McDougal Family Foundation offset part of the $50,000 it cost UIC to offer the program. Participants each received a $500 stipend.

Next year, UIC plans to recruit new mentor participants, but outside funding is not guaranteed. “We know we can’t rely on outside funding forever, so we are looking at how we can connect this to the new [teacher] certificate renewal requirement,” says Chu.

“Maybe attending the institute could be counted as credit. We’ll see how it plays out.”

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