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A Lead Mentor's Journey

Karen Whitmore
As I walked through the Milne Library at Derryfield the other day, a former student remarked, "Mrs. Whitmore, I thought you retired." Within a few minutes, I had explained to him that I had, in fact, retired as a middle school English teacher at Derryfield three years ago but had returned after only one day of retirement to mentor new teachers. The student seemed to understand when I said, "I couldn't stay away. This way I am able to support new teachers, connect with former colleagues, and see how students like you have grown."

Initially, I approached Dr. Carter with the idea of returning to Derryfield after retirement because I sincerely believed that teachers new to the school needed someone who would listen to and support them without the pressure of evaluation. Although Derryfield has department chairs and division heads, I believed that I could serve in a different capacity as a coach, counselor, and collaborator on a part-time basis.

Having run a mentoring program for the school district when I taught in public school, I knew first hand the value of mentoring, but I also understood its challenges. For full-time teachers, mentoring a new colleague can often be challenging because of time constraints and scheduling. This led me to create a model in which I would serve as lead mentor, but each teacher new to Derryfield would also have a "buddy" teacher in his own discipline.

When the new teachers arrived at Derryfield in August, I presented each of them with a welcome basket and poem and collaborated with Dean of Faculty Pete Brandt to provide an orientation to the school. This was followed by weekly group meetings after school during the first trimester. In addition, during my two days a week on campus, I would either observe or consult with each of my mentees and periodically drop off treats with short poems attached.

To ensure that the observations and consultations were helpful, I often asked my mentees prior to my visits how I could best help them. Whether it was a science, math, or art teacher, the requests were often similar. Teachers had questions about classroom management, instructional strategies, assessment, school protocol, and upcoming events. My feedback consisted of everything from suggesting the use of an agenda, to providing input on a rubric, to making suggestions for events like Grandparents' Day. Often, I referred them to our technology integrationist Mia Ek or librarian Betty Jipson. I also encouraged my mentees to observe their colleagues, to attend school productions and athletic events, and to be frank with me about their challenges. I shared what it was like for me as a teacher new to the school not that long ago and tried to follow up each observation or consultation with a note or email.

As was often the case when I taught, I soon discovered how much my mentees were teaching me. Whether I was observing science experiments, admiring artwork, listening to a debate on North Korea, or watching students learn to play the ukulele, I realized just how rich and varied the classes are at Derryfield. Not only was I learning new content, I was also discovering new techniques. Additionally, since I was observing both MS and US classes across the curriculum, I began to discover areas of the curriculum that could benefit from deeper collaboration across divisions.

According to the results of a comprehensive survey I administer at the end of each academic year, in general, the teachers new to Derryfield feel supported, and I am elated that I have been given this opportunity to work with them. When asked what had been the most positive aspect of the mentoring program, one teacher responded, "Having an experienced ally who is not judgmental about your teaching and fully understands the culture." Not only have I bonded with all of my mentees, but I have also grown to appreciate Derryfield even more.

When I share with others what I currently do for work, many respond with, "That sounds like a great idea. I'd like to do that when I retire." I am hoping that more school districts will follow Derryfield's lead and tap into the expertise of retired teachers. I always knew I wanted to work with teachers. As lead mentor, I am able to both give back to and ease out of a profession that has energized and fulfilled me. An added bonus has been the opportunity to reconnect with former students. While some might question how a former middle school English teacher can mentor an upper school calculus teacher, my response is always "Good teaching is good teaching."

Karen Whitmore

Mrs. Whitmore taught English for 40 years, the last six at Derryfield, and holds a Master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction from Notre Dame College. She is also the proud grandmother of Luke and Mia.

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