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The Importance of Mentors in Special Education: Reflections from a Mentor and Mentee

Genesis Gonzalez began her career as a paraprofessional in Shira Moskovitz’s special education classroom, and that’s where the mentorship began. Now, Genesis has a special ed. class of her own but the lovefest of their mentor/mentee relationship isn’t over.

Shira Moskovitz and Genesis Gonzalez are both special education teachers. They met several years ago and after working together, Ms. Moskovitz became Ms. Gonzalez’s mentor. We had the chance to interview them and hear more about what they have learned from their mentor/mentee relationship. We also asked Ms. Moskovitz more about her mentoring experiences.

Questions for Ms. Gonzalez

What do you remember from your time in Ms. Moscovitz’s classroom?

When I was a paraprofessional in Ms. Moskovitz’s room, I was able to use that time as my student teaching. I learned so much from watching her teach. She always knew exactly what a student’s disability or learning disability was and how to differentiate her teaching, how to change her tone, how to change her language. It was always on the spot, moving at the pace of the child. And as we know, children who have learning disabilities can sometimes be really high in emotion or low in emotion, and it can go from zero to a thousand really quickly, up and down like radar. She was able to fluctuate at that same rate.

She also included in me in her planning, took my ideas, and made me look at them through a big-picture lens. I had ideas, but I didn’t know how to successfully accommodate every student. I knew how to start, but I didn’t know how to just put the whole thing together into a plan. so, she would take an idea I had and would say, “Well, what do you think about this or that?” And I’d say, “Whoa, where did you get that from?” And she’d say, “This standard, and that one.”

So, I would always go back and look at the standards. She helped me learn that as a teacher, you just don’t learn the standards for your grade. You know the grade before and the grade above or maybe two grades above. And I remember I learned those standards like there was no tomorrow. We were in second grade. I knew the kindergarten, first, and third grade standards. And she always knew, “This student is two grade levels below, I need to do this.” Or, “This student is a grade level above, I need to do this.”

And then with our rotations, there was always one group that was higher, one group that was on task, and one group that was a little bit below. And I do the same thing now. I have four groups. One has more rigor, one is a grade level below, and two are on grade level. They’re exposed to everything.

The rigor is there, and I feel like that was the most important thing I took from her, that even though these kids have learning disabilities, the rigor still has to be there because they still need a push. Every student needs that rigor, that push.

How did she support you after you moved on to another position?

Ms. Moskovitz gave me a beautiful gift before I left the school — she helped me get my first job. It was Valentine’s Day, and I got a phone call the day before for an interview. At the time, I had just finished my special education degree. And I ran up to the room and I said, “I got the interview!” And she said, “Okay, what are you going to do?” And I froze because I didn’t know what to do. It was for a fourth- and fifth-grade class. I was so nervous. And she just looked at me and she said, “You need to take a breath and you need to relax, because you know how to do this. You know what you’re good at, so just stick to your strengths.”

She always told me to stick to my strengths, which are teaching reading and writing. I started to think about comprehension in fourth and fifth grades, W-H questions, and aligning it for Valentine’s Day. And then she taught me something I still use to this day. You put chart paper over the white board then enlarge the picture and trace it over and color it in. And there you have the most popping anchor charts. I made a little robot with hearts and boxes. It was fully interactive.

So, I went to that interview like I was Shira. I had my head high, I knew where my strengths were. I knew I had to just keep my tone and my language on track. I remember we got heavily trained in responsive language at that school. And I got the job.

Ms. Moskovitz is the special education teacher that I always wanted to be. She never said, “You’re doing this wrong.” Instead, she said, “How about you try it like this? Let’s do it like this. Let me show you, let me plan it with you and then you can take this and do it on your own.” And she also always told me, “We know what they need. We’re here with these kids in the classroom day in and day out. We know.” And that’s what I took from her — we do know, we do have the strength and we do know what these kids need.

Questions for Ms. Moskovitz

What can you tell us about your collaboration with Ms. Gonzalez?

Ms. Gonzalez is someone I worked with and then I was so fortunate to stay in touch with. I had first known her as a co-worker. She had been a paraprofessional at our school for a while and then I was really lucky the year that she was placed in our classroom. And even though the paraprofessional often moves up with students, we requested to keep her in our classroom because we had worked so well together. And during that year, the other teacher in the room and I encouraged her as if she was another teacher in the classroom. I could split up our tasks into three and say, “OK, I’m going to run Group A, you’re going to run B, and you’re going to run Group C.” And she was just running Group C.

She had started her graduate program and her time in our classroom also counted as her student teaching. And as sad as I was, I pushed her during the school year to find a job as soon as she got her license. And she was hired mid-year by a school that had an opening and it was probably the hardest thing for us to lose her, but the best thing for her. And it just makes me so happy to see her thrive and discover more about herself as a teacher.

And just this year she switched to a more restrictive environment to support students with greater needs. Finding her niche and what she’s so good at, watching her hit her stride makes me so proud to know that I was just a little bit of a blip on the start of that trajectory.

Seeing her recognized by her administration when she’s highlighted in her school website makes me say, “I’m proud of my friend, but I’m also proud of someone that I helped get there.” It makes all the transition worth it, even though we had to get new paraprofessional and create new systems in our classroom in the middle of the year. But look at how many kids she helped along the way? It makes me very emotional.

What are some of her strengths you noticed?

In our classroom, I saw that Ms. Gonzalez had empathy and compassion for students who learn and think differently, not just the one student or couple of students she was assigned to work with. I also saw her creativity, thinking of different ways to address the same academic skill so that students might develop new, deeper understanding and so that multiple exposures to the same skill weren’t boring. Another thing I noticed was her ability to see strengths in students in whom others had trouble seeing potential. To this day, she talks about her students like the scholars that they are despite the fact that others don’t necessarily see them that way. And throughout it all, she demonstrated a high level of pedagogical skill that was innate from the very start.

Who are some of your mentors? Who are some of the people that helped you early on?

I had a mentor during my first student-teaching experience, Alisa Marcal. And to this day, I want to be her when I grow up. She was everything that I wanted to be — calm, cool, and collected. She showed compassion for every student of every ability and every background and she epitomized that in a way that it made it clear that that was the priority.

Her compassion for her students went hand-in-hand with everything that happened in the classroom; it wasn’t an additional thing. It wasn’t a social-emotional curriculum that came on at certain points during the day. It was just part of who she is and therefore was part of who her classroom was. I will never forget that. And in addition to her teaching strategies, she set the tone and made everything else fall into place.

What have you learned about why mentors are important?

I think that mentors are important because no one is expected to do it on their own or know everything in any job or profession. When you come to teaching — and you’re often the only adult in the room — it can make you feel as if you have to know everything and do everything on your own because you’re in charge of all these little humans for all this time each day.

And so mentor-teaching is so important because it can lessen the new teacher’s feelings of isolation. There’s a lot to be said for having someone to lean on, to ask questions, to check in with. It’s the job of a teacher-mentor to be proactive in checking in so that no one feels like they are alone.

What do different mentoring programs look like and how can they be different?

Well, I’ll speak about two of my own experiences. One was a program in which I was assigned an arbitrary person who did not have experience in my content area. She met with me and she made sure I was doing okay, but who didn’t necessarily have answers to my questions. It only alleviated part of the burden.

And then when I came to a new school, the principal created her own type of mentorship program for anyone who was new to the school. This time, my mentor was much more helpful because she knew how to answer my questions. And it’s not that the mentor has all the answers, rather they can connect you to whatever resources you need, and if that means they’re doing some research themselves because you’re too overwhelmed as a new teacher to do it, that’s great.

I think sometimes some people view mentorship as either just checking the box or saying, “You’re in one piece — that’s great, keep going.” But there’s far more to it than that. “What are you struggling with? What can I help you with? What is the biggest thing on your plate right now and how can I help take out a piece of that?” I try to be more like the second kind of mentor and say, “What can I take off your plate?”

How did you start mentoring other teachers?

I started two or three years into my teaching career by having student teachers in my classroom. It wasn’t because I thought that I had all of the answers, rather it was because I wanted to make room for other people to have opinions or ideas. If someone can come up with a different idea, let’s give it a try and see what works. In that way I can be a support and a beneficiary. In every mentorship experience I’ve had where I was the mentor, I have benefited or learned something new.

And then I had the opportunity to join a program in our district that recognized that graduate schools were not necessarily preparing teachers to use educational technology in an appropriate way, and it was just this huge burden for new teachers because they’re millennials and they’re expected to know how to run anything technical. Often, the older teachers were coming to them, saying, “Hey, can you help me set up my class on this website? Or can you help me figure this new platform out?” And the new teachers are simply overwhelmed with lesson planning and they don’t have the time — and maybe not the knowledge — to focus on that educational technology.”

Pre-teaching some of the common tools or common scenarios where technology might come into play served as an additional way for me to mentor, another layer of support I could offer.

What are some of the things that you try to teach your mentees?

Prioritization … because you only have so many hours in the day. If your focus is going to be on your assessments, or your focus is going to be your IEP-data tracking, set a realistic goal of the time you will need to spend. Obviously, you have to do all the components of your job, but you physically can’t spend long hours on each piece of it, so picking what you are most passionate about is always a good strategy.

Honestly, I need that reminder a lot of times too. I have a huge checklist of things behind me that I need to do and I need to prioritize: which one is going to happen first? What’s going to happen next week or in two weeks? And I have to set myself up with a plan for how that’s going to work. Making that balance is something that I think doesn’t happen until you’re on the ground.

For teachers who want mentors, where can they find one?

Start first with your school or district. People can train to become mentors. Sometimes they are then placed in a new school or in a program that matches teachers with mentors even if they are not in the same school. That’s the first place to start.

Second, look online. There are so many online professional learning communities. Teachers want to help each other in so many different capacities, and we all bring different strengths and passions to the table.

Do you encourage teachers to look informally for mentors?

It really depends on the person. I’ve had experiences as a mentor where I was assigned but not necessarily wanted, which is rarely ideal. Sometimes you are pursuing a person who may be very happy to answer some questions, but doesn’t really have time to be a fulltime mentor. So, “yes, and …” would be my answer.

For example, right now, I’m sitting near a teacher who helps me a lot, Erin. She thinks about ideas and solutions and processes in the classroom differently than I do. We work on projects together and I’ve learned so much from being near her. I know her well enough to know that I can ask her those questions. However, if I didn’t know her as well as I do, I might not know if she would be open to taking the time to answer so many questions. Sometimes mentor-mentree relationships happen organically, but other times going through official channels to seek volunteer mentors is a better route.

Can you learn from other mentors who aren’t in your field?

I think it depends on what your goal is. I would say in general, yes, you can learn from every teacher. Every teacher has something to teach and to share. And if you’re a more experienced teacher looking for professional skills, there’s a lot to learn from each other. I collaborate with a lot of teachers across New York City for technology purposes, and I learned so much from them because their perspectives and experiences differed so much from mine. You can often create best practices based on multiple perspectives.

Yet, for first-year or pre-service teachers, a lot of times their questions are closely connected to their field. How do I improve my general practice? Today I have a lesson and I have a student with X disability, what do I do?  And someone who’s never taught what you teach is not going to have the answers that you’re looking for, and so it’s more beneficial to connect with someone in your field.

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