Expanded Faculty Coaching System Mentors New Teachers

Cara Henderson’s planning whiteboard in her office. Photo by Reid Alexander.

Becoming a new teacher at any school is difficult, but at GDS, where teachers are given much flexibility in shaping their classrooms, navigating everyday life can be particularly challenging. To help them work through these issues, GDS has a system in place to offer support to newer teachers while they settle into the school and plan their lessons. 

Mentors and instructional coaches help teachers with both educational and personal needs relating to their work, whether it be constructing their curriculum or managing a work/life balance. They also work to guide new teachers by giving them advice on how to create meaningful connections with their students.

The mentorship and instructional coaching systems work together to create an every-other-year pattern, with first-year teachers starting cohort mentoring with C.A. Pilling, then switching to one-on-one coaching with Katherine Dunbar in their second year, and then returning to mentorship once again for their third. 

While the role of mentor is fulfilled by teachers at GDS, this year, the school created a full-time coaching position. Cara Henderson began working as the new full-time instructional coach for teachers in their fourth year and beyond last semester and is working alongside Dunbar and Pilling.

Though this is Henderson’s first year at GDS, she has spent almost three decades working in education. She explained that she was drawn to GDS specifically because of her belief in the importance of prioritizing not only students’ voices, but also those of faculty.

“I feel like that’s part of the mission here—really honoring the student experience and getting students involved in decision-making and everything like that,” she said. “I think that in order for that to be successful, there needs to be space also for faculty to have a good voice within the community, and to have a sense of agency.” 

First-year teachers begin their experience in the teacher mentoring program working with Pilling. They meet for weekly lunches with Pilling and other first-year teachers. The main focus of mentoring in the first year is to adapt teachers to life at the school in a general sense, as opposed to classroom-specific advice, which is covered in their second year. 

Pilling explained that many teachers often feel as though they are in uncharted territory. She said that having lunch meetings provides a support system that makes the transition much smoother.

“The idea is to be together and to sort of break bread,” she said. “Having a meal together brings us to a common space.” 

Latin teacher Nicola McCutcheon, who began working at GDS in 2019, spoke very highly of the meetings she attended in her first year. 

“As a new person in the school, you kind of have a cohort of other new people who are all going through the same thing as you,” she said. “So when you’re all kind of lost and confused, and on your first day of school, you’ve got some people to commiserate with there.” As a new teacher, especially in a world where the pandemic is a constant additional stressor, McCutcheon said that the mentorship program lifts a big weight off teachers’ shoulders. 

Once a teacher reaches their second year at the school, the cohort system is replaced with a one-on-one instructional coaching relationship with Dunbar. The relationship allows teachers to develop more specific ideas about their classes and how to make them more engaging.

“It’s really about instruction; they [the teachers] can bring concerns or things they think went really well, and we get to sort of celebrate them together,” Dunbar said. “They bring their ideas to me and their thoughts to me, and then we kind of partner in how to get them wherever they want to go.” 

In a teacher’s third year, they return to attending weekly lunch meetings. In the new sessions, meetings are more open, allowing one person to talk about a specific issue they’re having, and giving the teachers an opportunity to work together to help solve it. Alternatively, teachers can talk about bigger-picture GDS topics, whether it be things they think the school could be doing better or issues they’ve noticed within the community. 

“It’s really whatever you need it to be,” McCutcheon said.

The pandemic only amplified the need for a resource like instructional coaching. Teachers new to GDS in the past two school years found themselves forced to adapt to both a new school and a virtual format. In the past, the official relationship between teachers and their mentors or coaches ended after three years. But beginning this year, teachers began working with Henderson after the three-year program ended. 

Michelle McKeever, who is in her fourth year at GDS, works in admissions and as a lower/middle school health and wellness teacher. “I get to kind of talk about whatever’s going on in terms of my student-facing work,” she said of working with Henderson, “as well as just professionally with somebody who can really provide some feedback on how to do some things better, or some ideas that maybe I hadn’t thought of, while also just affirming my experiences.”

Much like the second-year coaching, Henderson focuses very much on the individual teacher and their needs. According to Henderson, she helps the teacher brainstorm projects or units, becoming a “sounding board” for their ideas. But with the pandemic, she said that meetings can also be focused on managing mental health in relation to teaching, helping teachers accomplish tasks while also making sure they have time to spend with people outside of the GDS community. 

“One of the things I love about the coaching is that I don’t have all the answers,” Henderson said. “I am here to truly listen to my colleagues and hear what would work for them.”

Sadie Foer contributed reporting.