By Kevin Merrill
Three teachers new to Ottawa Hills this year are learning how to be better educators from more experienced colleagues.
For new K-12 teachers like Ashley Gorsuch, learning from a 26-year veteran like Noreen Hanlon has been very beneficial. Even though Mrs. Gorsuch has taught American Sign Language at the college level, those students were adults and expectations and responsibilities were different than working with high-school sophomores.
“At the college level, we generally expect them to make decisions for themselves regarding how they study and prepare,” she said. “In high school, there are parents or guardians to consider. And so that’s where I have reached out to Noreen. How much do I expect from students in terms of self-preparation, how much assistance do I need to provide them, and how and when do I bring in the parents?”
The two were paired because of their shared place in the Junior/Senior High School curriculum (both teach in the World Languages Department). Mrs. Gorsuch teaches ASL (being offered for the first time this semester) and Ms. Hanlon teaches French. (Pictured above are Mrs. Gorsuch (left) and Ms. Hanlon)
“Working with younger students is so different, and so is the classroom atmosphere that you set up,” said Ms. Hanlon. “What we’ve discussed is that any time you teach a language, you want people to be comfortable. And to do that, you have to work hard at establishing that classroom atmosphere. So we talk about ‘setting the stage’ so students feel comfortable. You’re going to be asking younger students to do things they might be self-conscious about. So it’s important to set up a place that feels comfortable and invites collaboration and communication.”
In a language class, those self-conscious moments sometimes occur when students are asked to create mock dialogues in front of peers, which can create anxiety. “Creating that comfort and safe place allows them the permission to make mistakes and therefore create a learning experience for all students,” said Mrs. Gorsuch.
Ottawa Hills only offers one section of ASL, so Mrs. Gorsuch is not in the district every day (depending upon the rotating schedule). When she is, she checks in with Ms. Hanlon before school to ask questions or share ideas (their classrooms are in the same hallway on the building’s second floor).
“One of the first things I said was, ‘It’s your class, have fun, make sure you’re enjoying it and make sure the kids feel comfortable,” Ms. Hanlon said. “Get to know them, tell them a little bit about yourself. They’re going to be curious because you are new to the district. I also wanted her to know our kids are great. They’re really nice, they are cooperative, and they are going to do their homework. And so I think we’re very lucky to work with the students we do.”
Ms. Hanlon and the other mentors were selected by Dr. Bill Miller, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. His recommendations were presented to and adopted officially by the Board of Education in August. This year’s new teacher-mentor matchings are:
- Kindergarten: Wendi Danzeisen for Maddy Wimmer (Year 4 Resident Educator).
- 1st grade: Laurie Keating for Mackenzie Hayes (Year 3 Resident Educator).
The district also has two ongoing teacher-mentor matchings:
- 3rd grade: Amy Wolff for Tori Norman (Year 3 Resident Educator).
- High school: Diane Drabek for Gerry Davis (Year 2 Resident Educator).
Mrs. Gorsuch also teaches ASL courses at Owens Community College and the University of Toledo. So she already knew how to run a classroom. But her undergraduate degree is in exercise science; she learned and became proficient in ASL later after graduating. (Only a handful of colleges offer teacher-preparation programs in ASL.) So she never enrolled in college courses prospective teachers are required to take.
So she has asked for advice from Ms. Hanlon on topics normally covered in those courses, such as those related to assessment, curriculum design, and learning styles. For example, she has sought advice about balancing her course’s heavy use of video – most of the student’s learning is self-paced through a sign-language website – with the need to assess progress and address different learning styles of students.
The structure of the program
The pairing of Mrs. Gorsuch and Ms. Hanlon – and those of the two other teams – is required under the state Department of Education’s Resident Educator License program. The program is designed to improve teacher retention, enhance teacher quality, and result in improved student achievement. While the mechanics of the program are set by the state, management support locally comes from the Educational Service Center (ESC) of Lake Erie West, which helps Ottawa Hills Local Schools and other districts by providing a range of educational services.
In Ohio, all new teachers apply for and operate under a four-year Resident Educator License and must participate in and complete the program’s requirements before transitioning to a Professional Teaching License, which is good for five years. That is true whether the educator is a recent graduate with a traditional teaching degree or someone like Mrs. Gorsuch, who has sought-after skills but no teaching degree. The Resident Educator License program inducts both kinds of educators into the teaching profession – with help from state-trained mentors (like Ms. Hanlon) to support the Resident Educator’s maturation into a fully licensed teacher.
“A teacher learns the ‘what’ to do in college and then practices ‘how’ to do it during residency with the guidance and support of a state-trained mentor,” said Kim Sofo, a professional development consultant with the ESC. A mentor must be an educator with at least five years of experience and participate in a two-day training to learn best practices in support of the new teacher’s professional growth.
During the four-year Resident Educator License process, the mentor and Resident Educator are required to take separate and sometimes joint classes. Each Ohio school district is required to enter their Resident Educators into a system called CORE that tracks which of the four years have been completed. So as teachers complete the requirements, they receive credit for each year of progress regardless of which district employs them.
Mrs. Gorsuch and other Resident Educators work with a mentor for two years to practice their teaching techniques and grow and get better. Then, they take the RESA (Resident Educator Summative Assessment) during year three. The assessment requires Resident Educators to videotape and submit a lesson and then articulate what they are doing in the lesson and why; analyze what and how the students are learning; reflect on the overall process; and propose how they can continue to grow as an educator.
The assessment is scored on a rubric by credentialed assessors from around the state. If the Resident Educator passes the RESA, he or she uses year four to engage in teacher-leadership roles. (If they don’t pass, they attempt to pass RESA again in year four.)
For decades, Ottawa Hills has paired new and experienced teachers. When Ms. Hanlon started, she was paired with Spanish teacher Ingrid Mendez. Later, the roles switched when Ms. Hanlon mentored Pickering Lee when he joined the World Languages Department to teach Chinese. But those mentoring relationships were informal and not tied to requirements as under the state’s Resident Educator License program. Still, those relationships provided new teachers like her a go-to person to help with many needs, from setting up and managing a classroom and creating exams to running parent-teacher conferences and knowing where to find and properly fill out school forms.