Kentwood – After 20 years teaching physical education, Matt Burton found himself in front of a fourth-grade classroom leading instruction in reading, writing and math.
“It’s definitely a change for me,” said Burton, who in November transitioned his class to remote instruction while the district is closed for in-person learning due to the pandemic. He was just getting used to being in the classroom instead of the gym, and now he has to teach online all day.
The props are different too. Instead of balls and nets, good distance instruction requires many technology tools. “It’s been kind of a crazy time, a whirlwind,” he said.
But Burton knew who he could turn to: Joe Marsiglia, a tech-savvy teacher he mentored. Marsiglia taught elementary PE for three years until taking on a fully remote fifth-grade class at Explorer Elementary School this year. Before that, he taught for an online Kelloggsville Public Schools program.
The pair spent a lot of time together in the gym over the past three years, with Marsiglia learning from Burton best practices for teaching PE in the diverse district. Now he’s happy to return the favor and help Burton with remote teaching.
“(Marsiglia) has got the knowledge, so I’ve been picking his brain,” Burton said. “It’s been nice to get some information back from him because he’s got the experience.”
Building Mentor/Mentee Relationships
Burton and Marsiglia’s relationship is the result of the district’s 20-plus-year-old Teacher Mentorship Program, which pairs for three years long-time Kentwood teachers with those who are new to the district. Seasoned teachers model instructional practices, classroom management, problem-solving and myriad other strategies a newbie can benefit from. Over time, mentors and mentees learn from each other.
This year, 292 teachers — half mentors and half mentees — are involved, together navigating school during a pandemic. Now more than ever, they say, the support is needed and appreciated.
“We are all like first-year teachers this year,” said Vincent Mayfield, who teaches teen leadership and health at Pinewood Middle School. Mayfield also was a mentee of Burton’s for three years.
“It’s a time where things are difficult and stressful,” he said. “We care about what we are doing with students and whether they are getting what they need holistically. We all want to do what’s right for kids.”
Mary Molyneux, a retired Kentwood teacher, leads the program. She started it with former Superintendent Scott Palczewski to develop a cohesive network of teachers districtwide. Even those who have taught in other districts are paired with a mentor when they are hired in Kentwood.
“You need to first learn about Kentwood, and the people here will show you its roots and culture,” she said.
That’s what Mayfield stresses, too. He learned from Burton professionalism and how to embrace those coachable and teachable moments. Burton was both Mayfield and Marsiglia’s track coach in high school.
“He was already a person I looked up to for guidance and life lessons growing up,” Mayfield said. “Having him around, having a person I looked up to as my coach was there to mentor and guide me in my teaching career.”
Teaching in a Unique District
The Kentwood culture is very inclusive, with dozens of languages and every ethnicity and culture represented within the student body, which is mirrored by a diverse staff, Molyneux said. New teachers are welcomed into the fold. “We aren’t going to let them fall through the tracks or stumble.”
Normally the school year begins with a big teacher powwow as mentors and mentees meet. Due to the pandemic, that didn’t happen this fall, so teachers are relying on meeting in socially-distanced fashion and on Zoom. Pairs meet 10 times a year, with mentors observing mentees in the classroom in a non-evaluative way. That helps them prepare for real teacher evaluations and get feedback. They track their meetings on accountability sheets due to Molyneux in May.
It’s also great for seasoned educators to learn from fresh-out-of college teachers who are equipped with new strategies and technology. “I’ve had teachers say to me, ‘Mary, I think my mentee is teaching me.’ You will glean from them as much as they from you.”
Marsiglia said it was nice to see how Burton ran his class, and his ability to build relationships with students. For example, when he was with a group that loved soccer, Burton made it a big part of the curriculum. He explained the nuances of games like shuttle run, and how to play on Field Day.
And having Burton critique his teaching was helpful, too, Marsiglia added. “He was able to give me specific feedback without having a grade attached to it.”
The program is beneficial, Mayfield said. “It’s great to have a person who has been there and had that experience.”
Mayfield said he’s been talking to Burton too, about classroom teaching and remote instruction. That’s the benefit of the program, he said, it extends and expands over the years.
“We talk about our challenges and struggles around remote learning. It’s new to us. I’m trying to help him take on a new role as classroom teacher.”