“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” —Steven Spielberg

Teachers make a difference in the lives of the students they teach. But there is another way teachers can make a difference, and that difference is by sharing their classroom and their experiences with someone just entering the field, an emerging educator.  

Such is the case of Michelle Maher, veteran teacher at Delwood Elementary, and Makenna Christensen, an Iowa State student teacher. Makenna has spent the first eight weeks of this school year in Michelle’s fifth-grade class learning from both teacher and students.

When coming to Delwood in August, Makenna was no stranger to grade 5 and Michelle. During the spring 2019, she was a practicum student with Michelle and was very impressed with the classroom community Michelle had built. She wanted to know what a teacher does at the beginning of the year to create a classroom climate like Michelle’s room. She requested to be with Michelle for her first eight weeks of student teaching, and her wish was granted.

So how does a teacher build a positive classroom community? One of the ways Michelle builds classroom community is a focus on growth mindset. She has a bulletin board in her classroom labeled — “The Power of Yet.” It is filled with possibilities for students to consider as they grow as learners — understanding that we all have things we can’t do “yet,” but we all have the power to set goals and achieve them.  

“The Power of Yet” has seven key points that directly relate to life and the challenges faced. They also directly relate to the challenging experience of student teaching.

Key Point #1: Challenges should be embraced.

When it comes to challenges, teachers live them daily. When describing the process of teaching, Michelle explained, “There are always challenges that come with teaching. We are here to mold the students who enter our classroom.” 

Makenna has already learned much from her mentor. “Having high expectations is everything. Not only high expectations but the necessity of always following through on the enforcement of those expectations.” 

Makenna stated that when students want to give up, she must use it as a teaching opportunity to show them that mistakes have to happen, and we learn from our mistakes.Through her teaching experience, she helps students realize they aren’t there “yet” so challenges should be embraced.

Key Point #2: Never ever give up.

Michelle described, “As teachers, we work on the kids’ mindsets – always striving to flip from a fixed mindset [refusal to take risks and tendency to give up] into a growth mindset [a willingness to try new things],” Michelle said.  This process is enforced throughout the day.

Makenna has had an opportunity to implement strategies that encourage students to never give up.  She explained, “I always have a new strategy to try because some days they work and other days they don’t. I learned from Mrs. Maher the key is always keep trying.”

Key Points #3 & 4: Opportunities to grow are all around us. Feedback inspires learning and improvement.

When describing the opportunities and feedback given in fifth grade, Michelle divulged, “We as teachers are building the blocks of learning. It is our job to show students where they are and ask them where they want to go. We give immediate feedback, so they know the why of their scores.” 

Instead of marking student papers to highlight their mistakes, Michelle likes to give students feedback verbally, so they aren’t discouraged by a paper filled with teacher marks. 

“Feedback is important because students have to realize the quality of our work matters,” Michelle explained.

“Sharing the data with students on where they were and where they are now is exciting,” Makenna stated. “There were times I was disappointed in assessment results but after examining it I realized they learned exactly what I taught them.”  

Data-based decision making provides those opportunities for the teacher as well as the student to grow as a learner. Makenna reflected, “We always work to give students what they need to grow.”

Key point #5: Setbacks are essential for growth.

Makenna has learned that not all things go smoothly.  When checking tests, she realized the results were not what she wanted.  It was through reflection and “looking at myself, I had to ask: What have I not taught?” Assessment results will be a reflection of what a teacher does, and Makenna has learned to ask, “What could I have done?”  

“I now see each setback as a place from which I grow,” she said. Data matters because “if you don’t know, you won’t grow.”

Michelle has encouraged Makenna to “always ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing.  Some teachers fear data but as teachers we must look at the data to make sure we are getting the results in learning we desire.”  

In Michelle’s way of thinking, the results won’t always turn out the way you had hoped, but it just means you aren’t there “yet.”

Key Point #6: Mistakes are great ways to learn.

Michelle offered the following view of student teaching: “A cooperating teacher must realize the student teacher is just practicing. No matter the mistakes, anything can change, and each day is a new day. Teachers have the power to fix their mistakes, but always looking at the big picture will help move learning forward.”

Makenna agrees. “No matter what decision I make, it has to be kid-driven. Sometimes I have to make uncomfortable changes so kids get what they need. A lesson plan may not go as planned but learning must be based on where a student is and where you want to take them.”

Key Point #7: Success stems from hard work and a good attitude.

When considering Makenna leaving grade 5 in a week, Michelle sighed. 

“I can’t live without her! Having that extra person like Makenna is great. Sometimes a student teacher will double a load but with her we could split the load. Everything was shared and shared well.

“A key lesson Makenna learned was the need to be flexible. When she started out, everything was planned out and color-coded but every day and every year it changes. A teacher lives by the mantra - different year, different needs, different ways.”   

Makenna said she has learned more in these past weeks with hands-on experience than in her university courses and books, and she credits Michelle and the fifth-grade students for teaching her “The Power of Yet.”

This fallSteven Spielberg’s quote on mentoring has come true in grade 5 at Delwood Elementary. Through her guidance and mentoring, Michelle has not created Makenna in her own image, but has given her the opportunity to create herself — transforming from Makenna, ISU student, into Ms. Christensen, teacher.