The new mentorship program benefits rural educators and prepares the next generation of teachers.
In May, Texas Tech University at Waco honored its first graduates of the College of Education (COE). Each of the eight new teacher candidates completed a two-year mentorship program in the Lorena and La Vega Independent School Districts (ISDs), where they co-taught middle school mathematics alongside carefully selected mentor teachers.
Texas Tech-Waco operates as a community-based higher education teaching site in partnership with McLennan Community College. Students have the opportunity to complete their core curriculum requirements at the junior college before transferring to Texas Tech for their upper-level courses. Aspiring teachers can simultaneously complete their Bachelor of Science in Multidisciplinary Studies and teaching certification in middle school English or mathematics through the TechTeach Across Rural Texas program.
Brandi Ray, site coordinator for Texas Tech-Waco, has been coaching and instructing teacher candidates for more than 10 years. Chief among her manifold responsibilities, she acts as a liaison between the college and partner school districts to pair students with mentor teachers – a task she doesn't take lightly.
“As soon as Dr. Ray has the chance to sit down and work with the students, she has an immediate impact and begins building that camaraderie and establishing expectations,” said Lewis Snell, director for Texas Tech-Waco and Texas Tech at Hill College. “She sets the bar high, then she shows you how to reach that bar.”
Rachel Carter, one of the eight recent graduates, said, “Dr. Ray has made such an impact on my life through showing up and challenging me to be a better teacher and person.”
While a traditional student-teaching model often arranges placements based primarily on the mentor teacher's knowledge and experience, Ray takes other factors into consideration to ensure a mutually beneficial partnership between student and teacher.
“When I think about placing students, I think about what really brings richness to their lives,” Ray said. “I want them to see our profession as one that can be fun and enriching. I look at everything from a perspective of assets and strengths. I look at the strengths of my students, I look at the strengths of my teachers, and I think about how they could really complement one another and build the other up.”
It's difficult to imagine a more challenging, unconventional year to embark upon student-teaching for the first time. However, in the chaos of 2020, the teacher candidates were able to provide invaluable assistance to their mentors, and together they successfully navigated the radically altered landscape of secondary education. In the process, they forged lasting bonds that will serve them for years to come.
“These two years have been such a blessing for me,” said alumna Cheyanne Lanmon. “I am finally able to do what I've always dreamed of doing. I have so many people to thank, including Dr. Ray, for guiding me through a crazy, quarantine-filled student-teaching year.”
Mentors especially appreciated their protégés' technological know-how during the transition to online classes at the height of the pandemic.
“I had a student who was willing to take risks and learn technology at a high level and a mentor teacher who was reluctant to engage with technology,” Ray said. “When the school district moved to online instruction, I think that's where a traditional model might say, ‘No, I don't want to use that mentor teacher because they're not going to teach my student how to face the challenges that exist in this online world due to COVID-19.'
“Actually, it was a beautiful partnership because I had a student willing to learn and take on extra responsibility, and I had a mentor teacher willing to relinquish control, which allowed my student to jump in, be valued and needed and feel what it means to be a professional collaborator in a learning community.”
Lorena ISD and La Vega ISD administrators were not only impressed by the teacher candidates' professionalism and work ethic; they truly came to rely on the candidates as skilled educators and trusted members of the team.
“The schools had another teacher in the classroom, and they knew they could count on them to step in and do an excellent job, which created a great atmosphere,” Snell said.
When the teacher candidates completed their clinical hours with time to spare, they began substitute teaching on a regular basis.
“That helped out the districts because, during the pandemic, they just couldn't find good substitutes,” he continued.
Addressing the graduates during their commencement reception, Snell said, “Every single one of you is going to be able to say, ‘I did this during a pandemic, and also during a winter storm like no other. You can do this.'”
Each of the graduates has secured a full-time teaching contract, and almost all will remain in the McLennan County area to teach.
“It's not just a job for them,” Snell said. “This is where they want to make their home.”