While he was completing his master’s program at the University of New Haven, Max Comando interned at Hill Regional Career High School. He taught whole units by himself over weeks, but he recognized that he was using someone else’s material.
“It wasn’t really mine,” he said.
By the time he arrived at Metropolitan Business Academy, the stakes felt “a lot higher.” “Having my own classroom was really nerve-wracking,” he said. “There’s a real sense of ownership.”
As he figured out how to keep the attention of 25-odd young minds each period, Comando often turned to fellow teacher Julia Miller for help. She was also new in the building, but she’d been teaching for nearly a decade in Brooklyn.
Miller shared the lesson plans that students had responded well to, and she told him that classes of teenagers can just be hard to run some days. Comando ran ideas by her. “‘Am I teaching the right content?’ ‘Would you do this?’ or ‘I did the same thing, and it didn’t work so well?’ he recalled asking her. Those pointers and reassurances got him through the first year of teaching, which Miller said is usually “nerve-wracking.”
“You’re building a plane and flying it at the same time,” Comando said. “It’s okay to struggle because what you’re doing is really hard.”
The two social-studies teachers from Metro recently met up at a Westville cafe to reflect on what they had learned from each other about the teaching profession. As they chatted, an education professor from Southern Connecticut State University at a nearby table leaned over to listen.
Over the course of an hour, they picked apart the misconception that teachers are essentially script-readers, just rehashing the texts their supervisors have given them. Rather, they said, teachers are highly educated professionals with graduate degrees who feel like a part of themselves is put on display every time they debut a new lesson. They concluded that their fellow teachers, just down the hall, are some of the best experts in how to succeed, recognizing the same challenges that they’re going through.
“Teacher-to-teacher talk is the most underrated form of development. Just the ones doing the work talking about the struggles and strengths of what they’re doing always yields the best results,” Comando said. “It’s somebody who can sympathize but who also wants to help you. That feedback isn’t mean to tear you down; it’s coming from a place of empathy, because they’ve been there in places like that.”
Some of the hardest work comes from designing lessons that feel important to students.
Miller, for instance, doesn’t use a textbook in her class. Instead, she curates primary sources and multimedia, historical analysis and recent news clips.
That’s all based on the district’s curricular standards, but otherwise she’s doing all the work to put it together.
“To me, it’s a rich intellectual experience to go through that,” Miller said. “I start with the big essential questions [from the district’s standards] and work backwards. I ask other teachers, ‘What do you think about this?’ It’s such an alive process.”
It doesn’t stop after the final bell rings either, Miller added, saying she’s thinking through the lessons with her two kids, at dinner, before bed.
“I’m constantly thinking about it,” she said. “I can’t shut it off.”
That passion is exactly what gets students excited to learn, Comando added.
“The kids feel invested in it when the teacher is,” he said. “And the teacher is not when something is thrown at them but when they feel ownership.”
But figuring out how to do that well is no easy task. That’s where other teachers come in.
For the most part, Miller said that the mentoring within the school isn’t formalized.
Experienced faculty members pop in on newer teachers just to hear how their classes are going, departments share Google Docs of bibliographies, and teachers sit in on year-end roundtables in other classes to hear students reflect on what they picked up from another teacher.
“We all mentor each other,” Miller said. In the process, children’s education becomes “really a shared experience.”
But that’s not to say there’s no room for more formalized mentoring.
At Metro, the master schedule includes time for departmental meetings about twice a month. Within those small groups, teachers can have more “substantive conversations” about how to deliver the material, Comando said.
Multiple teachers also participate in the state’s official mentoring program, known as TEAM. Since 2009, it has paired beginning teachers with more experienced instructors. Overal, it’s supposed to bridge the gap between the theory that they’d learned at teachers college and the practice that they’d need to refine on their own at the front of a classroom.
Comando, who went through a TEAM training, said the process helps teachers learn how to take a step back from their day-to-day work and think about what they could do better.
“The process is valuable because it forces new teachers to really be reflective about your practice,” he said. “Not everyone does that right away; it’s hard to be self-reflective and really honest with yourself. This forces you to do that.”
Observing each other through mentorship like TEAM can lead to unexpected insights, Miller added.
Early on, while she was in her first year teaching, an assigned mentor sat in on her class and simply tracked her movements. When they debriefed, the mentor pointed out that Miller had repeatedly walked over to a group of loud boys while she barely paid attention to a group of quieter girls.
“It was such an a-ha moment,” Miller said. “That wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t in my classroom.”
What can other schools learn from Metro? As the district undergoes a six-figure curriculum audit, Judy Puglisi, the school’s former principal since 2010, suggested that administrators remember the people who will deliver those lessons.
She said that teachers need to have “time to collaborate and plan and mentor,” meaning principals need to find coverage for the classroom.
More importantly, principals need to encourage teachers to take the risks that they need to grow, just like what’s expected of their kids, Puglisi added.
“It’s really developing a culture in your school where teachers feel safe enough to take risks and try new things and where the work is collaborative. It should never be a culture of punishment, where teachers are afraid of making a mistake,” Puglisi said. “Like with the children, we want them to develop a growth mindset, which means that mistakes are opportunities for growth. We need to have the exact same culture for teachers.”
Miller and Comando said that’s currently the vibe that’s encouraged at Metro.
“There’s a belief in the staff. They are training us as professionals, and we think of ourselves as constant learners,” Miller said.
That seems to come through, even to the students.
At a recent Spirit Week event, the student council made spelled out Metro in giant letters made of individual Post-Its. One each note, students wrote down their favorite thing about the school. Over and over again, the students put down how much they felt that their teachers cared about them, supported them and understood them.
“If students have just one thing to say on the size of a Post-It, I think that’s telling a pretty good story,” Miller said.