Interview with Rachel Babbs
Rachel Babbs spent 27 years as a classroom teacher before becoming a teacher improvement mentor six years ago in the Salem-Keizer School District. She is an articulate advocate for educator empowerment and accountability. Her experiences give her unique insights on what exactly is happening when teachers struggle in their jobs, and what can be done to help them in terms of support and professional development.
What’s your job as a teacher improvement mentor?
The thing that special about this role is that it was designed specifically to help veteran teachers. The district already has a mentor program for new teachers, but my job is mainly to support teachers on directed goals or a program of assistance for improvement. Their supervisors are saying, ‘these are things you need to work on, would you like support?’
I work in K-12, and go to any school in the district where I’m invited.
How do you approach that working relationship?
It has to be a collaborative process. Teachers are used to being independent and autonomous, so it can be difficult to ask for help at first. Yet it is so valuable for teachers—any teachers—to have a second set of eyes on their classroom because they’re already juggling so much. It is such hard work!
I try to help them see the things that are in their control, and the things that are outside their control, and get them to focus on what they can control. We set goals and make a plan, and adjust that plan as we go based on the feedback they receive from their principals.
However, everybody is different, and everybody has different needs. I really let the teachers drive the process. My goal is for them to be more reflective and honest with themselves.
How long does it take to determine how to help a teacher?
When I sit in on a class, I can usually see everything I need to see within 15 minutes. I look for patterns in the classroom, with instruction, with curriculum, and articulate those back to the teacher. Our district’s evaluation system has very specific expectations and indicators.
Sometimes there is more going on than meets the eye. What might appear to be a classroom management issue could actually be a gap in a teacher’s content knowledge. Or they may not be spending enough time developing plans for instruction. Or maybe they need to try something else to engage and build relationships with students. It really shows you that it’s all connected.
There can also be outside factors, like environment or ergonomics. I worked with one teacher who was teaching in a room that was basically a closet. We moved him to a better room the next year, and he was a different teacher. A classroom that’s too hot or too cluttered or too noisy because it’s next to the wood shop, for example, can impact teachers and their students.
How do professional development and mentoring factor into teacher success?
The biggest piece is teacher ownership, because the process is collaborative. Teachers need to have a strong voice in their choices and believe in what they’re doing to be more effective.
- Professional Learning
- Professional Development