Somebody to Lean On: Mentoring at Columbia Explorers Academy
Principal Eileen Considine of Columbia Explorers Academy got her start teaching in Chicago Public Schools 24 years ago. In 1994, while working at Shields Elementary School, she formed a relationship with then-Bilingual Coordinator Jose Barrera. Over the years, Jose would grow to become an important mentor and friend. When he opened Columbia Explorers in 2001, he brought Eileen onto his team as an Instructional Coordinator.
“He was always pushing me,” Eileen said. “He believed in me, and he is the reason I am where I am today.” Now as principal of Columbia Explorers Academy, Eileen works hard to ensure that her teachers, students and parents have the same opportunities to cultivate impactful and lasting mentoring relationships.
One way that Eileen provides this support for her teachers is by facilitating peer observations. Each week, Eileen brings together her assistant principals and two or three teachers for classroom observations called “instructional rounds.” Focusing on one grade level at a time, the instructional round teams visit classrooms to learn from their observations and share grade-level feedback. Eileen tries to show primary teachers the middle grades classrooms and vice versa. This gives teachers an opportunity to engage with colleagues outside their content areas and grade levels. Teams debrief after their rounds and discuss what they learned about the teachers and students. They then share positive and constructive feedback with the teachers they observed.
Eileen also pairs veteran teachers with first-year teachers for yearlong mentoring. Incoming teachers shadow classrooms and have a chance to learn strategies and ask questions of their more seasoned peers. The program is so well received that many teachers even ask to stay on for a second year.
This past year, Eileen created a peer mentoring program for students. She pairs seventh and eighth graders with students in younger grades. Not only does this help to form a sense of community, but it gives older students a chance to share how they deal with the challenges of growing up. Younger students can lean on their peers for support and guidance.
“They care about each other,” Eileen said, and “will help each other in and out of class.” She shared one story of a student who was scared of presenting in class. Two other students in the class stood up to present with him; “it was so natural for them to be helpful,” she said.
Even the parents have opportunities to form mentoring relationships. Through the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, eight parents visit classrooms weekly to assist teachers and mentor small groups of students. “The parents love it,” Eileen said. “They feel so important, and the kids love it too.”
In the 2017-18 school year, Eileen is looking for more ways to strengthen this culture of support. She plans to increase the number of students involved in peer mentoring and introduce a non-evaluative feedback system for instructional round teams to target math and reading rigor. Ultimately, Eileen hopes to give the opportunity for others to find their own mentors who, like Jose, can provide continued support personally and professionally.