Teacher Mentors at Center of Course Implementation Efforts Throughout Illinois

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Central to our civics course implementation efforts is the Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor program. Last spring, teacher mentors were recruited for each region (one per Regional Office of Education; 38 in total including Cook County’s three regional service centers) and assigned to support teachers, schools, and districts in their area. They are tasked with co-facilitating our summer professional development workshops, providing fall and spring in-service sessions, and consulting with colleagues in their respective regions on a regular basis.

Last weekend, mentors representing 25 regions convened in Champaign for a mid-year reflection on successes and challenges to date. This feedback will inform the second year of our offerings and the future of the mentoring program itself.

Across the board, our mentors are a passionate and committed cohort of educators with strong organizational skills and decades of innovative teaching experience. However, they are severely time-challenged and find difficulty in balancing their mentoring responsibilities with their critical day jobs. Some are overwhelmed by the new information about the course requirement and emerging social studies standards. Others have experienced difficulties translating their excitement about these new policies to colleagues.

Our mentors are still in the process of establishing their credibility with colleagues, area schools, administrators, even the regional offices of education themselves. They sometimes feel like their email outreach constitutes “writing into the abyss” as responses are few and far between.

While we trust that their exposure and reputation will grow with time, we are committed to supporting our mentors by better engaging administrators and regional superintendents of schools. We also plan to help mentors facilitate informal meetings with teachers in their area outside of school hours, creating space for communities of practice to coalesce.

Reflecting back on the first year, our mentors learned a great deal from our civic education partners, using their resources and lesson plans in their own classrooms. They specifically cited the Mikva Challenge’s root cause tree, a legislative hearing modeled by the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, and Facing History’s Choices in Little Rock curriculum.

Looking ahead to this coming summer, emerging social studies standards are front and center. Our mentors pointed to a series of challenges with their implementation, including yet another set of standards piled on top of Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, competition with the new teacher evaluation system, and lack of awareness that new standards are on our doorsteps.

Moreover, the inquiry arc embedded in the new social studies standards, paired with minimal content, requires a shift in teaching philosophy for many educators, from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.”

Finally, our summer workshops will certainly infuse the new standards, but also respond to mentors’ requests for additional examples of service-learning in practice and how to assess it. Workshops will embed more state and local issues, and teacher mentors will assume a greater role in the planning and execution of workshops in their respective regions. Stay tuned for the release of summer workshop dates and registration links later this month.

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