Interview with Carrie Chiappetta

Presidential Award for Secondary Mathematics Teaching, 2001

Martha Short

During her nine years of teaching sixth-grade math at Scofield Magnet Middle School in Stamford, Connecticut, Carrie Chiappetta has become involved in mentoring new teachers and is department liaison for the school. She mostly mentors new math teachers but has mentored teachers in other areas in the past. Carrie enjoys giving presentations and attending workshops and has also begun to share her experiences with hands-on, interdisciplinary, and project-based teaching in the international forum.

How did you get started in mentoring and coaching?

Our state has a mentoring program that pairs mentors with beginning teachers for two years. The first year, you are a support system for the beginning teachers, and the second year you help them through a portfolio process that they have to pass for the state. I had a mentor when I started and I learned so much from my mentor that I wanted to do that for other people. So one summer I took the three-day course to become a mentor.

What advice would you give to a teacher who wants to become involved in mentoring or coaching?

I think mentoring is a really good way to not only help a teacher, but also help yourself. You get to see a lot of different teaching styles and a lot of different activities. You also get time to talk with other teachers, which we rarely do during the school day. So it’s a nice way to have interaction with other colleagues. Another piece of advice is for mentors to remember that their mentee is not going to be a clone of them. They have their own ways of teaching and explaining things. You're really there just to support them and to listen to them.

How do you juggle your teaching responsibilities with mentoring?

It’s hard, especially if your mentee is not on the same schedule as you are. If you don’t have free periods that overlap, it’s difficult to find a common planning time during the day. Then you would either meet before or after school and do it on your own time. It would be nice if we were given some time during the school day, but with budget concerns, that’s not possible.

What activities does a mentor perform to help a mentee?

In our school, mentors work with a new teacher for two years. We have to meet a total of 30 hours a year and keep a log explaining what we talk about. During the first year, I observe them teaching, which is actually built into our program. I think it’s great for mentors to go in and observe their mentees because you see new things and get new ideas for your own practice. We then discuss how they think their class went. I also have my mentee come in and observe my class and cover my mentee’s class if they need to go observe other teachers. We meet and talk about how they think the observation went. We also talk about simple things like how to prepare kids for the state test and discipline in the classroom.

In the second year, I support the mentee through our state’s portfolio process. They have to pick a unit and videotape two 40-minute segments, which I will sometimes help out with. They have to explain what students are doing and show two or three students’ work. I work with the mentee to reflect on the lessons, what they would have changed, and what went well. They have to write a response to these questions and submit them to the state, so we review that together. It’s a lot of work and time for a beginning teacher, especially when they’re just getting into the curriculum and a new school. But the process really makes you reflect and write about your experiences, which is a benefit.

What advice would you give a mentor working with someone who doesn’t teach in their content area or grade level?

When I’ve mentored teachers from other subjects, the main things we talked about were basic teaching skills, like classroom management. It didn't have much to do with the subject. We talked about how to get students involved in different activities and the best way to handle middle school kids. I focused on being a support system so they had someone to talk or vent to and confide in. I would also try to stand up for them if they were having a problem in their classroom or with the administration.

What advice would you give to a mentor about articulating understandings about teaching and learning?

The easiest way is by actually showing them good teaching, having mentees observe other classrooms and how other teachers interact with students. When mentees observe classes on my team, they see that they get a lot more done if there is a nice, relaxed rapport with students. You can also suggest that a mentee try something and see how it works. But they have to be open to trying different things, which sometimes is difficult for a first- or second-year teacher.

What advice would you give a mentor about handling difficult conversations and situations?

If you’re working with a mentee who’s set in their ways, you really can’t say ‘No, you can’t do that.’ You can give suggestions and you can be there to listen. Then, if they tell you about something that isn’t working, you can suggest something new to try. It is their decision about whether they want to take your advice. You really can’t force yourself on your mentee. It helps to be objective and know that you can’t force the person to change. There are occasions when mentees don’t even want to be mentored. Ultimately, if they don’t want the help, you can’t push yourself on them.

There have been times when the administration has asked me to talk with a teacher who may not even be my mentee. That can be difficult to do, but I try to approach it as a friendly interaction where I just ask how they are doing and tell them to let me know if they need help. The administration may also tell the person ahead of time that you’re coming, which is a bit easier.

How do you think your experiences in mentoring and coaching contribute to the advancement of mathematics reform?

I think mentoring has made me more aware of students in my own class and how to keep them engaged and involved. Observing other people and seeing situations where students are not really participating or engaged has made me more aware of what I need to do to make my class more interesting for the kids. Mentoring really makes me think about my own practice. It gives me a new perspective on the projects I’m having students do and helps me remember to try a more integrated approach.

If you have questions you would like to ask Carrie Chiappetta about her experiences with mentoring and coaching, contact her at carrichip@aol.com

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