Wednesday, March 27, 2019

TEACHER FEATURE: Mentoring program pair reflects on two years of professional growth

Andrea Harstad (left) and Courtney Hentges

“As part of my job interview, my superintendent [Lonny Johnson] informed me that if I took the position, I would be participating in the statewide mentoring program,” says Courtney Hentges, band and choir teacher in the Montrose School District. “I didn’t even know what it was.”

How does she feel now, as her second year of teaching comes to a close, and she approaches the end of her time in the mentoring program?

“Without the mentoring program, I think I would be more burnt out than I could handle at this point,” she said.

Instead, she feels optimistic about her career choice. She is building stronger relationships with her students, colleagues and community.

Hentges’ mentor is Andrea Harstad, fifth and sixth grade band director and assistant high school band director in the Canton School District.

“In the band world, we talk about retaining students,” Harstad said. “We put so much time and energy into that little 10-year-old. What’s going to make that 10-year-old become an 18-year-old in our program? How do we retain them? Keep them motivated? Well, it’s the same thing with teachers.”

Harstad wants all new teachers to know, “Everybody’s got your back. Everybody wants you to succeed. Everybody wants you to do well and be happy and do good things with your students.”

Striking a balance
Early in the mentoring relationship, Harstad sought to strike a balance between giving Hentges a detailed rundown of what she sees as a band director’s roles and responsibilities versus letting the new teacher feel things out on her own before requesting Harstad’s input.

Now that the pair has been meeting for over a year, Hentges likes that they’re past what she describes as the “awkward new relationship” phase. “We know each other a little deeper,” she says. “It’s easier for me to say, ‘I’m really struggling with this. I need help.’ Whereas last year, I think I would have been a little slower to come to Andrea with a problem. I’m a little more vulnerable with her this year.”

Expectations vs. reality
Hentges remembers as she was completing her teaching degree, she was most concerned about pedagogy—knowing instrument fingerings, how to do minor instrument repairs and run rehearsals. Looking back, she feels her worries were a bit na├»ve. During her first week of school, she quickly realized her biggest challenge would be classroom management.

Harstad has been a great help. After observing one of Hentges’ rehearsals, she cheerfully said, “Oh, you’ve got some performers in the classroom!” in reference to some students playing their instruments when Hentges was trying to provide instruction.

While Hentges had been getting frustrated with the students, Harstad suggested a strategy—let those enthusiastic students demonstrate what Hentges is trying to explain, thereby indulging their impulse to play, while also helping Hentges get her point across.

Harstad has also helped Hentges change her perspective in other ways. “I kind of go into robot mode when we’re preparing for a performance,” Hentges says. “Andrea helps me remember: They are human. They are children. They are my students. At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. It’s about making your students better people, not just better musicians.”

Keeping that in mind, Hentges has noticed her relationships with students have felt more easygoing this year.

Other things are getting easier too. Hentges remembers being so nervous her voice shook as she spoke at her first Christmas concert in Montrose. Whereas she says, “This year at the Christmas concert, it was like getting in front of a whole bunch of friends and making music.”

Building a network
Harstad has made a priority of helping Hentges build her support network, by introducing her to colleagues at professional development events and other gatherings so that she always has someone to reach out to and bounce around ideas.

Hentges also appreciates the networking made possible with other new teachers of all kinds through the mentoring program: “It doesn’t matter what your content area is when you’re trying to navigate those classroom management challenges.”

As she looks ahead to completing the mentoring program at the annual Mentoring Summer Academy this June 5-6, in Sioux Falls, she says it’s a bittersweet milestone. She and Harstad will stay in touch, but she knows their contact won’t be as frequent as life moves on for both of them. But she is grateful for the resources she’s gotten through the program, as well as the professional development. And she hopes to become a mentor herself someday.

Try it
As for Harstad, she plans to continue mentoring. “A lot of thought has gone into this program,” she says. “The speakers, professional development and resources are all well done. If you’re even thinking about becoming a mentor, go for it. It’s only a two-year commitment. If it’s not for you, that’s okay—at least you’ve helped one person stay in the profession.”