Amanda Huffman ’12, METL ’16 wrote her master’s thesis on how to mentor math educators to keep them in the profession. Then she put her plan into action.
Working in collaboration with several Butler University professors and in partnership with Pike High School in Indianapolis, Huffman established a mentoring program at Pike, where she has taught Math since 2012. The program helps Butler’s future teachers bridge the gap between what they theoretically know about math and teaching and the reality of classroom life.
That program has proved to be so effective that it has expanded to other subjects at Pike, a 3,500-student school on the city’s northwest side. During the 2017–2018 school year, Jenny DiVincenzo ’16 mentored eight future English teachers and Ali Ranallo ’16 supported a group of eight would-be Social Studies teachers.
During the weekly sessions, which took place after school on Wednesdays, the mentors shared career advice, classroom tips, lesson-planning ideas—anything to help make the future teachers more comfortable and prepared.
“It’s a powerful thing to sit down with somebody,” Meredith Varner ’18 said. “In college, it’s really easy to think of the most beautiful picture of a classroom, where every lesson runs really smoothly and times are perfect and you integrate those strategies and its incredible execution. We were able to get into the nitty-gritty of what it looks like to apply teaching concepts to the actual content and what it looks like to bring that into the classroom.”
Varner did her student-teaching at Pike in Indianapolis from January to March. By the time she had finished, she had verbally agreed to a full-time offer from Pike to teach math there beginning in 2018–2019. Varner then went to Westlane Middle School, which feeds into Pike High School, from March to May and, when she finished there, returned to Pike and ended the year by filling in for a teacher who went on maternity leave.
She said she benefited from what she learned in Butler’s College of Education, but also from what she learned from Huffman, her mentor.
New Pike High School teachers are assigned what’s called a “cooperating teacher” to help them through early growing pains in the classroom, but those are usually highly experienced teachers.
DiVincenzo, who in June finished her second year of teaching English at Pike, said there’s something reassuring about having a mentor who’s close to your own age sharing her experiences. That’s why she wanted to be a mentor.
“I am more of a neutral person they can go to,” she said, sitting in her classroom, one corner of which was decorated with Butler pennants and pictures. “And I’m closer in age to them, so they feel more comfortable.”
She said her mentees wanted to know about topics ranging from lesson-planning to how to navigate relationships with coworkers and maintain professionalism even if you have different philosophies. Each session would focus on something different.
DiVincenzo studied Education and English at Butler and is licensed to teach English as a New Language. She teaches three sections of that and three of regular English 10. She said her faculty coworkers at Pike have been incredibly helpful, “but I would have had less stress and less anxiety going into my first year if I’d had a mentor. It does feel nice to be supported and feel like I have a Butler community here.”
Ranallo, who finished her second year of teaching Social Studies at Pike in the spring, said she was delighted to be a mentor. “Butler was such a great part of my life, and I wanted to keep going with that and helping out as much as I can,” she said.
She spent her Wednesdays with her mentees discussing topics like: How to talk about current events and help students process the information; how to explain and use primary sources; how teachers figure out if their students learned what they were trying to teach them. Classroom management, observing state standards, and how to make sure you’re applying them—those subjects also came up frequently.
Ranallo said she advised the future teachers to keep trying new things. There are going to be lessons and strategies you’ve learned that are going to be fantastic and you’re going to want to do them again, and there are going to be some that need some major readjustments or tweaks, she said. But your students deserve new ideas, so keep trying them and don’t be afraid to go for it.
The mentoring program began to take shape in 2012, the summer after Huffman graduated, when she participated in a Pike/Butler Partnership for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math teachers. There, Butler professors Ryan Flessner (College of Education) and Mary Kron (Department of Mathematics and Actuarial Sciences) gave a presentation about combining math and new methods of teaching.
Huffman approached her advisor, Associate Professor of Education Shelly Furuness, and together they figured out how best to translate that idea into action.
“She believed us in the College of Education when we said we continue to support our students even after graduation,” said Furuness, Huffman’s thesis advisor.
Huffman, who’s now six years into her teaching career, said she’s proud to have established the mentoring program, particularly because it fits with the Butler College of Education’s mission: To make schools what they should be—not what they are.
Huffman teaches five sections of pre-calculus/trigonometry and one International Baccalaureate senior level section of calculus. One of the lessons she shared with her mentees was a classroom session where she broke up her class into groups and gave each group a calculus problem to solve at the board.
Once the group finished and had the correct answer, the members were dispersed to other groups until, finally, there was one group of 20.
“Some teachers would think that there’s nothing happening there,” she said. “It’s going to turn into chaos. I would say three-fourths of the students were still engaged in that last group, trying to figure out that last problem.”
Furuness said Huffman’s work—which earned national recognition from the federal Department of Education in 2016—demonstrates how Butler’s College of Education integrates theory and practice.
“So often, the narrative out in the world is that what you learn in teacher preparation isn’t real,” Furuness said. “We’re showing them people who are doing these things. Amanda, Jenny, and Ali help bridge that theory-to-practice gap. Our students tell us over and over again how thankful they are. They like seeing the graduates doing the work.”