As a Holderness math teacher, Pam Mulcahy helps her students solve difficult problems every single day. But for one week every August, she trains her considerable skills as an educator on an entirely different - and older - demographic: teachers.
Since 2008, Pam has directed the New England New Teachers’ Seminar (NENTS), a weeklong graduate course for new independent school teachers. The intensive course, accredited through Mount Holyoke College’s graduate school of education, is a boot camp of sorts for people who are just entering the world of teaching. Over the course of the week, the new teachers learn valuable classroom strategies such as how to make a lesson plan, connect with students, and create safe spaces for learning. We recently sat down with Pam to chat not only about NENTS, but about how to teach effectively, how teaching has improved over the years, and why she loves teaching in independent schools.
So Pam, you were a new teacher once. How did that go?
I can say I had zero idea what I was doing. You sort of stubbed your toe a lot of times and you tried things that some days worked and some days they didn’t work. I felt like I was wading around in the bog, waiting to step on quicksand. You just didn’t know. You didn’t have a bag of tricks. You couldn’t anticipate whether a concept would be easy or hard for kids. You didn’t have the advantage of any of that knowledge. You didn’t know how to give feedback to kids in ways that they could hear. I could give you a long list of things I did wrong in my first five years of teaching. I’m just grateful that people put up with me.
If I’m a new teacher who enrolls in NENTS, what sorts of things would I learn?
You would learn things like: how do people learn? How do you build classroom community? How do you prepare a lesson? How do you work with students with learning differences? How do you prepare yourself to teach a diversity of students with a variety of identities and learning needs, and other needs that will be present in your classroom? Every teacher teaches a demo lesson to their cohort, and we record it and they get feedback on that. They also work with an instructional coach who teaches the same grade level or course that they’re going to be teaching so they get some insider tips on what it's specifically like to teach first graders or fifth grade math or elementary school art.
Why is building classroom community so important for new teachers?
We know from brain science that if kids feel like they’re safe in that space and they feel a rapport with the teacher, then they are more apt to do the things they need to do in order to learn. They’re more resilient with difficult material, and their brain relaxes. They’re not in a heightened state of stress, so their brain relaxes enough that you’re able to learn. When you’re in a state of stress – if you’re nervous or scared or anxious – your amygdala takes over and you’re not working in your reflective brain, which is where all of those important synaptic connections take place.
What do you do to establish a rapport with your own students?
One of the things I do every day as I start class is I walk around the room and I speak to every kid. If they played in a hockey game yesterday, I say ‘Oh that was a great game,’ and if I didn’t see it, I ask ‘How did that game go?’ Those kinds of little things let kids know you’re paying attention to them. I ask them how their homework went, if they had specific questions. Asking questions in a math class is a really important skill. Not every kid feels comfortable raising their hand. So I sort of take that option out of things. I will ask you if you have questions, and I will look at your homework.
Working at an independent school like Holderness, you see your students outside of the classroom every day. Does that make it easier to develop connections with them?
Absolutely. You watch them play in the hockey game, you saw them do something really nice in the dorm, you had dinner with them the other night at sit-down meal. We absolutely have the chance to know our kids at a much deeper level.
As you mentioned, NENTS connects young teachers with instructional coaches – established teachers in their subject area. It seems like mentorship is pretty important for new teachers.
Their instructional coach is someone they can call to say ‘Hey, this happened in my class today. What might you suggest?’ The people who sign up to do that are happy to be called or emailed with questions like that. So you have someone to problem solve with. Back in the day, which was a lot of years ago, there was no dean of teaching and learning. There was no person to really reach out to. And we didn’t know as much as we know now about how people learn and how it happens. We just didn’t have the advantage of that knowledge. We didn’t have technology where you can see what other teachers’ lesson plans look like, you couldn’t watch YouTube videos of people teaching. The modern world offers teachers so many more advantages than back in the day when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a young teacher.
I’m sure you’re still learning things about teaching. What motivates you, and keeps you learning and engaged?
It’s the puzzle of figuring out how to help kids learn, or learn more effectively, and then the high absolutely when the students get it – those eureka moments. It’s really exciting and affirming when something works. When it works, it’s great. When it doesn’t, you go back to the drawing board and start over again. And the kids, their energy is always really fun. When they get excited about learning something or they figure out a strategy that works for them, their energy and excitement and pride in themselves is exciting to see.