Each One, Teach One: AFT's Online Mentoring

The AFT joins the wave of online teaching communities

Galindo teacher Adeli Cardenas speaks at the Share My Lesson launch, while Education Austin president Ken Zarifis (r) looks on.
Galindo teacher Adeli Cardenas speaks at the Share My Lesson launch, while Education Austin president Ken Zarifis (r) looks on. (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

How can young teachers learn from experienced teachers, when there are so few experienced teachers? The American Federation of Teachers believes it can create virtual mentoring through ShareMyLesson.com. The site helps build an online community where educators can share their experiences through lesson plans, supporting documents, PowerPoint presentations, or even game ideas – anything they may want to share that they feel may help their peers. Texas AFT Secretary-Treasurer Louis Malfaro said, "Any teacher, regardless of whether they're a member of our union or not, whether they teach pre-K or whether they teach at a community college, can get online and access teacher-generated ideas and materials."

Share My Lesson enters a crowded space with established players like BetterLesson.com and Teachers.net. There are also specialist sites like LearningToGive.org, which integrates civic engagement into the classroom grind. What the AFT hopes to add is sheer scale: At Share My Lesson's launch on July 28, the site already had 250,000 teaching resources and 100,000 registered teachers, and the union's national President Randi Weingarten has called it "amongst the most useful resources that the AFT has launched in over a generation." The site is free: The AFT and British educator networking firm TES Connect have invested $10 million in the project. The Austin Inde­pendent School District, while not formally involved, is supportive of the project, and Malfaro hopes that other education advocates and foundations will come on board. He commended the national leadership for making Texas one of their priorities for this program, and he called it "very innovative. It's gone to its own members and said, 'What do you need to be more effective in the classroom?' And teachers say, 'I need more time, and I need good resources.'"

One of the toughest problems for teachers, especially in a socially, economically, and ethnically diverse district like Austin, is making a particular lesson relevant to kids. Call it the Dick and Jane problem: Those reading primers were perfect for their originally intended audience, but their white-bread, white-picket-fence world is alien to most modern kids. For example, a teacher may form a math problem in terms of the cost of buying bread and cheese – but for one class they may talk about "baguettes and brie," but in another it would be "Wonder Bread and Velveeta." That search for relevance can be especially difficult for teachers educating kids recently arrived from developing nations who are already suffering enough culture shock.

Adeli Cardenas, a fourth grade teacher at Galindo Elementary, is already folding what she has learned from the site into her classes for the new school year and uploading her own lesson plans. She said: "The curriculum just has statements, so you know what the objectives are for the states. But you don't know what is the best way, the most creative way to teach it."

The AFT's hope is that the site fills a void in professional development. Roughly half of all teachers leave education within their first five years, and one big reason they leave is a lack of support from seasoned educators. It's a self-propagating problem that the AISD and local Texas AFT affiliate Education Aus­tin try to tackle through the REACH teacher pay incentive program. A key component was creating the mentor program, in which a teacher who survives that first five years guides up to 10 novice teachers through their freshman year. However, those mentors are on short supply: This year, the district has only 42. Share My Lesson cannot replace that kind of one-on-one contact, but Education Austin President Ken Zarifis argues it can provide broader support. In contemporary education, he said: "You have to be collaborative. You can no longer fall into a cave all by yourself."

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American Federation of Teachers, ShareMyLesson.com, Louis Malfaro, Ken Zarifis

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