It’s impossible for Elizabeth Maloney to walk through Independence Elementary School without running into someone she knows.
During a recent recess period at Independence earlier this month, Maloney made her way to a specific classroom through largely empty hallways. Though most of the students and several teachers were out of their classes and on the playground, Maloney still stopped several times to greet teachers with warm words and a friendly embrace.
Her popularity really isn’t shocking, considering her day-to-day duties. As one of the district’s S.T.A.R. (short for Staff, Training, Assistance and Renewal) Mentors, part of Maloney’s job is to make enduring connections with students and teachers. Maloney is one of seven of the program’s 2014-15 mentors who work directly with first-year teachers in the Cherry Creek School District. Through weekly visits to the classroom, Maloney and her peers help guide newcomers through the ups and downs of a job that can pose plenty of challenges.
“This can be a very isolating job. Even if you’re on the greatest team in the world, sometimes teaching is isolating. I think I give teachers that space to sit back and think and reflect and get better for the kids,” Maloney said. “When my teachers thrive, I thrive – period. That’s how I look at this. I don’t judge, and I’m never there to judge. I’m there to be another set of eyes and ears.”
That mission has been at the heart of the S.T.A.R. Mentor program since it launched in 1994. The underlying idea is simple: to connect new instructors with “master teachers,” veterans with years of experience in the classroom who can offer valuable insights and guidance for those just coming to the profession. S.T.A.R. Mentors accept three-year assignments in the district, working with more than a dozen new teachers during a single school year.
"Even though I’m mentoring teachers, it’s all about the students when all is said and done."
-- Elizabeth Maloney, Cherry Creek School District S.T.A.R. Mentor
The program’s combination of instruction, camaraderie and classroom work is a perfect fit for Maloney, who kicked off her teaching career in Illinois and moved on to a seven-year stint as a fourth-grade instructor at Dry Creek Elementary. Maloney, who proudly calls herself a “learner,” took full advantage of the Cherry Creek district’s professional learning opportunities; in the process, she found herself in a mentoring course.
“I just thought, ‘Wow, maybe I should explore coaching and working with adults in this profession.’ I didn’t expect to get it,” Maloney recalled. “This is year three in this role, and I am still pinching myself every day that I’m in it. I think it’s absolutely the best experience I’ve ever had in education.”
The new position allowed Maloney to keep up a presence in the classroom, but the dynamic of the mentor role broadened her impact. Through classroom observations and one-on-one interactions with teachers, Maloney found a new facet of a profession she’d known for decades. The S.T.A.R. Mentor’s triple role as coach, collaborator and consultant gave Maloney a new perspective on the classroom.
“I’m still working with students, I’m just seeing it in a bigger way,” Maloney said. “I’m seeing it through teachers. I’m letting someone else take the spotlight and shine. It’s fun to support someone else in that and watch the children grow.”
For new teachers like Cassie Schaefer, the presence of an experienced master teacher is invaluable. Maloney mentored Schaefer, a Metropolitan State University grad and a third-grade teacher at Independence, last year. Schaefer said the support she received from Maloney as a mentor was individualized and in-depth.
Their work together included regular assessments and tip sheets. They focused on student achievement, reading comprehension and test scores. They parsed test scores and other data throughout the year to help track the progress of all of the students in Schaefer’s classroom.
“Even though I’m mentoring teachers, it’s all about the students when all is said and done,” Maloney said.
Working with Maloney helped Schaefer tailor her own approach to the classroom, just as it helped her focus on individual students with individual needs.
“It really helped me target specific students and it was nice to see the growth that every student made over the year,” Schaeffer said. “I like seeing how I could better suit my students’ needs and what I can do as a teacher. She helped provide that; we would talk about that a lot when Elizabeth would come and visit me. She helped me think about it from a different avenue.”
The interactions didn’t end when Schaeffer wrapped up her first year as a teacher in the district. The pair will still get together to discuss classroom dynamics, teaching strategies and individual students.
“When you collaborate, magic happens. This is having another brain to work with, and that’s all you need sometimes,” Schaeffer said. “I’m still reaching out to her. It does continue, and I know I’ll be in touch with her for years and years.”
She’s not the only one. Schaeffer is now among the dozens of teachers across the district who will stop Maloney for a hug and an update when she sees her in the hallways. Such connections last far beyond the end of any given school year.
-- Posted Sept. 24, 2014