Written by Anthony Pellegrino, associate professor of social science education.
For Fulton High School teacher and Theory and Practice in Teacher Education (TPTE) alumnus Beth Nelson, teaching and mentorship go hand-in-hand. She draws on her experiences as a teacher candidate and teacher to support University of Tennessee, Knoxville interns who are fortunate enough to work at Fulton. For this spotlight, we asked Beth a little about her background and what draws her to the work of mentoring.
Tell us about your UT background. What was your program?
I earned my bachelor of science degree in English from Sewanee: The University of the South, and while I was there I took a few classes in education. I decided I wanted a year-long internship rather than a shorter student teacher experience, so I applied for the Professional Development Schools (PDS) program at UT. It was geared towards students who wanted to teach in urban schools, and our cohort in the program was exclusively at Fulton and West High Schools. As part of the program, all the interns in the program, regardless of content area, took classes together at the high schools instead of on campus. Unfortunately, the program lost funding a few years after I graduated.
What was your internship experience like as a teacher candidate?
It was intense. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed at various points in the year, but luckily, Fulton took the task of mentoring interns very seriously, and everyone on staff was willing to pitch in and help. You knew that you could ask any staff member in the building for assistance, and if they could not help, they would find someone who could. We were always treated as important members of the staff. In fact, during my internship, I was a member of Fulton’s Mentoring Core Team as a representative for interns and new teachers and held a role on that committee until it was dissolved during Fulton’s redesign process. I also had the privilege of interning with John Sides, who teaches at Hardin Valley, and Lara Charbonnet, who is an administrator at Colliersville High School outside of Memphis. Their support and companionship that year was invaluable.
What positions have you held prior to your current role at Fulton?
I interned at Fulton and I’ve never left, so I’m starting my 16th year as an English teacher there. I have mentored somewhere between nine and ten interns and student teachers over the years, and have held roles on various committees such as leadership team, was a building level tech coordinator (BLTC), and a team leader for our small learning community (SLC).
What is your current role at Fulton?
I still teach junior and senior English, as well as film studies, and starting in 2018-2019, I have been acting as Fulton’s intern coordinator. During my time as an intern, we had a retired teacher, Linnie McMillan who was hired by the PDS program to act as an intermediary between UT and Fulton. She was an extra layer of support for both interns and mentors, and she was a huge help to us in the program. In the spring of 2018, I felt that there had really developed a gap in communication between our school and UT, and that the interns were suffering for it. So with the support of my principal at the time, Rob Speas, we created this position as a way to help build that relationship back up. We also felt that interns had become an afterthought at Fulton over the years; that, departmentally, we were doing fine, and everyone on staff was still kind and supportive, but there was a lack of cohesion across the school for expectations and that support. We want to model ourselves on a teaching hospital. Our number one goal is helping the students of course, but a major part of our mission is helping grow the next generation of our profession. So my job is to make sure everyone is on the same page and that our interns and mentors get the support they need.
What do you want to see from your Fulton interns? How do you define/see success?
We want professionals who are able to reflect on their teacher practice and recalibrate as needed. I know an intern is ready for her own classes when she feels confident in front of students, but she is still willing to look at ways to improve. And I also want interns who understand how to be warm demanders; they should understand what it means to teach large populations of students with trauma in their lives, but that does not mean we don’t expect their best. It’s a fine line to walk, and it may take someone their entire career to get there, but a successful intern is eager to take that on.