‘How my mentor saved my professional life’

By Chris Gleason
2017 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year

Chris Gleason teaches instrumental music at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, and is a member of WEAC Region 6. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Teacher of the Year and 2017 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year. http://www.chrispgleason.com/

The day before my first concert the student band was falling apart. I called my father, a veteran band director, for some last-minute advice. He said, “Write up something about the music and give it to a student to read to the audience before you play the piece.”

The next day, with the band assembled on stage and the crowd listening intently, one of my students walked up to the microphone, read the first sentence of my introduction, and then suddenly stopped. She glanced over at me with a puzzled look and then said into the microphone, “Oh, that’s what the piece is about.”

It was a devastating moment. I felt like a failure and wanted to melt away. Later that night, my father called and asked, “How did your first concert go?” I said, “I’m not sure I’m cut out for teaching.”

The remainder of the year didn’t go much better. In fact, by the end of the year, I was convinced that I had made a huge mistake and needed to find a new profession.

If anyone should have had an easy start in teaching, it should have been me. My father was a well-respected band director in Wisconsin, and my mother had earned her doctorate in educational leadership and served as a dean at a technical college.

Both my brother and my wife are music educators. I grew up in my father’s band room observing great teaching taking place every day. I attended an amazing high school and university that prepared me well for this profession.

Yet, after just one year I was ready to quit the only job I had ever wanted to do.

In a last-ditch effort to save my career, I registered for a weeklong summer teacher workshop. Patty, a veteran music educator and small group’s leader, told me “Teaching isn’t the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

In the days that followed, Patty, along with the other veteran teachers in the room, taught me how to light a fire in kids.

The professional development I received from those master educators saved my professional career and challenged me to become the educator I am today.

Teaching is one of the few highly-skilled professions that expect you to teach like a veteran your first day on the job.

There is no “wading into this pool” — rather, you jump into the deep end and trust that you can keep your head above water. Mentors like Patty are lifeguards who protect and assist young educators when they are most at risk.

A recent study found that “92 percent of teachers assigned a mentor their first year returned the next year, and 86 percent were on the job by the fifth year. Only 84 percent of teachers without mentors returned in the second year, declining to 71 percent in the fifth year.” I am confident that I would not be teaching if it had not been for Patty.

Professional development has a profound impact on new teachers. In addition to meeting mentors, as a first-year teacher, I had the opportunity to participate in authentic teacher-led professional development.

The workshop, Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP), just celebrated its 40th anniversary this past summer. CMP is developed and led by veteran music educators who volunteer their time for the benefit of teachers and students.

CMP and the teachers leading it have made the single biggest impact on my teaching.

Why? The course content comes from real classrooms and real teachers motivated by deep thinking, effective practice, and elevating the profession. It is the perfect example of exemplary teachers banding together to push teaching forward.

Policymakers can support projects such as CMP and amazing mentors like Patty by fully funding Title II under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

This funding makes it possible for states to offer evidence-based professional learning for districts, support teacher mentor training, target professional learning for teacher leaders, and support workshops such as CMP. Simply put, this funding provided me with resources that are part of the reason that I am still teaching today, 21 years later.

Our most important resource as a nation is our children and the potential that resides within them. The work of a teacher is to cultivate, nurture, and develop this potential to the fullest degree possible. As such, we must provide our youngest educators with the support they need to accomplish this difficult, complex and rewarding work. Thank you Patty for taking me under your wing and saving me.

Last year, we visited with Chris in his classroom and put together this video to celebrate his being named Teacher of the Year: