‘What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk With Howard Thurman’
The melodious voice of Howard Thurman bellows through the room: “How good it is to center down,” he says. His voice is filled with gravity, but it is not without a sense of joy. It has an almost incantatory quality, a cadence both warm and mysterious. Each time I play a recording of Thurman reciting one of his many meditations, I smile. Like Landrum Bolling writes, many of us feel like Thurman speaks directly to us — “vividly, intensely, personally.”
Once I started reading and listening to Thurman, I stopped feeling strange for seeking silence, stillness, and solitude. My awkwardness as the only African American on a silent retreat or at a spiritual conference dissipated. In him I found support for my desire for intimacy with God and hunger for spiritual community, and I began to consider him a mentor.
Thurman personally mentored and inspired many social and political activists, among them Pauli Murray, James Farmer, Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, Marian Wright Edelman, Vernon Jordan, and Vincent Harding. Legions of individuals — faculty, staff, and students at Spelman College, Morehouse College, Howard University, and Boston University; members of the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples; those in attendance at Sunday worship at Marsh Chapel; and the readers of his books and listeners of his catalogued lectures and sermons — have absorbed his quiet and determined direction. Something in his rich, poetic voice and profound wisdom speaks to the deeper places within us.
Being mentored by Thurman or someone else, however, does not mean we simply stop there. As those who have been mentored, we are called into mentoring others.
Born into a community of trusted guides, Howard Thurman understood the importance of having a spiritual mentor and, eventually, of being one for others. “For Thurman, real learning always required the intimacy and intensity of personal mentoring,” write Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. “He had always sought out teachers who could provide this, and he would try to be that sort of teacher himself, giving several generations of students the same sort of close spiritual encounters that had been so important to him.” Howard Thurman needed spiritual mentors to reach the apex of his potential, and he blossomed into his role as mentor. Prominent people dotted young Thurman’s surroundings, including the family physician, John Stocking, and renowned educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune. Yet his grandmother Nancy Ambrose, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, George Cross, and Rufus Jones served as his chief mentors. Let’s look at how these individuals molded and shaped him and his thinking.
Grandma Nancy served as Howard Thurman’s first mentor. She pushed him to develop his mind and live from his spirit. A close friend of Thurman’s, George Makechnie, notes, “Grandmother Nancy was Howard’s rock. Her spiritual strength, wisdom, and good sense had a profound influence upon his growth, shaping, and development.” Makechnie highlights, as Thurman himself did, the way he would read to her from scripture. I imagine him sitting beside her, how proud he must have felt, how precious were these moments he shared with her. She could not read, Makechnie writes, but “she firmly believed an education was of primary importance, and especially so to Blacks. ‘Your only chance,’ she told Howard, ‘is to get an education. The white man will destroy you if you don’t.’”
A tale about Grandma Nancy’s redemptive love demonstrates something of what she modeled for Howard. The story circulates today in sermons and lectures, although it’s hard to know whether it actually happened. Still, the story holds value for what it evokes of Grandma Nancy’s character. When Howard was a child, a white woman who lived adjacent to their home apparently resented having Black people live near her. Each night she dumped chicken manure she had scraped from her chicken coop over the fence onto Grandma Nancy’s garden. Young Howard wondered why his grandmother did not become enraged at her neighbor’s hateful act and exact some sort of revenge. Grandma Nancy chose instead to rise early and mix the manure into the soil and use it as fertilizer. This practice continued for years.
One day the old white woman, who lived alone, became ill. Being an authentic Christian, Grandma Nancy stopped by her neighbor’s house with some chicken soup and a bouquet of roses. The woman was deeply moved by Grandma Nancy’s acts of kindness and asked her where she had found the beautiful long-stem red roses. Grandma Nancy Ambrose told the neighbor that she herself had played a role in growing the beautiful roses. She reminded her about the chicken manure she had dumped regularly in her backyard.
The God Grandma Nancy worshipped showed her how to turn hate into love. Thurman espouses this form of redemptive love in Jesus and the Disinherited, in which he reminds his readers that Jesus treated people not in proportion to who they were but to who they could be. Thurman knew that healing a fractured nation would require this type of transformational love.
Mordecai Wyatt Johnson
While attending the Florida Baptist Academy, Thurman joined the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). Although highly segregated, the YMCA created programs for the uplift of boys and young men. His election as president of his local chapter during his sophomore year allowed Thurman to attend his first King’s Mountain conference where he heard the great orator Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. Johnson had served as a former student secretary of the International YMCA Committee. Howard was so impressed and stirred by Johnson’s message that he wrote him a letter. Despite his earlier ambivalence about the church, due to how it scorned his father’s death, Howard pleaded with Johnson to become his mentor. “I want to be a minister of the Gospel. I feel the needs of my people, I see their distressing condition, and have offered myself upon the altar as a living sacrifice, in order that I may help the ‘skinned and flung down’ as you interpret. God wants me and His precious love urges me to take up the cross and follow Him,” wrote the young Howard.
Johnson wrote back, and they continued their correspondence and personal relationship for many years. Possibly the most important piece of wisdom that Thurman incorporated into his adult life came from Johnson. He told Howard, “Keep in close touch with your people, especially with those who need your service. Take every opportunity to encourage their growth and to serve them. School yourself to think over all that you learn, in relation to them and to their needs. Make yourself believe that the humblest, most ignorant and most backward of them is worthy of the best prepared thought in life that you can give.” Howard Thurman took this wisdom into his spirit, and it directed him throughout his life.
As a student at Rochester Theological Seminary, Howard Thurman took several courses taught by George Cross. He also had private conferences with him and was advised by him. Thurman wrote that Cross “had a greater influence on my life than any other person who ever lived. Everything about me was alive when I came into his presence.” In their personal meetings, held frequently on Saturday mornings in Cross’s faculty office, Thurman bantered with Cross, asking questions and making challenges. Cross would listen with great patience, Thurman later wrote, and then would “reduce my arguments to ash.”
George Cross believed in the brilliance of Howard Thurman, but as we saw earlier, he could not grasp the reality of racism, nor the extent to which it tries to annihilate unrealized potential in its victims.
As an instructor and mentor, Rufus Jones helped Thurman refine his thinking about the links between mysticism and social transformation. They spent many hours discussing how the inward life is connected to outward experience and how mysticism might expand efforts to remedy international conflict and poverty. Although they did not discuss race, which Thurman viewed as a blind spot in Jones’s analysis, Thurman knew he could use mysticism to alleviate the plight of Negroes. His intense kinship with Jones only deepened his intellectual grasp and personal experience of mysticism.
In June 1929, Howard Thurman wrote a note to Rufus Jones thanking him for “the huge share which you have had in the enrichment of my life during the past five months. I cannot now estimate the significance of the days with you at Haverford.” As a result of Thurman’s work on mysticism or religious experience, spiritual seekers and sacred activists continue to reap the benefits of this unique mentoring relationship.
Thurman carried the lessons and words of these spiritual mentors with him in his mind and in his heart. They would become models for him as he, too, became a mentor for others.
Howard Thurman serves as an exemplar for both the formal ministry of spiritual direction and informal spiritual friendship. Mentoring, at its best, is an exchange. Spiritual guides are vital beacons of light on the spiritual path, and once a person becomes spiritually mature, they naturally begin to serve as spiritual mentors for others. Maya Angelou instructs, “When you learn, teach.” Howard Thurman taught and mentored many, although not always in a formal classroom. Students found they could share their personal issues with Thurman and frequently sought him out for spiritual advice. His timeless sermons, public lectures, and written meditations endure because they continue to feed the hunger of the spirit. Let’s look at a few of the people he mentored.
Martin Luther King Jr.
We’ve already seen how Howard Thurman’s indelible mark on the American civil rights movement runs directly through his influence on Martin Luther King Jr. Clearly, the respect went both ways. Thurman expresses his great admiration for King with these words:
As a result of a series of fortuitous consequences there appeared on the horizon of the common life a young man who for a swift, staggering, and startling moment met the demands of the hero. He was young. He was well-educated with the full credentials of academic excellence in accordance with ideals found in white society. He was a son of the South. He was steeped in and nurtured by familiar religious tradition. He had charisma, that intangible quality of personality that gathers up in its magic the power to lift people out of themselves without diminishing them. In him the “outsider” and the “insider” came together in a triumphant synthesis. Here at last was a man who affirmed the oneness of black and white under a transcendent unity, for whom community meant the profoundest sharing in the common life. For him, the wall was a temporary separation between brothers. And his name was Martin Luther King Jr.
Religious scholar Paul Harvey says, “Thurman was a private man and an intellectual; he was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take a specific social and political cause to transform a country. But he mentored an entire generation, including King, who did just that. Thurman’s lesson to King was that the cultivation of the self feeds and enriches the struggle for social justice. In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation, and prayer.” Thurman transmitted that message to the larger civil rights movement.
It was at Crozier Seminary where Martin Luther King took a class from George Washington Davis, one of Thurman’s classmates at Rochester Seminary, and also read and wrote about Thurman’s seminal work Jesus and the Disinherited. King would later incorporate some of Thurman’s notions into some of his own writings and speeches. Although King did not consider himself a mystic, he was moved and amazed by the mystical wisdom of Thurman. Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman expressed hope that King would consider becoming the pastor of Fellowship Church, but King felt called to Montgomery to begin active work in the civil rights movement. Working behind the scenes, Howard Thurman became his spiritual adviser.
One story illustrates their spiritual connection. In 1958, a mentally disturbed woman attempted to assassinate Martin Luther King Jr. by stabbing him. Thurman writes that he experienced a “visitation,” or vision, and knew he needed to travel to New York to speak with King.
Thurman found King at Harlem Hospital and strongly urged him to take a much longer recuperation period and to include some time for silence and solitude. He needed to assess his role in the movement, in a venture that had taken on a life of its own. King later wrote to Thurman about how their meeting had been “a spiritual uplift, and of inestimable value in giving me the strength and courage to face the future of that trying period.” Historian Taylor Branch points out that this time was a period of relative quiet for King, a unique season within the rest of his adult life. There were no talks or lectures, but just solitude. It was after this respite that King took a five-week trip to India, studied the principles of nonviolence and civil disobedience, and laid a wreath at the grave of Mahatma Gandhi.
The ideas about a nonviolent religion and Jesus as a nonviolent liberator that Thurman developed in the years before and during his tenure at Fellowship Church received a larger audience through the publication of Jesus and the Disinherited in 1949. This book deeply influenced other leaders of the civil rights struggle. Thurman offered the vision of spiritual discipline that informed the moral basis of the Black freedom movement in the South. During these years, while serving on the boards of Fellowship for Reconciliation (FOR) and Congress of Racial Equality CORE, he spoke with leaders of these organizations and others — including Bayard Rustin, James Lawson, Vernon Jordan, James Farmer, Pauli Murray, Jesse Jackson, and Whitney Young — about matters both political and spiritual. But Thurman always preferred offering quiet counsel and private intellectual guidance to garnering political visibility. His influence would extend into the future to touch the lives of many religious scholars and scores of spiritual seekers, including Alice Walker and Barack Obama.
Marian Wright Edelman
Like a river, Howard Thurman’s sway flowed along several tributaries, inspiring women and men who chose to devote their lives to important yet sometimes less visible causes. Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, found kinship with Thurman in the ways in which they were reared. They both emerged from families of deep faith who worked to buffer them from the hostile worlds they would encounter. Edelman writes, “Still, as in the days of Thurman’s childhood and in the day of my childhood, countless children in these most difficult, unjust, undeserved circumstances are bolstered and strengthened, nurtured and protected by parents, and others who struggle to counter the world’s message and remind their children that they are sacred gifts from God and precious in God’s sight.” Her parents, like Thurman’s grandmother and mother, didn’t want her to internalize negative and damaging social messages. Their loving protection gave her a certain inner strength that enabled her to take her prophetic message about the care of children into adulthood.
Edelman first encountered the words of Howard Thurman as a young girl exploring the books in her minister father’s study. Then as a college student, she heard Thurman speak when he visited Spelman Chapel. What kept her grounded in her work to save and support children, Edelman writes, were the urgings to pray, meditate, reflect, and be thankful for grace. In the centering moment, we find a “breath of renewal, and a recognition that we can only do our most faithful best and then turn it over to God. We cannot sustain this work if we are not centered.” Edelman took in Thurman’s words like a holy communion. Meditations of his like “Remember the Children” inspired her to hold “the big hope that never quite deserts me” and to continue in her struggles to end violence, promote love, and protect innocent children from needless suffering.
The deep waters of Howard Thurman’s wisdom also touched historian, educator, theologian, and activist Vincent Harding, who considered Thurman a surrogate father. Like so many others, Harding first met Thurman on the pages of Jesus and the Disinherited, which he read as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Many years later, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a close and personal relationship burgeoned between these two great men. Thurman offered solace, care, and guidance in what Harding describes as the gloomy days following King’s death. During many long walks up the steep and winding streets of San Francisco, Harding and Thurman laughed and talked. Thurman invited Harding and his wife, Rosemarie Freeney Harding, to join him and Sue in their home for relaxation and fellowship.
Harding understood that Howard Thurman occupied the important role of mentor and companion to those summoned to the streets to march. As nonviolent demonstrators prepared for action, and when they returned victorious or defeated, Harding writes, “Thurman offered clarification, hope, and encouragement.” Thurman would sit with civil rights demonstrators and listen and pose questions rather than issue commands. He would ask them about what they were seeking and why and what means they utilized to achieve their goals. As a spiritual mentor, Thurman conveyed to them his firm belief that there could be no defeat of the movement if their motives remained oriented toward the oneness.
“I remember going to him in times of deep personal need, occasionally talking by phone, sometimes face to face,” Harding recalls. “He was always solidly present, listening, understanding, admonishing when necessary, sharing silence, surrounding and undergirding me with prayers, doing whatever else seemed helpful. We could feel Howard and Sue keeping our entire family and a special place of love and meditation between them. I remember our silences. They were filled with his wisdom and compassion. Indeed, it may be that he was the wisest and most compassionate man I have ever known.”
The wisdom of life exists to be passed on so that others will not suffer needlessly. A gifted mentor like Howard Thurman spurred people to refine who they already were and to recognize the strengths and talents they possess. Relying on some of Thurman’s words, noted author Sam Keen shares how Howard Thurman encouraged him to find his own vision: “Follow the grain in your own wood.” Peter Eisenstadt observes, “Throughout his career, Thurman was in demand as a mentor and advisor. Counseling is, of course, a core responsibility for all members of the clergy, but Thurman clearly had a special calling for it, less a matter of dispensing advice than assuming the role of a spiritual psychologist, to help others to find their inner voice, what he later called ‘sound of the genuine,’ and to assist them in formulating and answering their own questions.” One of the joys of being a professor for me was advising and mentoring students. I nudged them to try different forms of mindfulness, including meditation, to prevent test anxiety, spark creativity, and prompt innovative thinking. I highlighted the importance of retreats, especially silent ones, to re-energize and guard against burnout and stress. I enjoyed sitting and chatting with students, waiting for that special moment when their eyes would brighten and I would observe them “come alive,” as Thurman describes. The answers I have uncovered in the silence, the stillness, the quietness, the pausing, the “resting lull”: these answers emanate from the same Source Thurman drew from, the same wisdom that must be shared. He will remain my spiritual guide and companion, as his life and words lead me to the Light, to the Wholeness he knew.
Reprinted with permission from “What Makes You Come Alive: A Spiritual Walk With Howard Thurman,” by Lerita Coleman Brown, copyright © 2023 Broadleaf Books.
My friend Manuel “Manny” Ortiz died two years ago. But I’m reminded of him every time I walk down the street in our Harlem neighborhood and see a tree covered in crocheted and knitted swatches of green yarn.
This piece of community-created “yarn bomb” art is dedicated to Manny. It stands next to City Seminary’s community art gallery, named for Manny and our friend Andrew Walls, and is a reminder of how he walked with us — how he showed us the importance of not just leadership but friendship for the future of the urban church.
Manny’s imprint is deep in my life; nearly everything I know about leadership for the urban church I learned from Manny Ortiz.
It was during my pastorate in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore that I began to see leadership as one of the most crucial questions we face about the future. While our church was growing and making a difference in our neighborhood, I recognized there was more I needed to do to develop the next generation of pastoral leaders. Manny would help me name this challenge and, by both his teaching and his example, enable me to reflect on leadership in the urban church in fresh ways.
Manny, who died in 2017 at 78, was born and raised in New York City, where he met his wife, Blanca. He loved baseball and nearly pursued a career as a catcher. As an adult, he was baptized at a Baptist church.
Manny and Blanca eventually made their way to Chicago, where he began graduate work at Wheaton and immersed himself in urban ministry. Over a decade and a half, he planted five urban congregations, including Spirit and Truth Fellowship, part of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). From the beginning, Manny made it a priority to develop leadership training programs for both Hispanic pastors and young people in high school.
Moving to Philadelphia, where he became professor of ministry and urban mission at Westminster Theological Seminary, Manny again poured his energies into the city, into community ministries and the next generation of leaders for the urban church. He soon established another Spirit and Truth Fellowship (CRC), aided by longtime colleagues Sue and Randy Baker, and served as its senior pastor until his death. He also wrote about urban ministry.
I first met Manny many years ago during a seminar he taught on urban church leadership. He was an urban Eugene Peterson, planting many seeds in the formation of my pastoral imagination. Among the seeds Manny planted was that leadership development should be a priority for the church and indeed shapes its future.
But what I needed to learn from Manny didn’t fully sink in until we launched City Seminary of New York. With Maria Liu Wong, who had the vision for the community gallery and the yarn bomb, and with all of our colleagues at City Seminary, I continue to draw on his lessons and life for urban church leadership.
Thinking about his journey and what he lived out, I can identify three of his core teachings for leadership development in the city.
Christian leadership development takes place in community. In Philadelphia, Manny and Sue helped begin nine congregations, each small-scale and multiethnic. To support the new churches, they began a monthly gathering for pastors. There were regular times for prayer, for sharing and for Scripture. It was organic and communal, distinct from approaches that focused on teaching “the leader” information. And it took place over the long haul, a life together through ups and downs, learning in a way that Manny thought was vital to sustaining ministry. The group still meets today.
Leadership development attends to both the person and the context. This means that the calling of pastoral leadership, as Manny saw it, is grounded in an understanding of the unique gifts God has given to each person and the specificities of context. It is vital, therefore, to listen both to God’s call and to the city — to engage in lifelong formation and learning about the city. In this way, Manny was like a spiritual director for both pastors and the city.
As Manny taught and practiced, “it is best to have someone walk with you.” I think he considered this the most important lesson for flourishing in pastoral ministry. Leaders need a friend, a mentor, a peer: someone they trust to walk alongside them through different seasons in ministry.
I experienced this firsthand as Manny walked with me and offered me the gift of his friendship and care for my family. We spoke regularly about our lives, theology, seminary education and ministry, and our friendship deepened. We talked about why missiology is important and worked on themes of a book. Manny shared with me his dreams for a new seminary in Philadelphia.
And when City Seminary was getting started, Manny and Sue jumped in to help get us off the ground and stayed connected for nearly two decades. They often traveled from Philadelphia to New York to be with us — we just had to provide a lunch of Manny’s favorite New York knishes and corned beef sandwiches.
As the work of City Seminary grew, and so did the challenges, Manny would call me, encouraging me, praying for me, expressing his trust and confidence. He listened and helped me find the right path. It was always dialogical — a conversation, never advice.
Manny believed in City Seminary and our focus on leadership for a rapidly changing reality of church and city. Even when his health was failing, he continued to invest in us, praying for and shaping our faculty, our board and our students. He pressed us to “keep at it,” knowing that the work we were doing would bear fruit in time.
A key initiative we have launched at City Seminary is WE LEAD NYC, a youth seminary for high schoolers and those starting college. Here we bring together young people and youth leaders from different churches and neighborhoods to build friendships and grow together in community. It is our way of investing in the next generation, just as Manny invested in us.
And with the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., we have a program for pastors called Thriving in Ministry. The goal of the Thriving in Ministry initiative at City Seminary of New York is to walk alongside pastors from the diverse body of Christ in the complex and ever-changing urban context. We do this by nurturing networks of mutual support, care and well-being. Using collaborative inquiry, the program emphasizes local questions and knowledge, echoing the community gatherings in Philadelphia.
As I look at the beautiful mix of crocheted and knitted patches on the tree outside our community art gallery, I think of the extraordinary gift of Manny, of the way he helped me see ministry as a call from God, an invitation to serve together for the work of the gospel.
Because of Manny, we at the seminary know not only that “it is best to have someone walk with you” but also that we are called to continue to walk together.
Last September was a blur of tears for first-year teacher Sarah Coute.
Armed with a degree in early childhood education, student-teaching experience and boundless enthusiasm, she arrived at Hugh Cole Elementary School in Warren, R.I., confident that she was ready for her own kindergarten classroom.
Then 24 children showed up. By the time the 3 p.m. bell rang that first day, her faith was shaken. As soon as her students left, Coute cried — a pattern she would repeat daily for weeks.
“I wondered if I could do it,” Coute, 23, said. “I was overwhelmed.”
Coute was still learning her way around the school. She struggled to cope with the children’s short attention spans and their wide range of abilities. She wasn’t accustomed to interacting with parents — something kindergarten teachers do daily.
“It was the students’ first day of school, but it was mine, too,” she said.
In the United States, most new teachers work in isolation. Apart from a few visits from their principal and maybe an occasional encouraging word from a colleague, they are left to struggle on their own.
Disillusioned and drained, about half abandon the profession by their fifth year.
Fortunately for Coute and thousands of teachers like her, the New Teacher Center, based in Santa Cruz, Calif., is working to prevent that outcome.
Conceived 24 years ago by Ellen Moir, the center is a nonprofit organization that seeks to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of beginning teachers.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider:
- What investment does your organization make in mentoring? Is it enough? If not, how can it be increased?
- Write a job description for a mentor in your field. What qualities would be essential?
- How can you open yourself and your organization to exposing weaknesses, talking about what’s not working well?
- Obvious parallels exist between new teachers and new clergy. Do you know a pastor who needs a mentor? Could you be that person?
At the heart of the center’s work is a sophisticated one-on-one mentoring program that enables new teachers to learn from the best, inspires them to stay in the profession and enhances their growth as educators.
“Teachers can transform lives,” Moir said. “And I’m determined to make sure every kid, regardless of their ZIP code, gets a great teacher. I want to make sure these new teachers are successful.”
Programs in 50 states
The New Teacher Center has programs in all 50 states, working with local school districts, state policymakers and educators to launch coaching programs for novice teachers.
In 2010-11 , the center trained more than 7,500 coaches who mentored more than 24,000 teachers around the country.
Nowhere has the center’s work been as extensive as in Rhode Island. In the program’s first year, 2011-12, it included 262 teachers, almost every first-year teacher in the state.
Throughout the year, the state’s new teachers were intensively mentored by 17 veteran teachers selected for their classroom expertise, strong “people skills” and passion for teaching. Next year, about 300 beginning teachers and 20 coaches will participate.
The investment includes $650,000 to the New Teacher Center, the coaches’ salaries, and materials and other costs associated with overseeing the program through the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Already, the induction program seems to be paying off, with the first-year teachers, their principals and the coaches all giving it high marks in a survey. Eventually, the state hopes to see the same results others using the center’s induction programs have documented: increased teacher retention, improved teacher performance and — the most critical indicator of success — gains in student learning.
It’s too soon to have such comprehensive data for the Rhode Island program, but Sarah Coute’s principal, Chuck Mello, is already a believer.
Under the weekly guidance of her coach, Gino Sangiuliano, a veteran elementary teacher from a nearby district, Coute has greatly improved her classroom effectiveness, Mello said.
“I won’t call Sarah a seasoned teacher yet, but she’s gained a lot more ground and confidence in a much shorter amount of time than most first-year teachers,” he said.
The New Teacher Center was dreamed up in Moir’s backyard in 1988, when she was director of teacher education at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Every year, her program sent out promising young student teachers with all the qualities and training required to become great educators.
“And every October, a student teacher would call me and say, ‘I’m quitting. I never thought it would be like this. I can’t get discipline in the class, and I can’t teach my content,’” Moir said.
Beginning teachers often get the hardest assignments in the toughest schools, where resources are scarce and burnout is common.
“New teachers were really given a sink-or-swim approach,” Moir said, “and I could honestly see that some of the best candidates in our program weren’t making it.”
Moir and her colleagues decided to change that.
They began working with teachers, principals, superintendents and union leaders in nearby school districts to develop an intensive mentoring model. Great teachers — the best in the district — would work with novices, dispensing practical advice, emotional support and hands-on assistance with analyzing student work.
That fall, they rolled out their fledgling program in a handful of schools. The results were almost immediate.
“We saw better retention right away,” Moir said. “Principals were saying first-year teachers looked like third-year teachers.”
Within a few years, education philanthropies such as The Noyce Foundation and the Walter S. Johnson Foundation took notice, giving multimillion-dollar grants that helped the center refine its techniques and training for mentors.
The small, local program with fewer than a dozen staff began to grow. Educators from other states came to Santa Cruz to see the coaching program, often contracting with the center.
In 2009, Moir spun off the center from UC Santa Cruz to become an independent nonprofit and expand the center’s work as far as Canada and Scotland. Today, about 200 people across the country work for the center, still headquartered in Santa Cruz, with key offices in Chicago, New York and Durham, N.C.
Over the years, the New Teacher Center has continued to tweak its approach and refine its training program for mentors. But the core principles have remained the same, Moir said.
To the center, mentoring is a full-time job, requiring a particular set of skills in which the mentors must be trained. Coaches are granted a leave of two to three years from classrooms and paid their full salaries. Throughout the year, they receive ongoing instruction from the center.
The quality of the program’s mentors is paramount. The coaches must be masters of their profession who are nonjudgmental, good communicators and adept at building relationships. Selection is by a rigorous application process. Out of 100 applicants in Rhode Island, a panel of state education officials, principals and center staff selected only 17.
Once the mentoring program is in place, everyone gets one-on-one attention and immediate feedback. Coaches are assigned a maximum of 14 to16 beginning teachers a year and spend at least 90 minutes a week with each one, observing a class and debriefing the teacher that same day. The coaches, too, are observed by center staff throughout the year.
“It’s humane,” Moir said. “What we want is not just a teacher but someone who is on the path to excellence. Why would we leave these novices on their own, struggling?”
Undergirding it all is the support of key leadership. It may take time to educate leaders about the details and goals of a coaching program, but their buy-in and support is essential, Moir said.
In the spring before the induction program began in Rhode Island, state education officials, aided by center staff, held a series of informational meetings with superintendents, principals, teacher union officials and others so they would understand what was expected of them and how they would benefit.
Coaching for the coaches
Under the New Teacher Center’s system, even coaches need coaching. So every other Wednesday, Gino Sangiuliano, Coute’s mentor, drives to the Sheraton Hotel in Warwick, R.I., for his own dose of inspiration and guidance.
He gathers with the 16 other induction coaches, state education officials who oversee the program, and two center staffers who fly in for the sessions — senior director Jan Miles and senior program consultant Fred Williams.
Though the coaches are seasoned teachers, they are now in the world of adult mentoring, where different skills are required.
Instead of disciplining and lecturing, the coaches must excel in the art of sensitive conversation. Like therapists, they must be able to elicit self-awareness, gently pushing the novices to identify and articulate their successes and struggles.
They discuss “adult learning theory” and adopt phrases like “equity of voice,” which essentially means listening to their beginning teachers with respect and an open mind.
The coaches are trained not to “fix” new teachers but to help them become better on their own terms, using their particular strengths. Coaches have to be patient and remember that they are not trying to clone themselves, Miles said.
“Not every good teacher can be a good coach,” she said. “You need to mentor every beginning teacher differently.”
As full-time mentors, the coaches spend four to five days a week in schools with their beginning teachers. Much of their time is spent alone, working independently, following a grueling schedule.
They visit three or four new teachers each day, observing them in the classroom and debriefing them during free periods, at lunch or before or after school. At night they write reports, conduct research and respond to emails and phone calls from their beginning teachers.
The twice-monthly forums at the hotel provide the coaches with support and essential data they can use every day. Four times a year, Miles and Williams also lead the coaches in intensive three-day sessions on key topics.
The sessions are “invaluable,” said Sangiuliano. “Our time together is about learning from each other and reflecting.”
In the meetings, Miles and Williams give the coaches strategies to use. As former teachers and mentors, they know how to dig into the nitty-gritty of the classroom and explore the complexity of the split-second decisions teachers make each day.
The entire process is aimed at improving the coaches’ ability to cultivate trust and collaboration.
“The mantra is ‘relationship,’” said Williams. “How are you going to work with someone to make them open to exposing weakness? That’s not something people are comfortable with. It’s hard to open yourself up to an examination of what’s not working well.”
‘Look at her now’
One recent June morning, as the school year drew to a close, Sangiuliano was back in Coute’s classroom. Squeezed into a chair designed for a five-year-old, he leaned forward as Coute read to her class.
“Let’s play one of our absolute favorite games,” Coute said. “Opposites.”
She opened a book, hiding a page with her hand.
“Up,” she said, calling on a girl in the front row.
“Down,” the girl said, as Coute revealed the word “down.”
“Left,” Coute said to a boy who was getting restless.
“Right,” he replied.
In, Out. Near, Far. Push, Pull.
“That’s right,” Coute said. “Kiss your brain.”
The students put their fingers to their lips and then lightly touched the tops of their heads.
Some children started to wiggle. A few shouted out answers.
“No calling out, please,” Coute said. The class settled down.
During the lesson, Sangiuliano took notes using a form created by the New Teacher Center. He “scripted” her lessons in 5- to 10-minute increments, logging how many children paid attention and the strategies Coute used to keep them on track, address discipline issues and answer questions.
“One, two, eyes on me,” Coute said as she effortlessly transitioned the children to a game.
“Look at her now,” Sangiuliano said. “She’s so relaxed and confident. I didn’t expect to see so much growth in a year.”
After the children left for music class, Coute and Sangiuliano had 45 minutes to discuss the morning’s lesson.
Over the year, Sangiuliano helped Coute identify her struggling students and analyze their growth on tests and other assessments. Together they developed routines for the children to follow, and ways for Coute to transition between lessons.
During one math lesson last fall, Sangiuliano recalled, Coute asked the students 46 questions in 10 minutes.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” Coute said. “I had to learn how to slow everything down, and pace it. My voice was too loud; I had to bring the volume down. But without Gino, would I have picked up on those things?”
The first time the two met last September, Coute burst into tears. By Halloween, Coute wasn’t crying every day. Now, tears are rare.
“I am so excited for next year,” Coute said. “We’ve worked out some kinks, and I’ll be that much better.”
Sangiuliano will have a new crop of first-year teachers to coach.
“But she has my cell number,” he said. “She knows I’m here.”
- Leadership buy-in is essential. Educate your organization’s leaders about the importance and goals of intensive mentoring.
- Quality is everything. Mentors should be masters of their profession who are chosen through a rigorous selection process. Determine the qualities you want in a mentor, develop an application specific to those goals and screen top candidates face to face.
- It’s a full-time job. Informal mentoring leaves little time for deep discussion. Ideally, mentoring is a paid, full-time job focused exclusively on helping novices. Coaches should receive ongoing training and support.
- It’s the right thing to do. Mentoring is humane. Leaving novices struggling is not.