Q&A with Amit Schwalb, School District of Philadelphia mentor
While enrolled in their master’s program, WW Teaching Fellows work alongside a mentor teacher for the entire school year. Mentor teachers are an integral part of the WW Teaching Fellowship experience—they share their teaching knowledge while simultaneously supporting Fellows’ growth.
We spoke with Amit Schwalb, a biology and math teacher in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) who is currently mentoring a 2020 WW Teaching Fellow. He offers insight into how he is working with his WW Teaching Fellowship mentee, what that Fellow is adding to his classroom, what Fellows can expect from SDP, and more.
WW Teaching Fellowship: Can you share why you decided to take on the role of mentoring a WW Teaching Fellow?
Mr. Schwalb: Teaching is a career that is profoundly rewarding and has a steep learning curve. I decided to take on the role of mentoring a WW Teaching Fellow in order to provide the support that teachers need to persist and thrive in the field, both for my students and for themselves. For me, working with a Fellow also pushes me to reflect on my teaching practices and clearly articulate them.
WW Teaching Fellowship: What are your expectations for the Fellow you are mentoring? How might these expectations change across the year?
Mr. Schwalb: In the beginning of the year, I expect my mentee to observe, ask questions, and work with small groups of students. As the year goes on, they begin taking on whole group instruction, and I expect them to reflect on these experiences and make needed adjustments. Towards the middle and end of the year, I expect the Fellow to be the lead teacher for two of my six sections, teaching throughout the period, planning instruction, making decisions about groupings and interventions, and communicating with families. Their instructional coach and I provide feedback throughout to support this process.
WW Teaching Fellowship: What are some challenges future Fellows should expect in SDP? How are you preparing your Fellow to navigate those challenges?
Mr. Schwalb: The deck is stacked against our students, who are primarily low-income students of color. The Lower Merion School District spends $10,000 more per year per student than Philadelphia does. Yet, most of their students are not regularly coming to class drained by taking care of siblings, unstable housing, or in extreme circumstances losing yet another loved one to gun violence. With one counselor for my school’s five hundred students, so many of whom are struggling with mental health and trauma, a lot of emotional work falls on teachers. I work with my Fellow to develop classroom routines around social and emotional learning and emphasize that these routines must be something that the teacher pursues independently as well. We can’t ask our students to take emotional learning seriously if we do not do so ourselves, and we need to attend to our own emotional growth to do right by our students. I also hope engaging my Fellow in conversations about systemic racism and inequity provides some context about why things are the way they are in the SDP, and which solutions truly get at root causes.
WW Teaching Fellowship: What do WW Teaching Fellows bring to the classroom?
Mr. Schwalb: Teenagers are teenagers, and there can be a barrier to adults in prescribed authority roles like guardians or teachers. WW Teaching Fellows have authority in the classroom but have a little more flexibility in how they spend their time. They are able to show some vulnerability in being a learner, so students respond to them differently. For students, they can serve as another caring, comfortable adult presence to provide support and guidance. As a teacher, it gives me the opportunity to look at my instruction from a fresh perspective and get new ideas.