When I arrived at Russell Byers Charter School in Philadelphia as a teaching fellow in 2008, Salome Thomas-EL, the principal at the time, assigned me to the classroom of one of his star teachers, Sara Demoiny.
Sara was the sixth grade math teacher who had been teaching at the school for two years up to that point. She had taught at another school where Principal EL was the principal, so they had a history together.
When Principal EL moved on to Russell Byers, he wisely took Sara with him. He could not stop raving about how effective she was with the students and how she was the perfect teacher for me to learn from.
I didn't really have a preference about where I wanted to be assigned. I was content with having my first real opportunity to grow as a teacher and begin perfecting my craft, so if Principal EL believed that Sara was the right teacher for me, I certainly believed him.
A few days before the start of the school year, I finally got the chance to meet Sara. At first glance, she did not appear to be the most intimidating person. Around this time, the most effective teachers I had encountered had an intimidating presence and taught with a certain level of intensity. I could tell by her demeanor that she was the antithesis of that teaching profile. She was very friendly and down-to-earth by nature.
As I looked around her classroom, it was obvious that she was a very structured teacher who was meticulous in the manner in which she prepared for her students.
Anchor charts were strategically plastered on the walls in different areas of the classroom, desks and chairs were perfectly symmetrical with each other, and just about every item in her classroom was labeled.
She was a country girl from Knoxville, Tennessee, who had been teaching in Philadelphia for about six years. From day one, she welcomed me with open arms and was open to sharing her knowledge about teaching.
Her humble and selfless nature made it possible for us to quickly develop a strong bond. She always made it a point to involve me in curriculum planning and all the other behind-the-scenes teacher responsibilities that I didn't really get the chance to learn at my previous stops. It was a great education for me.
The more time I spent with Sara, the more my knowledge of teaching grew. Spending every day with Sara was an absolute blessing. She opened my eyes to the tedious nature of curriculum planning. Obviously, I knew that a teacher couldn’t just roll out of the bed, enter the classroom, and magically teach an effective lesson. There was a lot more to it than that. At the time, however, I just wasn’t aware of how involved the actual work was until I witnessed it with Sara. She was drawing out curriculum maps, figuring out what specific resources to use for her lessons, and creating heterogeneous learning groups based on how students were progressing toward mastering the skills she was teaching.
I witnessed her conferring with other teachers to get feedback on how she executed a mini-lesson or determining what specific parts of the lesson she could tweak in order to maximize its quality and bring out the best learning outcomes for students.
Sara was an open book when it came to sharing her thoughts and philosophy about teaching. It was not uncommon for her to ask for my opinion or thoughts on a particular lesson she was thinking about teaching. Personally, I didn’t feel that I was qualified or that it was my place to provide such feedback or offer my opinion. I was still in the process of earning my teacher stripes and Sara was already a distinguished member of the teachers’ club.
I was humbled that she would ask for my opinion. It spoke to how much faith she had in my ability to develop into a great teacher.
As the school year progressed, her faith in me was even more evident as she gave me more opportunities to co-teach the math lessons with her. She was very intentional about making sure that the students viewed me as a legitimate teacher and not a loyal assistant. Even though there were moments when the students would challenge me, I knew that I had earned their respect by simply being actively present in the classroom.
My second year at Russell Byers would end up being Sara’s final year at the school because she was moving back home to Tennessee to accept an adjunct professor position at her alma mater, Carson-Newman College.
When the school leadership team began considering possible candidates to take over Sara’s position, Sara provided them with a strong endorsement on my behalf. During that same year, I completed my master’s program at Temple University and obtained my initial teaching license from Pennsylvania, so I was in a great position to secure Sara’s position for the following school year.
At the end of the school year, I was officially hired as the new sixth grade math teacher. On her final day at the school, Sara gifted me with all of her supplies and library of curriculum resources, which included archived lesson plans and worksheets that she created over her many years at the school.
Usually, first-year teachers end up spending an exorbitant amount of money on school supplies and other essential resources for their classrooms. Thankfully, Sara ensured that my transition into the lead teacher role would be a smooth one compared to most first-year teachers. As a matter of fact, the majority of the classroom resources I still have in my classroom today are the same ones she gave me 12 years ago.
In the two years that we spent together, Sara was the ultimate team player. Everything that she did for me helped to build the early foundation for my teaching career.
Over the years, Sara and I have grown to become very close friends. Whenever our busy schedules permit, we still find ourselves exchanging ideas that will help us improve as lifelong educators.
In her current position as assistant professor of elementary education at Auburn University, she provides her student teachers with the same lessons that she imparted to me many years ago.
I would undoubtedly not be the teacher I am today without her mentorship.
As a veteran teacher and consultant, I strive to be the role model and mentor for younger teachers that Sara was for me. As a beneficiary of great mentorship, I have an obligation to share my knowledge and the many lessons I have learned with the younger generation of teachers.