Watching something grow can be both exciting and deeply interesting at the same time. When I first envisioned what became called OEMConnect, I had the end game in view. I wanted teachers to feel supported and be able to learn on their own terms through a mentorship relationship that they chose. Collaborating with my partner, Leigh Cassell, helped make the vision viable and become a shared one. Being immersed in the second phase of the process of creating a mentorship community, the benefits of mapping this journey through a collaborative inquiry continues is clear. Everyone's voices and insights continue to drive our thinking and extend the experience beyond the outcomes, keeping the possibilities on the horizon.
OEMConnect is a collaborative inquiry into the impact of a 1:1 self-directed mentorship experience on professional learning and student achievement. In Phase 1, we started small with a handful of mentors and mentees. There were 13 potential mentors registered on digital Human Library (dHL), and the mentees could search their profiles to make an informed decision to determine the best match for themselves. Mentors and mentees tracked this experience in writing, through other creative forms like podcasts and sketchnotes, and through the essential platform of voicEd Radio’s OEMConnect episodes of the OnEdMentors show.
After gathering data from Phase 1, we worked with critical friends like Helen DeWaard and Mark Carbone. We received feedback from Peter Cameron, the third critical friend on our team. We heard insights from Dr. Patricia Briscoe and Jenni Donohoo, author of our mentor text, Collaborative Inquiry for Educators. Many ideas were shared, several insights were gleaned, and even more questions were raised. Through analyzing the surveys and other data, we evolved the OEMConnect experience in preparation for Phase 2.
Phase 2 was fast approaching, and we had a lot of mentors, even more than the 25 we had hoped for. We were concerned about the number of mentees, until Helen DeWaard decided to add OEMConnect to the syllabus of her Critical Digital Literacy course for first year Faculty of Education students at Lakehead University. At that point, thanks to Helen’s vision and the help Derek Rodenizer and Emily Wong who enlisted a cohort of mentees from Ottawa University, our mentee count went up closer to 40. With even more mentors, there was room for mentees to select a mentor of their choice from a spectrum of opportunity.
We were very sure we had everything set up. We had mentor profiles, mentees registered on dHL, an amazing pre-meeting with mentors and a separate pre-meeting with mentees. We had checked every box on our task list, and Leigh and I took that long awaited breath as we hit the Launch Show on January 10th on voicEd. That weekend, after the launch, we were excited to see who was getting OEMConnected. That word actually came along after we hit our first real stumbling block. We had completely overlooked the need to create a way for mentees to know which mentors had already been selected from among the list of options. Thankfully, one of the mentees from Lakehead sent an email asking that exact question, and we were on it.
Jen Giffen, who has been part of the OEMConnect team from the start, is a digital leader and friend. She helped us create an Awesome Table that allowed for our mentor profiles to appear the way they did on the OEMConnect page of dHL. At 7 am that Saturday morning, Jen and I were on the phone troubleshooting. Then, once we talked through it, we went to the Awesome Table to set up a notification that would get added to the mentor profiles once they had been asked to connect with a mentee. On the site, potential mentees would see a statement highlighted in yellow that reads, “This mentor has been OEMConnected,” our new verb.
Our connections to each other are key to our success in education, and I was tracking the first connections in Phase 2 - the start of new mentorship relationships. It became like a fantastic game for the next few weeks. I would check my email, see a note from a mentor and mark them OEMConnected. Having to do it manually gave me the play by play I needed to keep track of who still needed a mentor. Many challenges arose at that point. One disconnect resulted from Mentors receiving an email as a confirmation and then sharing that they were OEMConnected when, in fact, they didn’t respond to the Mentee who then went searching for a different Mentor. We shared some of these mishaps on the additional OEMConnect episode of OnEdMentors Phase 2 we called Follow Up.
Other challenges so far have included ensuring effective communication with and among all of the mentors. There were some great Twitter conversations, especially in the messages section, but not every mentor was on Twitter. We hoped that Slack was a more welcoming space to house the team, but we continue to explore ways to enhance communication on all fronts. Two weeks ago, we had a Mentor Meetup to check in and get feedback from the team. It was helpful to hear from everyone, glean some next steps and connect on how their experience was going.
Even with the shared challenges of finding time to connect with us and each other, the feedback so far has been what we had hoped for. Mentees are feeling supported, feel their Mentors are sharing great ideas, asking thoughtful questions, offering resources and just listening. Mentors are generally feeling a great sense of purpose, engagement in the experience, and a feeling of camaraderie that evoked the term mentegaues (mentor-mentee-colleague) from Jilian and Kate who felt a new term needed to be created to reflect this special kind of relationship.
This week, we welcome the voices of the OEMConnect Mentees on the OnEdMentors show. Everyone who submitted their Mid-Point Phase 2 surveys have provided more insight into what is happening. Conversations between the OEMConnected span the gamut and include topics like: digital tools, classroom management strategies, placements, differentiation, play based learning, assessment tools and strategies, social media in the classroom, inquiry, going gradeless, building empathy through the arts, indigenizing curriculum, student self regulation, creativity in the classroom, and which AQ’s to take. One Mentee wrote, “I’ve loved being able to share some resources with my mentor - that was unexpected and cool! We’re about to start working on a lesson plan that I’ve created that I’m going to take into my practicum!” The Mentees shared a lot of what is working and some challenged they have faced with their busy preservice schedules.
The Mentors, for the first time, had the same survey to complete as the Mentees. We now know that most pairs communicate with each other by video conference or email and that many hope to meet in person someday. We have many eager Mentors who have offered more than the required 3 interactions with their mentees because of their deep sense of purpose. We are also building a community among our Mentors where people feel that they have sounding boards and new connections among the community, not just in their mentorship relationships. On Mentor shared, "My mentee and I hit it off right away and felt like old friends from the beginning. She has a genuine passion for education, equity, and leadership. Google Hangouts have been a great way to connect." Many of the Mentors have shared that they wish they had an OEMConnect experience when they were preservice teachers/teacher candidates.
Reading the reflections, questions, and comments have really helped us ruminate on our steps and celebrate so much of what this has experience has meant to our community. One person wrote, “Mentoring a teacher candidate has helped me to see how much I've had the opportunity to learn over the course of my teaching career.” A recurring question around Mentees not actively seeking support is something that we will have to think more about. Knowing, “How often can I just 'check in' without it adding stress for the mentee, or annoying them?” is a question we will continue to explore, even though the answer is as individual as each participant. One of the Mentors commented that, "The program and first year of teaching is really hard on you and having a cheerleader can be the push needed during hard times." It's a contrasting point to another Mentor's comment who wrote, "I feel as though it is great to expose teacher candidates to different teachers and their teaching methods, but I really think a new teacher could really benefit from having a mentor in this context..." When we launch Phase 3 in the Fall, our goal is to have mentors for preservice, new and seasoned teachers (and each other) , so there will be options for everyone.
Survey results are a key route to gathering data and allowing us to be responsive to the Mentees and Mentors in this inquiry. One of the best insights we’ve garnered from the survey is that 90% of respondents believed that OEMConnect is an inclusive experience, with all the potential meanings of the term. Another positive outcome that was shared is just how many Mentees feel that their insights and experiences are being valued as both the Mentors and Mentees have shared how great it is to be a part of a truly reciprocal mentorship experience.
Everyone's experience is uniquely their own, so we are looking forward to having several platforms to share and hear more first hand accounts of the OEMConnect experience including our final episode on April 25th. We will also be sharing more on OEMConnect at MADPD on May 5th at 8:30 am. First hand accounts, and inviting various voices and perspectives, allows us to deepen and broaden the conversation- making it a perfect fit for more discussions on voicEd Radio, too. We look forward to growing OEMConnect together in order to further expand our community, enhance professional learning, improve teacher and student well-being and, as a result, positively impact student achievement.