Sarah Leibel joins the founding faculty of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program (HTF) as master teacher in residence (English). Previously a lecturer and the visiting director of elementary education at Brown University, Leibel has been mentoring new teachers since 2011. Throughout her career, she has worked with youth of diverse urban backgrounds, through teaching English language arts (ELA), administering a school-based mentoring program for high-need middle school students, and leading outdoor adventures for children ages 6 to 17. The mother of two daughters and yoga practitioner gave us a glimpse into some of her passions — from the community-building power of writing to the pleasures of local food.
Why are you passionate about teaching writing/English language arts?
Stephen King wrote, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates…or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.” King describes how writing offers us the opportunity to better ourselves and each other. I don’t think it’s too much to say that, in the ELA classroom, writing has the potential to bring happiness, the kind that comes from hard work, clear thinking, accomplishment, a feeling of efficacy in the world, and a feeling of belonging within a community. How amazing that as ELA teachers we have the opportunity to build communities within our classrooms in which all this is possible.
And 2015 is an incredible time to be thinking about teaching writing. Most aspiring ELA teachers and their high school students are already engaged with digital literacies that have the power to mobilize social movements, terrorize classmates, and continually exchange banter. Students don’t need convincing that writing is powerful and can be used “for good and evil.” One of the exciting challenges for today’s ELA teachers is to consider the intersections between the kinds of writing students are already doing and more traditional academic forms.
What is the most important thing you have learned about mentoring new teachers?
Mentoring can be a lot like giving feedback on a piece of writing. Most writers don’t want you to just go in and correct errors in their drafts and not respond to the big ideas, or the extent to which those ideas are coherent and compelling. Writers also don’t want to be inundated with so much feedback that they become overwhelmed as to how to use it.
I see mentoring in a similar way. When I am watching new teachers teach, I think of one to three things that strike me as most important to improving this teacher’s practice at this given point in time. This might mean asking the teacher to consider how to improve participation in a group discussion to make it more rigorous and equitable, or whether the content learning goals were clear to the students or even to the teacher him or herself.
Another thing I’ve learned is to coach new teachers in making a critical shift — from examining what they are saying and doing in the classroom, to what the students are saying and doing. Ultimately, a successful classroom is one where what’s impressive is coming from the students, not from the teacher.
What excites you most about the Harvard Teacher Fellows model?
We are trying to address the need for highly qualified teachers from several perspectives: we believe that teachers need training and support before, during, and after their first year on the job; that teaching is honorable, hard work and should be a viable career path for Harvard undergraduates; and finally, that learning involves taking risks and making messes.
Eric Shed, director of HTF, and Steve Mahoney, associate director, are experienced educators who are not afraid to take risks, to stumble, and to laugh along the way, while maintaining rigorous standards for what it means to be a teacher. I’m excited to work with them and the team they’ve assembled to set high standards for what new young teachers can accomplish and to provide the support they need to be effective.
You’re looking to go out for a delicious meal. Do you head to Providence’s Federal Hill or Boston’s North End?
I must confess, I am entirely new to the Boston area, so I’d have to say Providence is where I seek out delicious meals. I’m somewhat of a locavore, so I prefer restaurants that support local farms. Providence restaurants benefit from Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a growing local food system that values the health of the environment, Rhode Island farmers, and eaters. Ask me — I have loads of recommendations! And I’d love some recommendations for the North End, too.