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Making the elementary connection

The importance of mentors and helping teachers learn from one another

As the oldest of seven children growing up in Minnesota, Matt Lindner did plenty of "teaching" from an early age but always planned to follow his grandparents into the dairy-farming business.

His thinking shifted after conversations with his mother during his freshman year at the University of Minnesota.

"I realized in talking with my mom that my real passion was with kids, working with my brothers and sisters, teaching them and seeing that growth," he said.

Lindner switched his major to education, began volunteering in a first-grade classroom and never looked back. Faced with a shortage of teaching jobs in Minnesota when he graduated, he moved to California to begin his career.

After teaching third and fourth graders at Palo Verde Elementary School for the past four years, Lindner shifts gears this fall to begin coaching fellow teachers.

As a "teacher on special assignment," or TOSA, he'll travel among elementary classrooms to model lessons, help teachers learn how to adapt their strategies depending on how kids are reacting, and try to spread new teaching ideas from school to school.

"Teaching can be somewhat isolating -- you're in a room with 24 students all day, and that makes it difficult to get out and see other teachers," Lindner said in a summer interview. He had just returned from an institute for reading and writing teachers at Teachers College of Columbia University, courtesy of the Palo Alto school district.

"Palo Alto has been trying to provide more opportunities for teachers to be able to see each other, and principals have been very supportive of providing classroom coverage for an hour and a half so a teacher can observe another teacher's lessons and talk about it," he said.

Lindner has a personal appreciation for the value of coaching and mentoring.

As a new graduate scouring for jobs, he was hired by San Jose's Oak Grove School District on a Friday and asked to show up for class the following Monday.

"They'd already been in session two weeks. They had more students show up than they'd anticipated," Lindner recalled.

"I'd just moved here, had virtually no school supplies and had two days to get a classroom together.

"I went in on Saturday, and the principal showed me where my room was and said, 'Go for it.' I remember thinking, 'Can I actually do this?' It was a big shift from when I'd student-taught."

Another teacher was on campus that day and helped Lindner set up his room.

"Having people there to support you and say, 'Yes, you can,' makes all the difference," he said.

Lindner taught in San Jose for five years before switching to Palo Alto in order to be closer to San Francisco, where he lives with his partner, a customer-service officer with the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

"My partner came on a field trip with us at the end of last year and he said, 'I don't know how you do this.' That's what my mom says too, and she's the mother of seven children.

"She said, 'I have a lot of respect for you. I couldn't do that.' And that kind of makes you feel good."

Lindner said he'll miss having his own classroom this fall, for the first time in nine years.

His advice to elementary students: "It almost sounds like a cliche, but the world is yours. You have the power to do amazing things, so make the most of it. Learn everything you can. Ask questions. Be curious."

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