Making a Mentor

New teacher consults with a veteran teacher, who serves as a mentor

Have you been asked to mentor a new teacher?

Mentors are tremendously helpful in building the skills and confidence of new teachers. An effective mentor can channel an idealistic newbie’s ambition into a lifelong devotion to educational excellence. The best mentors model professional practice and exemplary teaching strategies, and help new teachers cope with the day-to-day challenges of education. A mentor, in fact, can be the difference between premature burnout and professional resilience.

“The power of mentoring and coaching is that when you have somebody sitting next to you who helps you make space and time for reflection, somebody to bounce ideas off of, who can you take risks with and try stuff with without any fear of repercussion, you can get better so much faster,” says Emily Davis, program director of the Santa Cruz Silicon Valley New Teacher Project and senior advisor at the New Teacher Center.

Perhaps that’s why formal teacher mentorships are increasingly common. (According to some studies, about 80 percent of teachers in the United States report having had some kind of mentorship relationship, though the rigor and formality of those relationships vary widely.) Yet despite the proven benefits of an effective mentorship, few districts provide specific support and training for mentors. That’s a mistake, Davis says.

“Mentoring is a whole other skillset,” she says. “We would never put a teacher in the classroom without some training or support or place a new administrator in a school without some training or support, so why would we think that putting a new mentor in place without training and support is a good idea?”

If your school or district provides a mentorship training and development, take advantage of it! Baltimore Country schools, for instance, has a nationally recognized Peer Assistance and Review Program that supports experienced teachers in developing the skills they need to be effective mentors.

If your school doesn’t provide formal training, you’ll need to work on developing your mentorship skills on your own. Not sure where to start? Here are four skills and abilities all mentors should work to hone:

The ability to establish trust

Most new teachers are acutely aware of their own imperfections and lack of experience. Yet many will go to great lengths to hide what they don’t know because, like all educators, they want to be taken seriously and viewed as competent professionals. That’s why it’s so important for mentors to spend time establishing an atmosphere of trust.

Danielle Brown, a kindergarten teacher at Colonel Johnson Elementary in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, recommends devoting time to relationship building before drilling into content. “If a person doesn’t feel comfortable sharing themselves with you, it’s going to be really hard” to work on their teaching strategies, she says. So before diving into educational instruction, spend some time getting to know your mentee. You can ease the process by sharing a bit about yourself – about your family, your hobbies, or your experiences in education.

Such sharing often opens the door to trust because it sends the message that it’s OK to be human.

Self-reflection

“In order to teach someone to teach, you have to analyze your own teaching and understand what it is you do that makes you successful,” says Annette Breaux, a former educator and author of “101 Answers for New Teachers and Their Mentors: Effective Teaching Tips for Daily Classroom Use.”

Are your students particularly engaged? Are you recognized as the teacher who can help almost any child learn to read? Do you know why you achieve those particular outcomes? If you don’t, you won’t be able to help anyone else develop those skills. So spend some time thinking carefully about your practice. What is it you do that catches your students’ attention? Do you greet them warmly every day? Integrate student interests into classroom lessons? How?

Feedback from colleagues can help you better understand your own strengths as a teacher. Consider inviting a fellow teacher to observe some of your lessons, then sit down with her afterward and ask her to share with you what she saw. Together, analyze what works – and what doesn’t. Take notes. These notes – and the understanding you gain through this experience – will improve your practice, and help you teach your mentee effective educational strategies.

The ability to teach process

As a mentor, “you’re balancing just-in time support – how do you deal with the problem of the moment, like the lesson plan that must be planned for tomorrow – with the development of effective habits of practice,” Davis says. “Those habits are hopefully things that teacher will eventually still be able to do when you’re not there anymore.”

The most effective mentors use current problems to teach these habits of practice, Davis says. A new teacher who is struggling with lesson planning, for instance, doesn’t need a mentor to come in and do her lesson planning. What she really needs is someone who will help her break down the process of lesson planning, and develop her own lesson planning systems.

A mentor can help her mentee by asking, Where can you look for resources? Who are your professional connections who can help you with this problem? What ideas are you going to try? These kinds of questions encourage new educators to “think about what’s possible within the profession and create a plan for learning,” Davis says. That kind of mentoring support sets teachers up for long-term success and continued self-directed professional development.

Compassion

The first year of teaching, as you know, can be a bit of a shock. “New teachers come in and are all bubbly and excited. Then reality hits,” says Mattie Wynne, a consulting teacher (mentor) with Baltimore County Public Schools.

A mentor must have compassion and empathy for new teachers’ struggles. Simply telling a new teacher to “suck it up,” is not helpful. Neither is a resigned this-is-how-it’s-always-been-and-always-will-be attitude. Instead, demonstrate support with statements such as, “That sounds hard,” or “I remember how tough my first year was.” These kinds of responses encourage conversation, reflection and problem-solving, and that’s exactly what new teachers need.

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer who frequently writes about education, health and parenting. See her work at www.jenniferlwfink.com and www.buildingboys.net.

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