Mentoring Matters. Will You Take Up the Challenge? | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Losing Hope

In my early blogging journey, I began to explore the notion of mentoring. I began to reflect on my work as an educator, trying to recall the people in my past that had mentored me and those I had mentored. While doing this, I came up with an acronym for my consultant practice that I call IMET: Inspire Mentor, and Equip Teachers (to teach with soul). It summed up for me what I believe a true mentor does. Unfortunately, with the current challenges we face in education, I recognize it's hard for educators to take the time to truly "IMET."

About a year ago, I landed on the blog of a new teacher. One of her recent posts was entitled "Losing Hope." The teacher started the post by saying that she had a dream: a dream to be the best teacher she could be. To be the kind of teacher that students would be in inspired by. Unfortunately, there were no clear expectations set for this teacher at her school -- and worse -- no support. This teacher's perception was that they would be supported, as a first-year teacher. Instead they were placed in a "sink or swim" position. So this teacher sank.

My Response

I was moved by this teacher's post and I responded. Here's some of what I shared with this young teacher who asked for "positive and encouraging words":

When I read your words, "I believe I was under the illusion that I had support and help from all angles, when in reality, I hadn't felt more alone and lost." my heart went out to you. I was an elementary school principal for 14 years. During those years I consistently spent time mentoring, supporting, and guiding my teachers. It's truly my passion. If you read the research on why young people like yourself leave the teaching profession, it turns out that it is exactly for those reasons you describe. A school should work to foster a culture where its teachers collaborate and learn from one another. This is at the heart of how educators grow as professionals. Some of my colleagues still struggle with this piece. I apologize. We need to do much better.

I entered the teaching profession in my early twenties as a kindergarten teacher. I was fortunate to come from a family of educators. However, I still encountered a great deal of frustration and anxiety in my first year. I felt very alone, as I did not have a supportive principal, or mentor. I was new to the school. My kinder team members believed in "kill and drill" for kindergarten kids and I was mortified! In addition to that, no one on staff had a child development degree. As a result they weren't pleased when I began to talk about child development issues and how those directly influenced how children learn and should be allowed to develop. The use of hands-on learning opportunities vs. paper pencil tasks was not well received. The bottom line is that my first few years were rough! Did I have a mentor teacher? No. Was it hard? Extremely. But I kept pressing forward because I believed in myself and cared deeply for my students.

Mentors Offer Hope

As I finished my response, I was frustrated at the idea of the lack of mentoring support we are providing, even now, to those new to the profession. I was frustrated with the fact that this enthusiastic new teacher fell and no one was there to come along side and lift her up. Why did this teacher lose hope? We know so much more now about how to retain and support new teachers. So where was her mentor? No new teacher should have to stick it out alone. A mentor can provide the help -- and hope -- that can turn the tide of a difficult situation for a new teacher.

The Power of Mentoring

I believe strongly in the power of mentoring. I believe that this relationship is vital to the success of a new teacher. However, not all experienced teachers at a school site are able to take on this challenge. A year ago I had the idea that if there weren't enough experienced teachers at a school site who could, or were willing to mentor a new teacher, why not a virtual mentor who would be willing to lend support? As a result The Teacher Mentoring Project was born! If you're a new teacher or an experienced teacher who could benefit from a mentoring relationship, I urge you to seek out this group on the community. To date, 152 educators from around the globe have made themselves available to mentor virtually, through the first years and beyond!

Invitation to Take Up the Challenge

Why aren't we making the time to mentor? Is it too challenging? Too much work? With the availability of Web 2.0 and social media tools, mentors could easily collaborate with a new teacher and offer a wealth of supportive online resources such as education websites, lesson plans, blogs, wikis, Twitter, and e-books. The power of these tools to support and mentor new teachers has great potential in the 21st century teaching model. With that said, I hope that in spite of the issues we face each day, you'll consider reaching out to a new teacher, even in a small way, and be a mentor. I believe with all my heart that they're counting on us to take the lead.

Share your thoughts. What can we do everyday as educators, to provide mentoring support?

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stacey's picture
Middle School Social Studies teacher, Bismarck, ND

I am fortunate enough to have taught in two separate districts, both of which have mentoring programs for new teachers. So, I have experienced the benefits of mentoring first hand with my mentor and in mentoring two teachers myself. Relationships are so important for any organization to develop! The online mentoring option is not just a great idea for those who are struggling with starting a mentoring program; but, they should be a strong component of existing programs. Emailing or blogging about questions may be less intimidating to new teachers, rather than having the face to face conversations. Online mentoring may be a little less embarrassing for those questions you really don't want to ask, but know you need to. It also allows mentors time to formulate answers or research answers and get back to their mentees. A win-win all around.

Jordan Johnson's picture
Jordan Johnson
4th grade teacher from Ada, MN

I am in my seventh year teaching fourth grade in a rural school. Our school district doesn't have a mentoring program, but I was lucky to have a partner teacher in the other section of fourth grade who brought me along with her throughout these years. We have a good working relationship, we share lessons, worksheets, art projects, special incentives. This works well as then both sections of fourth grade are doing mostly the same activities. It makes me scared that in the next two years she may retire and I will become that mentor teacher to someone new! I still have many lessons to learn and am anxious to change roles, at times I don't think I am ready but look forward to new experiences and ideas from a new partner in fourth grade (in a few years :) )

April's picture
Second Grade teacher from MN

This was a great post! My first year of teaching consisted of working in a Kindergarten classroom in a school district where there was no mentorship program. I was completely lost. I felt as though I wasn't prepared to take on the job of teaching these youngsters, and had no one to turn to for help. I recall being extremely frustrated and completely overwhelmed, yet I didn't want to go to my principal for help. Fortunately, I was soon acquainted with another K teacher soon after and she quickly took me under her wing. She is the reason I made it through my first year! Fast forward 8 years, and I am now in a district that is just getting started in developing a mentorship program. I understand how important mentoring is and look forward to helping other new teaches in the future.

Connie's picture
First grade teacher from Minnesota

This is a great article. I wish I had a mentor for my first year of teaching. This was 20 years ago and I was part of the "sink or swim" mentality. It took me a very long time to be confindent in my teaching. My district is just now beginning a mentoring program. We have a new kindergarten teacher in our building and I can see just how valuable this is. Not only does she have a mentor, but she has the support of another K teacher to work with and a school who has moved to PLCs as a way to collaborate. I wish I would have had all of that at the start of my career, but I can say it is very valuable even at year 21.

Alayna Wagner's picture
Alayna Wagner
First grade teacher from Ada, MN

I think all new teachers should be assigned a mentor to help guide them and answer questions. It's funny that teachers are there to teach children, but are standoffish when stepping up to help teach other teachers. My first year of teaching was in a district without a mentoring program. I was scared to death and tried hard to figure things out on my own. I was pretty timid so I didn't want to ask a lot of questions. During that year, I was very overwhelmed and questioned if I was supposed to be a teacher or not. I feel that having a mentor would have made my first year of teaching more enjoyable and successful. I think all schools should be required to have a mentoring program for new teachers.

Kirby VanDeWalker's picture

5th and 6th grade teacher from Wanamingo, MN

Why are we lacking positive mentors? Well, we live in a day and age where people are the busiest they have ever been. Compared to when our parents were growing up (60's and 70's), life it a lot faster. Some teachers, usually the good ones, are involved in numerous activities outside of teaching - youth group leaders, coaches, and community functions, to name a few. Those take up a good chunk of time. Teachers also have lives outside of school. All of these combined leaves not much other time for additional activities.

During the school day, as we all know, teachers are increasingly busy, with what seems like additional requirements being thrown at us each day. Adding one more responsibility for a teacher is a lot to ask. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be any mentors for new teachers, because I value guidance and being able to bounce things off others for their input. But to want a teacher to add one more duty to their already rigorous schedule without offering any kind of monetary incentive is asking a lot.

Another reason why we might be seeing a lack of mentors is teachers may not know how to do it. If someone were to ask me if I would be a mentor I would ask, "Well, what would that entail? How do I do that?" Maybe a little training for future mentors would be helpful?

I like the idea of mentorship because it's like having a coach in your corner. I also like the face-to-face meetings that come from having a mentor in your school because they know the demographics of the school that their mentee teaches in. The idea of online mentors is great, but for me, I prefer the mentor who is familiar with my surroundings.

I enjoyed reading the article. It made me think back to my first year of teaching. I had a mentor, but it was mostly a time for my mentor and I to see how life was, rather than how teaching was. I think beginning teachers are afraid to voice their opinions or give their thoughts because they think others view them as the "new" teacher or the inexperienced one. I'm now in my fourth year of teaching and always talk to my colleagues when I need help or advice. I don't know what I would do without talking to my colleagues. I would feel like I was all alone and making decisions without asking others for their input. I think there are mentors all around us, but they may not be labeled as "mentors". If we need help, we must ask. How do we know if our students have questions or need help? They ask! We need more mentors, whether you're labeled as one or not. Seek out new teachers to help them get started to a hopefully long and prosperous career!

Jenny's picture

I have been teaching for 8 years in the same school and district. I was very fortunate to be surrounded with a extremely helpful and approachable admin and group of colleagues. Mentoring is a very important step for not only new teachers but experienced teachers too. I really feel that this is a valuable way for all teachers to continue their education. Their is a mentoring program in place for my school district and all new teachers are assigned to a mentor as close to their grade level and content area as possible. It has been a worthwhile and positive experience for many of my colleagues whether they were in the role of mentor or mentee. I remember my time in the mentor program quite fondly, and while I am not a mentor for new teachers I am quite willing. I have been a cooperating teacher for student teachers, and I have very much enjoyed my time working with a younger generation of teachers. I learned much from them because they bring fresh and new ideas to the classroom. It is a win-win situation for all involved with mentoring.

Jen Stewart's picture

I am a kindergarten teacher and a second section of kindergarten was added to our building this year. This is the first time I have had a grade level teaching partner. A first grade teacher has been assigned to be a mentor through our PLC. This has helped tremendously. The first grade mentor thanked me for giving support to the new teacher, and thinks that I should become the mentor. I feel that through the collaboration I am learning just as much from her as she is from me. I know my teaching has improved from everything I have learned.

Patricia's picture
Kindergarten teacher from MN

Having a mentor is a great experience for a beginning teacher. When I started teaching, my mentor did her best to provide support and help with the curriculum. I am very grateful to her for the help and time she gave me. After that, when I achieved tenure, I became a mentor myself. Sometimes, I just provided help even though I was not the mentor of so and so,just to be friendly and welcoming. I believe that experienced teachers should help less experienced ones and actually it can be a very enriching experience from both of them- experienced and new teachers alike. I have learned from both my student teachers and my mentees. We shared and exchanged ideas. Now, I cannot be an official mentor anymore because my district discontinued the program at the building level. New teachers get a mentor at the district level only. However, I remain a mentor "on the side", providing help and support whenever I can. Regarding online mentoring, I don't believe much in it. It is great to ask questions, but face to face interactions is more enriching.

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