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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Mentorship: Teaching the Teachers

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of New Teacher Support at Yeshiva University

You've been teaching for five years, and you love every part of it. You love the kids, your colleagues -- well -- you love teaching. The parents are happy, the kids learn, but you’re getting an "itch." School isn't as exciting as it used to be. The routines are becoming routine, and you know what the kids are going to get stuck on, push back at, get excited by -- nothing is new anymore.

You are not alone.

Should you pursue something else? Get on the track to become an administrator? Go back to grad school? What will bring that extra excitement back to your job? What will challenge you and, indeed, make every day an intellectual challenge? Would you want to stay if someone were pushing you to get better? If they were really challenging you to think about your practice and grow as an educator?

Channeling Your Expertise

Have you ever thought about teaching teaching? No, that wasn't a typo; it was a suggestion. You can become the next teacher of teachers and offer what you have learned to the newest members of the profession. There is no such thing as a "born teacher" or a "natural."

Author and teacher education expert Sharon Feiman-Nemser summed up concerns of new teachers nicely in What New Teachers Need to Learn, a 2003 article in Educational Leadership:

For the novice, the questions are unending: What am I supposed to teach? How will my students be tested? What will their test scores say about me as a teacher? What does the principal expect? Am I supposed to keep my students quiet, or do my colleagues understand that engaged learning sometimes means messy classrooms and active students? And after the first weeks of school, how can I find out what my students really know, deal with their diverse learning needs, and ensure that everyone is learning?

Teaching is a craft -- an art form -- that needs to be practiced and perfected. You know that new teachers don't know everything they need to thrive in your school -- even if they are really bright and come from a great graduate program. You have spent the past few years learning from your mistakes, reflecting on your practice, and perhaps now you are ready to help someone else.

Where to Begin as a Mentor

The first thing to do is look around your school. Is there a formal mentoring program going on? Do mentors meet regularly to talk about their mentoring practice? If so, you should join this community. Ask if you can become a regular at these meetings to learn more about mentoring from these mentors.

If your school doesn't have a mentoring program, you can start thinking about how to create one. Post a notice to your colleagues to see if anyone wants to be part of a book group with you. Begin the group by reading Beyond Mentoring by Jon Saphier or Coaching Classroom Instruction by Robert Marzano. Once you are acquainted with some of the basic principles of mentoring and coaching, you can start by observing one another and giving each other feedback.

Opening Your Classroom to Mentees

Now that you feel like this mentoring thing really is for you and you're ready to take the next leap, reach out to a local university. See what mentor training opportunities they have and how you can become involved. Your classroom may soon become a host classroom for new teachers, and you will be a mentor.

To become a teacher of teachers, or a mentor, you do not need to leave the classroom. You don't have to forgo the things you love; you are just adding another layer onto the teaching -- meta-teaching. This new challenge will help you think about your own practice. Why do you turn off the lights to get kids quiet? Is there a more effective way? Is there a different approach? Having another person observe your classroom regularly and question your decisions will help you grow in your own practice.

Becoming a mentor gives you a new peer group of other mentors and novice teachers. There is an entire world of mentoring, a ladder of professional growth. This field of new teacher support must continue growing to ensure that the caliber of our schools continues to grow.

Growing Within Your Job

Ultimately, the students need skilled teachers guiding them. As a skilled and proficient educator, you can't teach all of them every year, but you can teach their teachers. You can ensure that the teacher next door is thinking about his practice in a thoughtful manner. You can say with confidence that you know your kids will be going on to a reflective teacher -- if you are part of their teacher's education.

Graduate programs are always looking for skilled, thoughtful, reflective practitioners to open their classrooms to the new teachers entering the field. There are so many talented teachers who leave the field when they get that "itch," but you don't need to be one of them. You can continue to learn and grow within your current job, and help a novice learn as well. If you love teaching, why give that up for something else? Just start teaching the teachers.

What have you learned from a novice teacher that has helped improve your practice? What were some of the surprises you experienced taking on the role of mentor?

Shira Loewenstein

Associate Director of New Teacher Support at Yeshiva University
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