Why New Teachers Need Mentors | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

I'm 23, almost fresh out of graduate school when I move to Miami to teach American history at Palmer Trinity, an independent school in Palmetto Bay. I have no friends or family nearby, and I'm completely unfamiliar with my surroundings. I'm also feverishly trying to get a firmer handle on my curriculum, and on making my lessons more relevant and engaging.

Today, my success as a teacher -- not to mention the lives of all the students I hope I have inspired and changed in my seven years in the classroom -- is directly related to the caring, high-quality mentorship I received during my first year of teaching. Without it, I would have become another statistic, quitting after my first few years on the job.

The Mentor as Confidant

I kept my own experience in mind when reading Mentoring New Teachers by Hal Portner, who argues that trust is crucial to the mentor-mentee relationship. New teachers must feel confident in expressing doubt or admitting mistakes to experienced teachers, without fearing embarrassment or repercussions. In this respect, mentors serve as confidants, not evaluators, concerned only with helping mentees -- and, in turn, students -- succeed in the classroom.

"If you know a person is going to be evaluating you, it really puts a little damper on things," Portner tells me. "Having a peer evaluate you does have a lot of positives, and does work, but I really don't want to call it mentoring."

Dr. Aldo Regalado, my mentor in the history department, constantly encouraged me to experiment with new assignments. When attempts to increase student engagement failed, which happened, he didn't record or report my mistakes to any superior; he helped me refine and analyze my approach to be more successful.

Similarly, Bruce Musgrave, who just retired after 42 years in education -- most recently as Palmer Trinity's assistant head of school for academics -- never scolded me for making mistakes. In fact, I can only recall his offering me support and praise, along with pragmatic advice on how to continue maturing as an effective teacher. Musgrave didn't just simply pat me on the back and send me on my way. He took the time to truly listen.

The Mentor as Observer

Mark Hayes, my colleague in the English department (and one of the most talented teachers I know), also took the time to listen. But he went one better by frequently observing my classes and discussing with me what went well and what I could change. All the while, he never intimidated or threatened me -- quite the contrary. Hayes listened intently to my frustrations. I could always tell he was really listening, not just hearing. Portner tells me of my good fortune with Hayes, and all of my other mentors.

"Unfortunately, the receiver of the message, in most interactions with people, is not really listener but a hearer," he says. "They hear the sounds, but they don't take the time to really understand what's being sent. It's more than just the words; it's the feeling behind the words. There's the body language that might be involved, all those kinds of things."

Hayes certainly picked up on my body language, and he tailored his feedback to my nervous, insecure state. He found a way to be honest and helpful, never hurtful or insensitive. I also felt great comfort in knowing that he empathized with my difficulties, and that when he was a new teacher, he experienced similar challenges.

The Mentor as Confidence Builder

To help build my confidence, I also leaned on Adrianna Truby, chair of the English department, who, as much as anybody else, instilled in me a healthy sense of confidence. She too invested countless hours with me before, during and after school, reviewing lesson plans and suggesting ways to think about more effective assessment. As she is among the most admired and respected teachers on campus, I felt a tremendous sense of security receiving reassurance from this remarkably gifted educator.

Portner reminds me of how fortunate I was to have a mentor like Truby, who did such a great job that, eventually, I no longer needed to rely on her as much. "I guess you can equate it with the old saying of 'give someone a fish if they're hungry to feed them for a day, but teach them to fish, and they can feed themselves for life,'" Portner says. "This is really what you want to do if you're mentoring someone, is to eventually stop mentoring them, in a sense, because they've become self-sufficient. In other words, they develop a capacity, and competence, to make their own informed decisions."

While Truby's success with me -- a formerly insecure, uncertain rookie teacher ready to quit -- shows just how challenging and time-consuming effective teacher mentoring really is, it also divulges the worthwhile results that transpire.

Truby and her husband, Fred, also built my confidence and sense of security by showing me around Miami and introducing me to their friends and family, many of whom have since become my close friends.

I am forever grateful to them both, and to my many other mentors.

Do you remember what it was like to be a mentee? Have you had the experience of mentoring a new teacher? Please share your reflections in the comments section below.

Comments (24)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Linda Kardamis's picture
Linda Kardamis
middle school math teacher in Ohio - I blog at www.teach4theheart.com

This is so true! Sounds like you had some awesome mentors but it also sounds like you intentionally sought them out. (Good idea for new teachers who don't currently have a mentor!!)

The first year teaching is such a learning curve. I learned so many lessons the hard way, even with so many great mentor teachers....I share that experience & some of the most valuable lessons I learned here: http://teach4theheart.com/2013/07/01/classroom-management-concept-i-wish...

I had some great mentors - really a whole team of teachers who would answer my questions and give advice - as well as an assignment mentor who was great. I've had the privilege to mentor one teacher, and I really enjoyed it but wish I would've observed her to help give more specific help (like your mentor did).

Todd Sentell's picture
Todd Sentell
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

I taught a workshop one time at a statewide conference of teachers on how to be a successful teacher your rookie year and I told them that you don't really have to love kids to be a great teacher ... you just have to understand them. All the teachers in the room agreed with me. That was a real nice moment. I couldn't believe I had actually hit on some remarkable, agreed-upon truth in a profession I was real green at. One woman was asleep, so I'll never really know if she agreed or not.


Joe Slevin's picture

I think mentoring can fail when the mentor is part of the senior team. I think there is a vital role for retired senior staff with mentoring experience to mentor part time. They know what to say and how to say it and they can be totally non-threatening. The young teacher needs the confidence to really say what they feel. So often mentoring within an institution is not really trusted.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

David, I couldn't agree with you more. I deeply believe that the people you surround yourself with in your first year will make the difference in the kind of teacher you become -- and whether you stay in education at all.

Some people are lucky enough to work in a district where mentoring is a built-in, standard part of their first year. Others have to seek mentors out themselves. Regardless of how things are set up in your school, you need to be proactive and deliberate about who mentors you. Just because a person has been assigned as your mentor, it doesn't mean they are the right person for YOU. Financial incentives may even have the unintended effect of drawing ineffective teachers to mentoring, so pay close attention to how you feel when you're with them. If you mostly feel bad about yourself in their presence, it's time to seek out a new one, whether they help you in an official capacity or not.

I talk more about this in a piece I wrote last year called "Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers." So far it's been one of the most-read pieces on my blog, so I'm thinking it resonated with quite a few people. You can read it here: www.cultofpedagogy.com/marigolds.

Portner's book looks great, by the way. I took a look at the free preview on Amazon, and he seems to really focus on the specific behaviors mentors should use to build that relationship of trust.

Thanks for bringing up this important topic, David. Your mentors deserve the recognition they're getting today!

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