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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 (22)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Janet's picture

I really enjoyed your post, I began teaching as a 2nd career after retiring from the Marine Corps. At first it was a hard transition. Switching careers, taking a new path, working with children instead of Marines. I was the only PE teacher at the time I started teaching, PreK - 8th grade. Our school has a mentoring program it was really for core subjects. I was resourceful and went to another Catholic School and worked with there PE Teacher along with attaching myself to our 2nd grade teacher who I was comfortable enough with to ask for help. My first year was stressful because I felt like I was just surviving. I believe in a GREAT MENTORING PROGRAM for all new teachers. Too often new teachers are left to fail and not set up for success. Mentors not only help with Lesson Plans and classrooms but they are able to help you with management of the classrooms and the personalities of the students within each class. They encourage as well as show you the ropes of your particular school. As a new teacher, I wish I would have had a mentor assigned to me to help with the stressors and dynamics of being a new teacher. A mentor program is very import ant and it is just as important for the Mentor personalities to be positive and energetic.

gabrielle marquette's picture
gabrielle marquette
High school special educator and adjunct instructor

I hate it when I hear people have had bad experiences with mentoring. Teaching can be an isolating profession especially during those first couple of years. New teachers deserve to be supported in constructive ways that allow them to make mistakes and grow from them as we expect kids to do when they are learning new things. Mentoring is an extremely important part of the learning process.

Taylor's picture
Taylor
TESOL Grad Student in Virginia Beach, VA

Thank you David for such an encouraging story. Your transparency and humility is refreshing.
I agree wholeheartedly that listening is key to being in the position to truly help someone improve and progress. You are indeed fortunate and blessed to have had accomplished people willing to make time and speak into your life and share their sage advice and counsel. I'm sure you will one day return the same kindness to a novice teacher who happens along your career path.
When I graduate next year and go teach English abroad internationally to adults, I hope and pray that I am just as blessed to have others come alongside and mentor me.

Kristin's picture
Kristin
Second Grade teacher from Delaware County, PA

David, I couldn't agree with you more. I owe my success as a teacher to the mentors I received within my first few years of teaching. It is comforting to have a team of teachers you can go to on a daily basis. I hope to be able to pay it forward and help incoming first year teachers at my own school in the future.

Disha's picture

Hello my name is Di'sha Wallace and I am a Pre Service teacher and this article was really interesting to me. This will be a great tool to use when I begin teaching during the first year. However you made a great point about teachers needing mentors because some days may be harder than the others.

the_OTHER_Tyra's picture

Hello, my name is Tyra Cannon and I am a pre-service teacher. I really love the inspiring stories in your blog. Hopefully I will have that same kind of support from experienced teachers when I become a teacher. I agree, I really do think that new teachers deserve mentors because it can get tough for new teachers and cause them to be a statistic. No one wants to be a statistic after they have worked so hard to earn their degree. Mentors can really make a big difference in helping new teachers survive in the schools today.

April's picture

Hello, my name is April Avery and I am a pre-service teacher. I thought this article was helpful for pre-service teachers because it allows us to have an insight to what we should try to learn from our future mentors. I enjoyed reading about your many successful mentor-mentee experiences, and it has me very hopeful that I will be blessed with a great mentor when I begin teaching. I think you make a great point about new teachers needing mentors. A lot of future teachers will struggle or begin to feel defeated within their first year, but having a good mentor to guide them along the way could really change the number of new teachers we see leaving the field. I would like to ask a you a few questions about becoming a mentee:
1. What are some tips you can give pre-service teachers to be more receptive to the advice experienced teachers give them?
2. Do you have any advice for pre-service teachers before we all get into the actual classroom?

Thank you again for an inspiring and thoughtful post.

Best regards,

April Avery
Prairie View, TX

Sharyn Goffney's picture

Hello, my name is Sharyn Goffney and I am a pre-service teacher. I found your blog to be really helpful and inspiring. I will be student teaching in about 2 semesters and the main issue I've been dealing with is finding a support system. Before reading your article I didn't think much on how important "the mentor as confident builder" is. Having someone that's already in the field reassuring you and your work would be a definite confident builder. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, this article was very helpful.

Ms. Wade's picture

Hello, I am Kathy Wade, a pre-service teacher at Prairie View A&M University. I could defiantly relate to this article because as my first class approaches I am always looking for a mentor to show me the way in education. Of course I have my own vision of my future class, but I am sure that will change the first day I walk in. This article was somewhat and ad for what I am looking for in a mentor. I love constructive criticism and believe it is what makes a great teacher. Learning from your mistakes, your peers and most of all your students can only better your teaching. Thanks for the great article! I will begin my hunt for the perfect mentor/mentors. I may have a few teachers in mind :)!

Henry C. Darnell's picture
Henry C. Darnell
4-8 Generalist Pre-Service Teacher Canidate

Hello, my name is Henry Darnell i'm a pre-service teacher from Prairie View A&M University. After reading your blog post it only reinforces my need for a mentor as I slowly approach becoming a certified teacher day by day. From being an observer to a confidence builder a mentor is essential role for a new teacher.

Thank you again for the post,
Henry Darnell

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