Recognizing the importance of mentoring, many school systems provide first-year teachers with building-based mentors to guide them through their inaugural professional experience. When teacher-mentors undergo specialized training, they increase their impact, as newbies’ retention and classroom performance demonstrate.
During a decade in which I trained teacher-mentors and supported novice educators, I determined four key components for mentors to implement consistently for the benefit of first-year educators.
1. Planned and Impromptu Interactions
Teacher-mentors and their protégés should meet for a regularly scheduled weekly discussion, but they should also have impromptu communications that are equally as important. Unplanned connections are those that happen in the moment, such as stopping into the mentor’s class to chat at the start of the day; walking to the parking lot together; and emails, texts, and phone calls about mentor-mentee topics.
For consistency and dependability, planned interactions should occur the same day and time each week. Mentors often asked me what the minimum amount of time should be for deliberate communications. My experiences support that 30–45 minutes is usually enough for experts to guide newbies through challenges, questions, and reflections and have a meaningful outcome. Of course, discussions happen more frequently and for longer periods of time at the beginning of the year, around grading time, and during challenging or unique situations.
Mentor-mentee pairs should meet during coordinated times even when there isn’t an obvious challenge or problem to solve. While weekly sessions deal with in-the-moment concerns, there should also be open-ended questioning to guide decision-making, inspire reflections, and promote novices’ professional growth. Discussions can and should include reflections on successful lessons as well as those that were unsuccessful (and a professional understanding of how to recognize the difference). Learning and professional growth are the nucleus of everything the pair does together.
2. Peer Visits and Co-teaching
It’s important for the mentor-mentee pair to visit each other’s classrooms for informal observations. I use the term “visit” to emphasize their non-evaluation role. Typically, mentors first invite protégés to observe so they can set a foundation of mutual learning, transparency, and trust. First-year educators often have frequent visits from administrators, so it’s helpful for mentors to be the first professionals to visit so that they can ease novices’ nerves and provide growth-producing feedback.
The professional pair also should visit other classrooms together. Doing so allows them to discuss and learn from the same experience, usually in 20 minutes or less. Prior to visiting a third colleague, mentors and their protégés select a focus to guide their attention, such as the physical setup of the classroom or instructional strategies. Following the joint observation, the pair discuss their targeted visit to learn from the experience. Peer visits should take place both within the pair’s school as well as at other schools to maximize learning possibilities. Visits can be coordinated by administrators, by mentors, or through the mentor program office if one exists.
Learning can occur at any time and from any observation, even one that includes student misbehavior or a poorly planned lesson. Novices and mentors can deconstruct what they saw and experienced and apply new understanding to their own classrooms. Remember that classroom visits are learning opportunities for mentor-mentee pairs, and not evaluations of the person being observed.
In addition to visiting other classrooms, co-teaching offers a powerful way to learn. The pair can decide how to mutually lead a lesson so that the novice can have learning experiences in their own classrooms. Co-teaching can be powerful because it’s a live, in-the-moment learning activity. Once again, the pair should focus on a specific learning goal and then reflect on it after the co-teaching opportunity.
Observations and classroom visits can also take place electronically, either live or by viewing a recorded lesson. This makes classroom visits much easier and more convenient for all involved.
3. Honoring Confidentiality
Both participants must honor the confidentiality of their discussions and their partnership. Mentors should respect their role as a more experienced professional, understanding that mentees sometimes share personal information or feelings. I found that mentors are often sounding boards and provide emotional support for their mentees because the inaugural year as a teacher is usually fraught with professional and emotional challenges.
With mutual confidentiality, mentors shouldn’t share novices’ progress or challenges with other teachers or even with administrators, and mentees shouldn’t share personal or private information with others. While novice teachers can ask others for support or guidance—they can learn from all peers, not just their mentors—the mentor-mentee relationship is a formal one and is unique.
4. Understanding Different Mentor Roles
Mentoring has evolved over time and involves more than giving lessons to novices. Modern mentor and induction programs recognize that mentors have specific skills that enhance a novice’s skills and promote professional growth. Mentors should learn about the various ways to support protégés in their training and when to take on a collaborative role like planning together or co-teaching.
Other times, mentors will take on a coaching stance, questioning the mentee to promote growth. The mentor isn’t trying to make the mentee teacher identical to the mentor, but to guide the mentee toward growth and improvement. Mentors can also take on a consulting role, such as with a dress code and other basics that newbies need to know. By switching among these roles, mentors promote the professional growth of mentees.
When mentors understand their role, they help newbies learn a great deal during the year together and beyond. The results? Increased teacher retention and teacher performance, which translates to improved student learning.