Sixteen years ago, when I was a student teacher, I was filled with the same excitement and trepidation that I now witness in the first-year teachers with whom I work in California schools. For me, a mentor made all the difference: Mr. Antenore led fascinating discussions that made history relevant to his students, and he taught courageously for justice before doing so was celebrated.
What’s more, he gave me—a new teacher—the space to take intellectual risks, the right support when I was struggling, and capacity-building resources that have stayed with me throughout my career.
I often wonder what would’ve happened if I had lost the student teaching lottery and been assigned a less-skilled mentor. What if I didn’t have access to an environment where equity and social justice were centered? Would I still be a teacher?
After a decade and a half in education, having mentored multiple student teachers and taught social studies methods to dozens more, I have come to the conclusion that what makes mentors like Mr. Antenore special is that they honor their mentees’ humanity, model teacher leadership, and embody humility, courage, and care. We can all apply these principles to become more effective mentors in our own practice.
1. Honor the humanity of your mentee
Great mentors see their mentees as equals and partners in the work of empowering students, and they collaborate with them to create the most effective professional development plan possible. I remember asking Mr. Antenore to leave the classroom from time to time during my student teaching journey so that I could develop my own voice and create better relationships with my students. He was always supportive and would check in after. The mutual trust that we built in these moments radically enhanced my self-confidence at a critical time in my development as a teacher.
2. Model teacher leadership
Realistic optimism is a powerful part of mentoring. It means being critical thinkers and analyzers of the institutions in which we work. But it also means maintaining hope that those institutions can become more just—and sharing strategies for advocacy if possible.
In my own leadership, I attempt to model this approach by advocating for the needs of students in interactions with my colleagues and administration. I also pursue advocacy opportunities outside of my district.
Great mentors have a deep commitment to equity and only speak of students and colleagues constructively. They embody professional norms in all settings, especially when colleagues disagree. At my school site, we fully include our mentees in our robust professional learning community process, as well as all staff development, to support their professional growth.
3. Practice humility, and be open to new ideas
Another facet of effective mentoring is demonstrating through your actions how you continue to develop your emotional and pedagogical capacities throughout your career. Doing so creates a culture of reciprocity and knowledge-building, as it demonstrates that you are willing to learn from your mentees as much as you are willing to teach them.
Mr. Antenore and I used to have energizing conversations about the civic meaning of our discipline and how to best deliver that meaning to students. He would inspire me with ideas about what to teach, and I would inspire him with new ideas about how to teach it.
4. Have the courage to take public risks
Risk-taking holds tremendous growth potential, and great mentors model this by implementing lessons outside of their own comfort zones. They use evidence-based strategies to meet the dynamic cultural, academic, and intellectual needs of their students and can explain the “why” behind their decision making.
As a teacher, I must be comfortable embracing change at a moment‘s notice. When I’m mentoring, I bring my mentee into the fold. I present my new lesson ideas to hear their thoughts. I also love to implement lessons that my mentees design, helping them work through their goals and processes along the way.
We have open dialogues about mistakes and successes and what we must do next to hone our practice, which builds mentee confidence and provides a model for mentees to then encourage productive risk-taking with their own students.
5. Nurture your mentee
Stay in the classroom as much as possible while your mentee is teaching to observe and coach them discreetly and positively. While doing so, prioritize the balance of allowing them to engage in productive struggle as they take necessary risks to support students without letting them drown to see if they can cut it.
At the end of most lessons, Mr. Antenore would guide me with cogent questioning and gentle feedback so that I could arrive at good answers to the many classroom challenges that I encountered and would continue to encounter throughout my career.
While there are many other traits that mentors can embody to best support new teachers, these five capacities center students and provide a solid foundation. In a time when schools are struggling to find highly competent educators in many disciplines, it’s imperative that we ensure that those who decide to become teachers have the support that they—and their students—need to thrive. Highly effective mentors have the power to set a future teacher up for long term success, impacting thousands of students for the better.