“You can find your student teacher’s name at the bottom of the email.”
The first time I saw this sentence, I had to reread it. I thought it was a mistake. I was a new lead teacher and had just finished two years in a co-teacher training program, where I worked with and learned from a mentor teacher. Though I appreciated this new opportunity to work with a student teacher, I was surprised that I had been assigned one. I had, after all, been in her place just a few months prior.
In the span of a summer, I went from being mentored to mentoring, and the experience forced me to reflect on what works, and what doesn’t work, in a teacher training and mentoring model.
I started jotting notes down about what I appreciated and wished I had known as both a mentee and a mentor. I’ve compiled the following lists to offer insight into both sides of this professional dynamic.
What Mentor Teachers Wish New Teachers Knew
As I embraced the role of mentor, I considered the following tenets from this perspective.
Identify what you want to learn and improve. It can be overwhelming to step into somebody else’s classroom, and trying to master everything that goes into teaching is, in many ways, impossible. For that reason, as a new teacher, work with your mentor to identify one or two areas you would like to get better at. Communicate these elements of practice clearly so that you and your mentor are on the same page and can work together to hone these skills. Once you’ve mastered these two, you can move on to identify the next two, and so on.
Use teacher language. Students rely on routines and predictability to successfully navigate their days. Teacher language—though sometimes unnatural to a new teacher—is a crucial component of this predictability; it establishes a shared vocabulary, and therefore shared understanding, between everyone in the classroom community. Every teacher has their own style—using certain phrases, callbacks, ways of giving directions, etc. When student teachers integrate similar language, they alter students’ perceptions and receptivity to them, easing their way into the classroom community.
The first week my student teacher was with me, I gave her a few phrases to use if she needed to redirect a student. There was, therefore, continuity between teachers, and students immediately recognized her as being part of their classroom community.
Remember, no feedback is feedback. Student teachers typically have a number of formal observations; they can even feel, at times, like they are always being watched and given feedback. While feedback is crucial to improvement, student teachers should also recognize that not getting feedback, from time to time, can be an indicator of a mentor’s confidence in them.
After my student teacher ran our morning meeting for two weeks, I stopped watching her. I knew she could handle it, and doing so ultimately boosted her confidence, providing her with some autonomy in our learning community—and opportunities to build her relationships with students.
What New Teachers Wish Mentors Knew
As I guided my student teacher, I worked to keep my own recent experiences being mentored in mind. From this vantage point, I reflected on the following pieces of advice.
Plan and map curricula together. Every teacher has a different way of planning, and some schools are more lenient than others when it comes to following a curriculum. Explaining how and why you plan lessons and units is extremely helpful. Many college programs require students to write lengthy, unrealistic lesson plans, so understanding what practical lesson planning entails makes a new teacher’s life much easier.
The first time I worked with a mentor teacher, I had no idea what the end goal was; I knew where students were academically, but without context about their curricular mapping, I didn’t realize what exactly we were working toward. It wasn’t until I spent a second year in the same grade that I fully understood what was considered appropriate for this grade level, in this learning context. Making your process visible, even if it seems obvious to you, can remove barriers for teachers-in-training.
Explain specialist referrals and evaluations. Referrals and evaluations look different in every school and depend on factors like school resources, type, staff composition, and more. But I was admittedly a bit confused the first time I read an evaluation from one of my student’s speech therapists. All of my undergrad and grad classes focused on strategies to identify and improve learning needs, but I never actually saw what an occupational, speech, or neurodivergence evaluation looked like–until I asked to see one.
Taking the time to share and explain a student’s evaluation (taking proper privacy measures) is an often-overlooked but extremely beneficial act in a mentoring relationship and can ensure greater differentiation in the classroom.
Advocate for students. Making referrals for student evaluations or recommendations for enrichment or support groups often falls on the lead teacher. It’s beneficial for student teachers to know the reasoning for and technical steps behind these decisions and processes. Sharing your thought process—even after the fact—and modeling for student teachers how to advocate for their students’ needs, in collaboration with other professionals, is another facet of teaching that mentors can make less opaque, better positioning new teachers to meet the needs of the learners in their classrooms.
Teaching is a collaborative, experiential field. Mentoring can make the difference between effective and committed new teachers and those who struggle or eventually leave the profession. That being said, because models of student teaching, associate teaching, and other teacher training programs differ significantly across programs, it can be difficult to streamline the process according to best practices. Keeping the above ideas in mind, however, can lead to intentional mentoring that benefits both parties.
Mentors and mentees can learn a lot from each other. Considering, and discussing, what they each wish the other knew can make the relationship more transparent and productive, leading to improved learning for everyone.