Finding Mentorship as a First-Year Teacher
The first year of teaching is tough, but mentors can lighten the load. Here’s how to find the right people to help you on your path.
When I began my first year of teaching, I was excited—eager to develop democratic citizens in my classroom and apply all that I had learned during my undergraduate education. But by October, my spark for teaching seemed to disappear. Suddenly I was filled with feelings of inadequacy and doubt.
Everything was new to me—building relationships with my students, creating a social studies curriculum that met state standards, interacting with my colleagues, and becoming a part of my school’s community. In the face of it all, I was overwhelmed.
I knew that I needed guidance. In August, my school had assigned me to a mentor who shared wonderful insights into the students and families in the rural community where I taught, but this professional had not worked as a classroom teacher, so I knew I needed to supplement their support by seeking additional sources of mentorship to develop my skills in the classroom.
Doing so taught me important lessons that other first-year teachers might benefit from, too.
Build relationships with veteran teachers at school
I started building relationships with veteran teachers at my school through collaboration. I did this by volunteering to help organize events on campus—first, by setting up the school’s winter dance. Throughout the process, I became acquainted with a veteran science teacher who shared an academic reward system that worked well in her classroom and now works well in mine, too.
Next, I helped organize a field trip to a local college for eighth-grade students, which allowed me to develop a relationship with a veteran teacher who shared her approach to building relationships with students. This teacher encouraged me to attend a professional development session on AVID strategies that would help make my social studies lessons more engaging for students—an area in which I wanted to grow.
Developing relationships with my colleagues allowed me to acknowledge that I am a better educator when I connect to other educators at my school. As a first-year teacher, you may find it intimidating to interact with veteran teachers, but relationships with those who have been around the block are vital to your success in the first year.
Listen to Education-Related Podcasts
Because time is of the essence as a first-year teacher, I began listening to teaching podcasts on my way to school or while I ran errands. My favorite teaching podcast is Teaching to the TOP. It is hosted by educators with over 10 years of classroom experience, Bridget Spackman and Michelle Ferré. The quality of information shared in each episode shows their expertise.
Teaching to the Top offers advice on various topics, like classroom management and educational technology, and the episodes are only 20 to 45 minutes long, meaning I get succinct, effective teaching advice weekly.
For example, the episode “Productivity Habits Every Teacher Should Build” eased the lesson-planning process, encouraging me to simplify my lessons. I was spending hours on the weekends building elaborate lessons that left me burned out and frustrated.
Implementing advice from this episode flipped the script on how I structured my lessons: On Mondays, I lectured, and students took guided notes. On Tuesdays, they practiced their source-analysis skills. On Wednesdays, they participated in gallery walks or completed WebQuests. On Thursdays, students discussed content from the week with partners or tablemates. And on Fridays, they explored and discussed national and international current events. By streamlining my lessons, I created a more predictable learning environment for students and made space in my weekends to rest and refresh for the week ahead.
There are many education podcasts and audiobooks out there; finding the voices, topics, and approaches that most inspire you will help you grow your practice on your terms.
Consult other first-year teachers
Keeping in contact with other first-year teachers has been vital to changing my view on my teaching skills. I talk with other first-year teachers in a group chat made of teachers whom I graduated with. The chat is a space for us to share the highs and lows of our experiences. We remind one another to branch outside of our comfort zones with lesson planning; we update one another on education-related news on the state and national levels; we share tips that veteran teachers have shared with us; and, most important, we remind one another that it takes time to feel confident in our practice and that our undergraduate preparation was not in vain.
The conversations that I shared with these individuals when we graduated from college sounded different from those we have now. Our first years have been hard. But we all agree that mentorship and community-building have given us a sense of confidence and calm despite the chaos.
Stick with It
Initiating and sustaining mentorship in and beyond my school community has encouraged me to return to the classroom for a second year. And it is my hope that by utilizing the strategies above, other first-year teachers can actively combat the isolation that being a new professional—and new member of a learning community—can bring.
Building a strong teaching practice can take three (or 30!) years, not three months. Keeping in mind the long-term trajectory of a career path can help you put first-year challenges in perspective, and having mentors with whom to commiserate, empathize, and strategize about these challenges boosts problem-solving and lifelong learning—two important skills to share with, and model for, students.