New Teachers

Why New Teachers Need Mentors

January 20, 2014
Image credit: Veer

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.

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