Professional Learning

Supporting Teachers: Notes from Mentors in the Field

How mentor educators respond to the key challenges of their job.

March 25, 2008

We asked education professionals with varied levels of experience in mentoring about the job and how they approach it. Here's the first in a series of responses to four questions:

What has been your biggest challenge in mentoring, and what have you done to overcome it?

Mary Eldred

Credit: Courtesy of Adam Dementieff

My biggest challenge in mentoring has been holding back. It's hard not to take over and say, "Here, let me do it." Learning to focus my classroom observations, take data, and have postobservation conferences has helped me guide my teachers to see their strengths and weaknesses, empowering them to be the best they can be at this stage of their careers.

-- Mary Eldred recently joined the Alaska Statewide Mentor Project after mentoring for four years in the Anchorage School District. She coaches first- and second-year teachers in multiple grade levels and subject areas.

Jessica Tiatia

Credit: Courtesy of Nome Tiatia

I just want to tell them or show them how to do things! I have had to really sit back and use my listening and questioning skills to work with teachers. I know in my mind that everyone has to deal with their issues in their own style and time, but I am quick to suggest how I would deal with a particular problem. I know that I need to help teachers work out their own solutions, but it is so hard for me to sit back. I have always been a doer and not a talker. I don't think I have overcome this challenge yet!

-- Jessica Tiatia, Jefferson Union High School District, Daly City, California. Tiatia works mostly with first- and second-year science and math teachers on their preliminary credentials.

Joe Gorder

Credit: Courtesy of Joe Gorder

My biggest challenge was going from being an experienced, effective teacher to being a brand-new mentor. I had set such high standards for myself as a teacher, and here I was taking on a new position with so much to learn. I had to come to grips with the fact that there is a lot to learn about mentoring and that it is OK not to be an expert right away. After participating in a state mentoring academy last summer, I began to view my new role as a mentor as an excellent way to grow professionally, in addition to helping the professional growth of my new mentees.

-- Joe Gorder, mentor, Lake Washington School District, Redmond, Washington. Gorder works with first-year secondary teachers of all subjects.

Lupe Ferran Diaz

Credit: Courtesy of J. Alsop

My biggest challenge in mentoring has been time management. In order to balance my daily full-time responsibilities as well as family duties, I have had to learn how to use my time efficiently and take out time for myself so I don't get stressed out. I have found that using a personal digital assistant helps tremendously. Also, I have learned that sometimes I have to say no to taking on additional tasks so that I can devote my time to my mentees.

-- Lupe Ferran Diaz, full-time teacher, Miami Beach Senior High School, Miami Beach, Florida. For five years, Diaz has mentored for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, where she supports new teachers, veterans preparing for national board certification, and instructors who need technology training.

The greatest challenge in coaching new teachers is the varying levels of support in hard-to-staff schools in at-risk neighborhoods, where this support is crucial. It takes time to build relationships with administrators and support personnel around the unique needs of beginning teachers.

-- Sharon Grady, Chicago Public Schools, in partnership with the Chicago New Teacher Center. Over the past six years, she has worked with P-8 teachers in general and special education.

Mylinda Mallon

Credit: Courtesy of K. Andrews

One of the biggest challenges I've faced was when I was serving a caseload of special education teachers. The needs of special education teachers are very different from those in general education, and new teachers in that area often require a great deal of emotional support. It took more time per teacher, because I spent a significant amount of time helping them solve problems and deal with daily issues that required immediate attention. As a result, it was a challenge to find the time to coach them in the teaching components of the profession.

As a member of a six-mentor team, I brought my concerns to the table for discussion. We coordinated our efforts with Special Services, identifying the training needs of first-year special education teachers and choosing who would be responsible for providing the training. We also set up a support team of first-year special education teachers, which met regularly throughout the year to discuss pertinent issues and concerns.

-- Mylinda Mallon, Lake Washington School District, Redmond, Washington. In her six years of mentoring, she's worked with teachers in all grade levels but now focuses on K-6 teachers in both general and special education.

Betty Walters

Credit: Courtesy of Adam Dementieff

My biggest challenge has been familiarizing myself with the expectations, mandates, curricula, materials, and assessments that are intrinsic to the specific school district to which I am assigned. Attending new-teacher meetings and district in-service days at the start of the school year, working with the district and building administration whenever possible, and keeping abreast of the information teachers get throughout the school year have been the most important ways for me to work through the challenges.

-- Betty Walters, Alaska Statewide Mentor Project. Walters travels the state to mentor first- and second-year teachers in multiple subjects. This is her first year as a mentor.

Frantz Prospere

Courtesy of Frantz Prospere

My biggest challenge is listening to beginning teachers tell me, in tears, that they don't have what it takes to be teachers, that they do not think they can make it another day, while I stand there, mustering up my most sincere tone without breaking down myself, and say, "Everything is going to be just fine! Things will get better as the year progresses. Don't give up!"

One thing I've done so that I don't give in to my desire to just do everything for beginning teachers is to remind myself how it felt during my first year of teaching: If I'd had a mentor, my experience would have been a more pleasant one. So, I share that with teachers during our introductory session. And I provide them with all the support they could ever need, including opportunities to reflect openly in a nonjudgmental arena on their successes, failures, or breakthroughs without interruptions or distractions.

-- Frantz Prospere, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, District 4, Florida. Prospere is a full-time behavior-management teacher who mentors beginning instructors at his site.

Lisa Morehouse, a former teacher, is now a public-radio journalist and education consultant.

Read the second article in this series.

Teaching the Teachers: A Guide to Mentoring Categories

Informal: Though the majority of states mandate and sometimes fund formal teacher-mentor programs, many do not. Concerned principals in these states may assign buddy teachers, pairing new teachers with experienced volunteers. Buddy teachers usually focus on psychological support and coping strategies rather than educational development.

Master teachers: Mandatory programs pair beginning teachers with tenured teachers, teachers with master's degrees, or those with three or more years of experience. Districts may pay stipends with local or state funds and often give release time for mentors to observe new teachers in the classroom. In rare cases, mentors provide formal evaluations.

Mentor teams: A portion of state-mandated programs require a team approach in which some mentors fulfill the social-support function; others assess the novice's performance for purposes of employment or certification.

Outside mentors: Some districts partner with nearby universities to bring college faculty on site to mentor new teachers. The universities or state grants usually fund these programs.

Do-it-yourself: In districts with no mandates or a shortage of mentors, new teachers can seek out their own informal mentoring relationships. Teachers can even do mentoring via email through Web sites such as's MightyMentors.

-- Steven Saint

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