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Mentoring Novice Teachers to Become Teacher-Leaders

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You’ll always remember arriving at school for your first day of teaching, giddy with excitement and confidence. You probably asked yourself, “How hard can it be? The students did fine during my student-teaching assignment.”

Then reality kicked in. Fortunately, much like a mother after childbirth, we tend to forget the frustration, self-doubt, and sheer terror of those first weeks. Most of us found advocates within our school or department who supported us during that initial shock. They comforted us, shared lesson plans, and gave us helpful hints on how to survive. They were our mentors.

My journey began as the first novice teacher hire at my school in ten years. I had four significant mentors who impacted my life inside and outside the classroom. So later in my career, when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance to mentor a new teacher.

I did some things well, and others not so much. Here are some tips I wish I had when I started mentoring.

1. Calibrate expectations

Ask the mentee what they expect from you. I facilitate a casual conversation comparing and contrasting my mentee’s expectations with mine. We typically reach a consensus within a few minutes. The work is much more comfortable knowing you’re both on the same page. Also, front loading this conversation avoids misunderstandings and hurt feelings later.

2. Accept the mentee as a peer

Walk into the relationship with positive assumptions. The mentee got the job by meeting the requirements and getting approval from the administration. We need to honor who this teacher is and the skills and talents he or she possesses. Take the time to get to know your mentee’s strengths. Celebrate them. Often.

3. Set clear boundaries

We all lead busy professional and personal lives. Remind the mentee that mentoring is in addition to the duties and obligations you have to your own classes and personal life. If you’re a parent with young children, express the latest time you’ll accept phone calls or text messages.

4. “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.”

Confidentiality agreements build trust and jump-start the hard conversations. I tell my mentees that I will not share any conversation, observation, or opinions about them with others. As a result, they become more liberal in sharing their concerns. Similarly, I ask them to agree not to talk about me either. Without mutual trust, you’ve got bupkis.

5. Build a caring connection

The old saying that “they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” applies to our professional relationships as well as those with our students. Show interest in the mentee’s life outside of school. Listen actively.

6. Take a look under the hood

Once you feel comfortable, schedule time to observe each other in action. I like to start with a quick “fly-by” (with consent) to get a sense of my mentee's classroom environment. The next time we meet, I simply ask how she thought it went.

Something to consider: some districts give contractual substitute days specifically designated for mentoring. If your district or school does not, consider talking to your administrator about acquiring a substitute teacher to cover your class during the mentoring experience. Mentors and mentees may even share a sick day to do reciprocal observations.

7. Connect observations to the evaluation model

Conduct observations based on the teacherevaluation process used at your site. This gives the mentee a low-stakes practice run on his evaluation.

8. Start with small steps

Don’t try to “fix” everything at once. Ask which areas your mentee wants to focus on. Keep the area of focus narrow. Instead of “behavior management,” I would start with “consistent implementation of behavior plan.” It’s much easier to measure and discuss.

9. “The facts, ma’am. Just the facts.”

Once you and the mentee have picked an area of focus, agree on how to gather related evidence. There are several resources for teacher-observation data collection. Make sure the data you collect during your observations is clear and concise.

I also try to avoid making value judgments. Instead of writing “three students were disruptive during the lesson,” I write, “three students were talking during the lesson.” This makes the post-observation conversation less confrontational and more matter of fact.

10. It’s better to give than receive—but receiving is nice, too

Share your personal learning network, resources, and connections with your mentee. You may be surprised: Your mentee may have access to unexpected resources and connections. Regardless, you’ll both walk away with many new resources and growth opportunities.

11. Groom teacher-leaders

Find low-risk teacher-leadership opportunities requiring limited time commitment for your mentee. Explore them together. Work with your union leadership to design or share existing activities which the mentee can easily join. Invite them to join a professional learning community. Include the mentee in your work involving the designing or implementation of new initiatives. Regularly inquire about how their participation in their PLC has positively impacted them.

Have bold conversations about what teaching and learning should look like in 1, 5, 10, and 20 years. Dream. Plan. Educate them about additional growth opportunities for teachers such as professional conferences and workshops, National Board certification, and teacherpreneur/hybrid roles. Their leadership journey starts NOW.

12. Let the mentee find themselves

Remember that the primary purpose of mentoring is to assist the mentee in their journey. It’s all about the mentee finding his or her professional voice and positively impacting student learning. Our students learn, in part, due to our quirks, idiosyncrasies, and unique personalities. What works for Ms. Sylvester may not be a fit for Mr. Shelton. Therefore, resist the temptation to tell your mentee what you would do in specific classroom situations unless invited.

As additional challenges face our profession, the need for greater numbers of empowered teachers becomes ever more apparent. Today’s teachers need to be intentional, deliberate, and proactive in cultivating the next generation of teacher-leaders. Mentoring provides one avenue towards accomplishing this goal.

Over the years, I have formally mentored more than 30 teachers new to our district. I learned the happy truth that mentors get as much—if not more—out of the relationship than the mentee does. It is a role I encourage all willing teachers to embrace.

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