A big batch of file folders, mandatory homework that felt like “busy work,” and requisite weekly meetings that never seemed to address what she needed to know at that moment—that’s what Misti Kemmer recalls about her mentorship experience as a newly minted 23-year-old elementary school teacher.
“It was a horror story,” she said.
In spite of the poor support she received as a rookie, Kemmer stuck it out, brushing aside tears and what she swears were her first gray hairs. She remains a classroom teacher 16 years later, and has become a mentor to new teachers herself.
“L.A. Unified has an incredible mentor program,” said Kemmer, who now teaches 4th grade at Russell Elementary School in Los Angeles.
First-year teachers have arguably one of the toughest jobs out there. And there’s no singular “how-to” playbook to guide them through it. That could explain why so many new teachers leave the profession after only a few years.
While estimates on attrition vary, an analysis of federal data shows that more than 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. It’s an enormous loss to schools, and ultimately, to students.
Mentors can make a difference. One federal study examined the benefits of mentorship programs and found that 92 percent of first-year teachers who had mentors returned to the classroom for a second year. But, as Kemmer’s experience demonstrates, not all mentorships are created equal. Nor is there a single system of support that will ensure a new teacher’s ultimate success.
Education Week spoke with experienced teachers, former mentees, and current mentors to uncover key components of mentorships that effectively give new teachers a solid foundation in their early careers. They told us what’s worked for them and what hasn’t.
Keep mentors and mentees in close contact
Pamela Femrite enjoyed a 20-year career in corporate America before making a career change to become a special education teacher. After completing both an accelerated teacher licensure and master’s degree program, and a 10-week student teaching experience, Femrite landed a job in the Minneapolis public school system teaching special education. Two decades of experience in the corporate world couldn’t have prepared Femrite for the daily demands she faced in this new role. But a mentor did.
“Coming out of traditional college, trying to bridge the gap from theories learned in the classroom to applying them, my mentor teacher was able to really help me,” said Femrite, who now works at Franklin Elementary in Minnesota’s Mankato Area public schools.
Femrite says it helped that she and her mentor shared the same classroom, although each had their own caseload of students. This arrangement made it convenient for Femrite’s mentor to both observe and train her in a number of areas—including, but not limited to, standards, curriculum, lesson planning, school culture, and the unique needs of the students.
Without consistent support from her mentor, said Femrite, “It would have been very hard to stay.” Now in her eighth year teaching special education, considered by many to be one of the most challenging K-12 teaching positions, Femrite believes all districts would benefit from creating similar mentoring frameworks for teachers in their first year, a period she describes as “being in a fog.”
Mentors should be ‘impartial’ and ‘guide from the side’
Heather Puhl can relate. She began teaching as a 21-year-old straight out of college. Her mentor taught language arts. Puhl taught science in a completely different part of the building.
“I never saw her,” she said. “I was there with these kids, I had no one to talk to.” Puhl left the classroom after one year, retreating to graduate school where she found comfort in the familiar rhythms of being a student.
But she did return to teaching and, after 13 years as a middle school math teacher, was hired in 2010 by Caldwell County Schools in Hudson, N.C., as one of the district’s two full-time mentors to work directly with new teachers. This year, her caseload includes 42 teachers in either their first, second, or third years. When the program started, Puhl mentored closer to 60 new teachers in a given year—proof, she says, that the program is working, as fewer teachers districtwide are leaving and need to be replaced.
Because she’s no longer a classroom teacher, Puhl can focus exclusively on supporting new teachers. “My job is to acclimate them to the teaching profession,” she said.
Puhl believes her unique position as a non-teacher benefits new teachers.
“I’m not part of the drama. I’m impartial,” said Puhl. “I can guide from the side—I have no other objective except to make sure they succeed.” Puhl’s main approach involves building a confidential and trusting relationship with her mentees, offering non-evaluative feedback through informal observations and, when needed, co-teaching to model instructional strategies.
She also makes herself accessible. Puhl meets with each new teacher one-on-one each week for about 30 minutes. She also hands out her cell phone number to new teachers, responding to their calls and texts during and outside of work hours as needed.
Puhl points to this impartial accessibility, coupled with additional supportive features—including monthly districtwide seminars for new teachers, a dedicated online space for sharing relevant information, and other built-in opportunities for meaningful exchanges with other new and veteran teachers—as the ingredients to the mentorship program’s success.
Let new teachers choose their own goals
Relevance is critical to a mentorship’s success. But, say some, not every mentorship prioritizes what new teachers want to know.
“I taught some 5th graders who couldn’t read. But I was going to meetings about other things,” said Kemmer, the Los Angeles teacher, of her experience being mentored.
Now, as a mentor herself, Kemmer supports four mentees—teachers in their first through third years—as they work toward goals they’ve set for themselves.
“Sometimes we work on their goal, sometimes they just cry on my shoulder,” Kemmer said. As important as the goals themselves, says Kemmer, is that mentees identify them. “The program is so teacher-directed. That’s the magic key,” she said.
Make sure it’s a good match
Kemmer points to another effective strategy of her district’s mentorship program: Mentees can choose their mentors. She says they base their selection on a variety of factors, including geography, division, and subject area.
When it comes to matching mentors, race can be an important factor, especially for teachers of color.
“We have a unique need, different than our white counterparts,” said Femrite, who is Black. “We need to see ourselves in other teachers. We need to pair a teacher of color with another one so we can provide some of that social-emotional support.”
Femrite says having a Black teacher as her mentor helped her navigate through school culture, feel accepted, and gain the confidence she needed as a first-year teacher to effectively work alongside a teaching staff dominated by white women.
Across all school environments, mentors set the stage for successful entry into the teaching profession when they can exhibit empathy for new teachers that comes from having walked in their footsteps.
“I know how hard it is to stand on your own two feet, uncomfortable and unsure of what kind of difference you’re making with the kids,” said Puhl. “Now, I feel like these [new teachers] are my babies.”
Coverage of teacher retention and recruitment is supported by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, at carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 05, 2021 edition of Education Week as Mentors Matter for New Teachers. Advice on What Works and Doesn’t