Teaching Profession Opinion

Mentors: The One You’re Assigned and the Ones You Find

By David Ginsburg — August 06, 2011 3 min read
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The transition to any new job can be tough, but especially a job as isolating as teaching can be. That’s why it’s great when schools assign veteran teachers to serve as mentors for new teachers. It’s also great that so many veteran teachers are willing to be mentors--often with little or no additional pay.

At the same time, I’ve noticed that an assigned mentor is rarely able to meet all of a mentee’s needs. This isn’t a reflection on the mentor, but rather a limitation of mentor-mentee relationships in general and in the context of teaching in particular.

Worst-case scenario, a mentor and mentee don’t connect well and, after a few uneasy--and usually unproductive--sessions, reach an unspoken agreement to stop meeting. In other cases, the chemistry is fine, but schedules prevent mentors and mentees from meeting regularly.

Yet even when a mentor and mentee click and meet often, there are still bound to be certain mentee needs that the mentor is unable to fulfill. Again, not a reflection on the mentor but a reality of the multi-faceted responsibilities and challenges of teaching. Classroom management. Curriculum and instruction. Technology integration. Record-keeping. Parent relations. Assessment. Bureaucracy. How could one teacher be the go-to person for everything?!

That’s why it’s important, new teachers, to create a network of mentors rather than just rely on that one person who has been assigned to look out for you. And though I’m a big fan of using social media and other outside resources to build your Professional Learning Network (PLN), you’ll want to build the network I’m talking about within your school--where you can get timely support and advice from colleagues who have the context for understanding your challenges.

As for what to look for in a mentor, it’s common to be drawn toward others who are most like you--gender, age, race, ethnicity, subject matter, outside interests, etc. But limiting your outreach like this can be a mistake. I’ve especially noticed this when new teachers only reach out to colleagues who have a year or two of experience themselves. It’s fine to connect with colleagues who’ve recently experienced the same challenges you’re now facing. Just be sure to also connect with others who’ve been confronting--and meeting--those challenges for years.

My own mentoring network as a new teacher included an assigned mentor and five colleagues I sought out after noticing the pride and professionalism they brought to their work. And none of them had a personal or professional background that resembled mine. What’s more, other than two fellow math teachers, they were all in different positions than I was--most notably, the school’s community outreach coordinator, Michael, an alumni of the school who still lived in the neighborhood. No one helped me understand my students and their families as much as Michael did.

One thing all my mentors had was the character needed to achieve lasting success as an urban educator. This doesn’t mean they were all thriving in their jobs at the time. In fact, three of them--all teachers with over 25 years of experience--expressed frustration to me over being less effective then than they had been earlier in their careers. But you can learn as much from people when they’re struggling as you can when they’re succeeding. Such was the case for me with these teachers, all of whom took ownership of their struggles and responded with persistence and optimism. They were open-minded too, often soliciting my suggestions for solutions to their challenges.

As a group, my mentors helped me deal with the multi-faceted responsibilities and challenges of teaching I referred to above. Yet I’m as grateful to them for what they represented to me as I am for what they did for me. They were great mentors because they were great models. And without their support and guidance, I would never have achieved the fulfillment I’ve enjoyed as an educator the past 18 years.

I wish you similar support and guidance in the coming year--from the mentor you’re assigned and the ones you find.

Image by Ciklamen, provided by Dreamstime license

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