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How to Be a Better Mentor to Your Student-Teachers

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Teacher certification varies wildly, from emergency credentials requiring little more than a criminal background check to master's degree programs like the one offered at the University of Arkansas that fuses student teaching, academic study, and action research.

Candidates in the Arkansas master of arts in teaching program are called “interns” because the depth and intensity of their student teaching is modeled in key ways on the medical profession’s system for preparing physicians. Interns work with their mentor teachers four days a week, arriving before the students get there and staying at school until their mentor teacher heads home for the day. They plan alongside their mentor teachers, attend all the school’s professional development, and build up to a weeklong “solo,” for which they plan and teach every subject.

In every strong teacher-prep program I have seen, the role of mentor teachers is crucial. But being a skilled teacher of children doesn’t automatically make you a skilled mentor of new teachers. So how do you teach someone to teach?

I put that question to two faculty members of the M.A.T. Program.

Heather Young, an assistant professor in the curriculum and instruction department, told me, “Your job is to grow baby teachers into mature educators … educators you would be excited to learn could be shaping the lives of your own children in the very near future. Be there to catch them when they get bruised but give them the constructive criticism they need to improve. The specific feedback you give is the most important part of your job as a mentor.”

Bonnie King, a clinical instructor of curriculum and instruction, added, “Reassure interns that they are free to try new strategies—classroom management or instructional. Asking an intern, 'Are there are any new ideas your instructors or peers have discussed in class that we can try?' is an invitation that creates an atmosphere for innovation and collaboration between mentor and intern.”

Here’s some additional advice, from my own experience as a mentor and from experts in the field, on how experienced teachers can become better mentors.

1. Share what you think, not just what you do.

Ron Thorpe, former head of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, made a simple but profound point: “Student-teachers can see what teachers do in their classrooms every day. But they can’t see what teachers think.”

He emphasized how important it is that we make our thinking visible—not just what we do, but why we do it.

When your student-teacher watches you lead a reading group, make sure to talk with her or him about how you chose those particular kids. What did you notice about those readers during individual conferences that helped you identify their needs? How did you choose and prepare the book? What will your next steps be, and why?

Finland has 10 applicants for every spot in a teacher-preparation program, despite comparable salaries to the U.S. Part of the reason teaching is a desirable career in Finland is that it’s seen as a “thought profession” that pays careful attention to the mental work involved—the creativity, problem-solving, reflection, and daily action research that great teachers do on a daily basis. Be sure to make visible to your student-teacher that complex but invisible mental work.

2. Don’t assume prior knowledge.

Most of us have experienced a botched lesson taught by a student-teacher in which the children arguably know less at the end of the hour than they did at the beginning. For me, those lessons are a reminder that we have had many years to learn this craft—thousands of hours of deliberate practice and reflection along with hundreds of hours of professional development.

Our student-teachers haven’t yet put in that time. We need to think through the many things they may not have learned yet about how to teach place value to 2nd graders, or how to teach writing to a kindergartner who only knows a few letter sounds. If we share our insights on the front end, we can strengthen a lesson before it happens instead of imparting our belated wisdom in a post-mortem on the lesson’s demise.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let student-teachers’ lack of experience be a barrier to courageous teaching. Scott Shirey, head of the KIPP Delta charter schools, once said of students’ content knowledge, “Assume they know nothing but can learn anything.” The same applies to future teachers.

We need to trust that student-teachers can learn to engage children in complex lessons that get at deeper levels of understanding. Better they attempt an ambitious lesson—a deep discussion of literature with 3rd graders, a mini-engineering project with 6-year-olds—than play it safe with worksheets.

3. Model humility.

We should own the expertise we have developed over years or decades in this profession, but we also need to be honest about our mistakes and imperfections. Our student-teachers, like our students, pay more attention to what we do than what we say.

When I raised my voice at a student last month, I told my intern later that day, “I shouldn’t have yelled at Darius.” After a trainer from Teachers College visited us for two days of job-embedded professional development, I shared my takeaways with my intern about the changes I’d like to make to the reading block in my classroom.

It’s easy to be critical of student-teachers’ gaps and mistakes. But if we’re going to help them reflect on their mistakes and address their gaps, we have to model how to do that. That begins with admitting to our own flaws.

King, the University of Arkansas professor, told me, “I help mentors and interns realize that showing vulnerability is an asset in teaching. Once interns see this from their mentors they know it’s a safe classroom where they can take risks.”

Author Helena Viramontes once said, “We are all works in progress.” That’s true of children, interns, and mentor teachers alike.

4. Practice life-work balance.

An alarming 44 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. We should model dedication to our students and our practice, but we should also model how to take care of ourselves so we don’t burn out.

Dixie Keyes, a professor at Arkansas State University, wrote, “How do teachers ensure they are watching after their own wellness while watching over the wellness of so many little humans in diverse circumstances? One school I visited recently has an entire room dedicated to teachers who need a quiet, peaceful place to rest or take a breath. It has dimmed lights, two sofas, a fountain, and soft music playing. If mentor teachers can share how they engage in self-care (time with family, scheduling no work on weekends, etc.), that could really help our interns in their first few years.”

Teachers are notorious for doing everything in our power to meet our students’ needs while completely neglecting our own. In the long run, that doesn’t do our students any favors. The children in our care deserve a teacher who is healthy, happy, and well-rested. We need to share with student-teachers how we walk that line between student needs and our own well-being. If we don’t, they won’t last long in a profession that often chews up and spits out promising teachers before they ever reach their full potential.

We know how long it takes to become competent, let alone skillful, at the profession that makes all others possible. We can’t tell future teachers how to walk their path, but we can walk it with them. This work is too important to do alone.

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