Mentoring new teachers

I’ve recently been asked to mentor a new teacher in the science department. I’ve never had this role before. I want to help her, but I don’t want to be too intrusive or judgmental. What should I do?
—Erica, Abilene, Texas
The first year of teaching is difficult, and a recent study indicates that 8% of beginning teachers who were assigned a mentor were not teaching in the following year, compared with 16% of those who were not assigned a mentor. NSTA recognizes the importance of this mentorship/induction process in its position statement Induction Programs for the Support and Development of Beginning Teachers of Science. This document has a good description of the roles and responsibilities of mentors and mentees.
I’ve had experience both as a mentor (and mentee) and in creating induction plans. I’ve seen how an effective mentor is a “critical friend”—a role model, a good listener, a provider of feedback, a source of suggestions and resources, and a shoulder to cry on. You’re right to want to be helpful, but not overbearing. She’ll do some things very well, and you can celebrate with her. She’ll make some mistakes, and you can help her learn from them.
Mentors share their expertise in a non-supervisory relationship. A mentor is not judgmental or a “sage on the stage” demanding the new teacher do things in a prescribed way. A good mentor should be a “guide on the side” offering advice and suggestions. A good mentor will encourage the mentee to try new strategies and help the mentee reflect on the results. The mentor may even learn something new as part of the process.
How can you help your new science colleague?

  • Meet at scheduled times–before school, after school, or during a common planning period, perhaps weekly at first. Later, these meetings could be on an as-needed basis.
  • Assist with understanding the curriculum, selecting instructional strategies, and designing assessments.
  • Share your resources and experiences with facilitating lab activities
  • Emphasize safety issues.
  • Help the new teacher organize equipment and supplies safely and efficiently.
  • Help the new teacher resolve issues related to classroom management and student behavior.
  • Advise her on school policies and procedures (deadlines, paperwork, emergency plans, extra duties, and so on).
  • Share the school culture and alert the new teacher to some of the unwritten “rules” (so the newcomer doesn’t take someone’s favorite parking space, for example).
  • Introduce the mentee to key people and help her form professional relationships.
  • Be the go-to person to answer her questions—or help her find the answer.

Find out from your principal or personnel director if there are required meetings, with forms to document the meeting times and events. If your school has a formal induction program, you should receive a handbook or other documentation describing the components and requirements. If your school does not have a formal program, I’d suggest that you and your mentee keep a log or journal of your activities and conversations.
If you and your mentee have the same planning period, it makes it easier to meet. But if you have different planning periods, it makes it easier to observe each other’s classes. Or you could cover a class for her as she observes another teacher for ideas or suggestions.
Encourage your mentee to join NSTA (or enroll her as a gift!). Teachers in their first five years of teaching get a discount rate, with access to all of the NSTA resources (journals, listserves, newsletters, discussion forums, and the NSTA Learning Center).
When I mentored new teachers (both officially and unofficially), I often shared stories of my big “aha” learning moments as a mentee. For example, when I was relieved to find out some of the students causing problems in my class were causing problems in other classes, too—I learned not to take their misbehavior personally. I taught several different subjects the first year, so I learned the value of color-coding to organize materials, especially for lab activities. I learned having the day’s agenda on the board helped students to focus on the learning activities. I learned not to take myself too seriously and to have fun with the students (in a purposeful way, of course). I was grateful to have an individual who took the time to mentor me, and I was glad to return the favor.

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9 Responses to Mentoring new teachers

  1. KG says:

    What advice would you give to an instructional lead teacher in a high school setting? It seems that at the the high school level, oftentimes teachers feel that they must present themselves as the ultimate expert in their field and are unwilling to let their “guards” down in order to hear about/learn about/try new strategies. How do you suggest effectively coaching these teachers, without insulting their content knowledge.

  2. MaryB says:

    As I’m sure you know, there is a difference between having content knowledge and being able to help others learn and understand it. I’ve found that in a coaching situation, asking questions works better than telling people what they should do. For example, “What would happen if…? Have you ever thought about…? What did you think about the lesson? What worked well in this lesson? What do you think could be better? etc.).
    Modeling is also a powerful way for teachers to learn about effective instruction. Observing other teachers (live or via video) and then discussing what was happening can be a useful activity.
    The October issue of Educational Leadership has the theme “Coaching” with many articles on the topic. I’d recommend these.

  3. Carroll says:

    I like the idea on asking questions to guide rather than telling people what they should do. Also, make sure when you ask the questions that you listen to the person’s response. Be sure to clarify with the person what they are saying. Also, remember that you can and will learn a lot of new ideas from the person you are mentoring.

  4. MaryB says:

    Thanks for the additional comments, Carroll. I agree that listening (without interrupting) is an essential skill for a mentor. “Are you saying…” “It sounds like you are suggesting…” are great ways to follow up in a conversation. Being open to learning new things is another essential characteristic of a good mentor, as you suggested.

  5. Lillie says:

    I had a mentor during my first year teaching. What I liked most about her was, she always communicated with me. She was available to answer any questions I had no matter minute they seemed. The offer assistance in my planning and implemeenting my lessons. Sometimes she would sit through one of my lessons, to let offer constructive criticism. I did appreciate that

  6. barclay mcdaniel says:

    wow, one shure can not learn how to run a classroom w/o ‘doing’ it; you may listen to ‘ideas’ but what works for another could crash for you. One must see what works, and prepare for ‘change’ hehe

  7. jessica nazario says:

    I agree with all of the comments shared so far. Also, I think a great way to be a mentor is to ask the new teacher what he or she needs or wants from you. Some people are more open to advice and mentoring than others. This will give you a starting off point to know the new teacher’s expectations of your role as well.

  8. Eileen says:

    I did not have an assigned mentor my first year teaching. Rather with Cooperative Planning I had three of four mentors for each class I taught. I could use any of these teachers to ask questions and get advice from. All of my co-teachers had been teaching for many years so they were also able to give me tons of advice!

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