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.