The Making of a Mentor
by Michelle George on September 28, 2016
When I was a third-year teacher, I was asked to mentor a new teacher in our building. I wasn’t exactly asked; it was more like I was informed of this new opportunity for which I would receive a $150 stipend.
This new teacher was brand new to the profession, and she taught in a totally different discipline. Her prep period was in the morning and mine was at the end of the day. She was upstairs, and I was downstairs. We met sporadically and commiserated a bit. I was nearly new myself and had no training for this responsibility. I did my best. I observed her classes and congratulated her on what went well. I often baked brownies for her when she was feeling particularly overwhelmed. Yet, even at the time, I realized what I offered did little to help her develop skills for teaching. The money would have been better spent buying her a few Post-it® notes and some very strong coffee. Recently, I was again offered the opportunity to mentor some new teachers, and this time, with a bit more experience and training, I hope to do a better job. Mentoring fellow teachers is important work and can be mutually rewarding, but a mentor has to be more than just a paid buddy.
Don’t get me wrong. A friendly ear is a critical tool for mentoring. The second week of school this year, one of my mentees came into my room at the end of the day with that wide-eyed, how-many-minutes-until-summer-vacation look. “I’m not sure I can do this,” she whispered through gritted teeth. It was time for listening. Sometimes, we all need to vent our frustrations before we can focus on a solution. What I’ve learned since my first foray into mentoring is that the listening must be followed with action. That evening, I emailed her an article I had just read about how all teachers hit the wall from time to time, especially the good ones who are stretching their limits and trying new strategies. Happy thoughts based in fact do wonders for relieving insecurity.
Classroom Management 101
Next, I scheduled a time to observe her classroom. It’s critical that the observation is just that—another perspective on what’s happening in the classroom—not in any way an evaluation. My colleague is an art teacher, and very generous with her talents and supplies. During that one hour, I observed three students interrupted her class to borrow supplies. One grabbed a 7-foot ladder from the supply room at the back of the class and threaded it through the students’ desks and out the door. No wonder she was losing the attention of her students. After class, we sat down with our state’s prescribed teaching standards and my notes. I didn’t have to say much. She could see from my observations where things went awry. It was like viewing the footage from a secret camera—revealing what she couldn’t see from her vantage point. Aside from the interruptions, it was the beginning and ending of class that invited confusion. I offered suggestions for a few simple classroom organizational strategies to help provide structure, and she modified them to fit her style. Next, she wrote a professional e-mail to the other teachers requesting they limit supply runs to before and after school. Classroom functioning was immediately improved because we were able to consider the problem from a different perspective.
Don’t think I’ve kicked off my new role as mentor with back-to-back successes. My first attempt was a resounding bomb. One of my mentees is not enthused about this new relationship. He is a young teacher: smart, creative, and innovative. He knows his content and comes up with some truly exciting ways to engage his students. Although polite, he clearly did not see the value in me taking up his time. The week before classes began, he surprised me by offering a great idea he had for a science research project. I was delighted. I immediately typed up some ideas for how I could help. I figured a slideshow to identify learning goals, a note catcher to structure student research, and a rubric for guiding and evaluating the resulting projects would be helpful additions to focus both teaching and learning. He read my suggestions and reacted as if I’d smashed his volcano model. The research project was immediately scaled back to a one-day inquiry with no planned project. I had blown it.
It took me some time to realize what I had done wrong. I had jumped in and taken ownership of my colleague’s creative brainchild. I had attempted to “fix” something he didn’t see as broken. On top of that, he saw my suggestions as additional work for him when he was already tapped out. I had intended to develop the tools myself, thinking I was saving him time, but I hadn’t communicated that clearly. I had to back up and try to mend fences. First, I again acknowledged the creativity of his idea and encouraged him to give it a shot. Then, I developed the tools. Instead of a stipend, I had been given an extra prep period to work with and for these teachers, so I made use of it. I created a standardized research form for students that outlines a checklist for assessing the validity of research sources. It also identifies a specific number of resources and quotes, and requires complete, correctly formatted documentation of those sources. Finally, it requires students to clearly state the conclusion that their research proves. These elements are all specific learning objectives for this project.
I then developed a rubric using OrangeSlice, a Google add-on that allows teachers to prescribe and evaluate student work using Google Docs. I tried to create a form that was customizable, so my mentor teacher could easily edit it to fit different research project objectives. It took some time to figure out how to use this new tool, but I think it was well worth it. I can now use the add-on in my own teaching, and I can share the tool with my colleagues. When I had the new software fairly mastered and the tools in hand, I shared them with my fellow teacher. Now, he could see I wasn’t trying to rework his brainchild, but rather facilitate some of the paperwork. He took the tools and ran with them.
It’s still early in the year and we have a lot to learn from each other in this mentoring journey, but I know I’ve already learned a lot. I’ve realized that all of us as educators have expertise we can share. We have different ways of seeing things that can reveal new strategies and solutions if we take the time to listen and then act. Having the time to intentionally and respectfully collaborate with one another as professionals can help us all become better teachers. Hopefully, this round of mentoring will be worth more than a pile of Post-it notes and some coffee, but I might bring back the brownies. Those will always be winners.
More information on successful mentoring practices can be found in this study.
 Zimpher, Nancy L, and Susan R Rieger. "Mentoring teachers: what are the issues?." Theory into practice 27.3 (1988): 175-182.