Q: “I’m going to be a teacher mentor next year. I’m honored and enthused to take on this new role and I want to make sure I do the best that I can for the teachers I will be mentoring. Do you have some advice and concrete suggestions about how I can prepare myself for this role?”

Suzanne: First, congratulations on taking on the important role of mentor. Studies have shown that mentoring is key to helping new teachers be successful. Plus, teachers who are mentored are less likely to leave the profession after just a year or two.

Before you begin, become familiar with your principal’s or district’s expectations for mentors as well
as any state guidelines. In some states, new teachers must demonstrate certain competencies according to a timeline, and you may be required to sign off, verifying that they have done so. If a new teacher’s licensure depends on you, you will want to be sure that you’re on top of all the requirements.

Experienced mentors say that regular communication with your mentee is essential and cannot be left to chance encounters in the hallway. Discuss and plan when you will meet or visit her classroom; talk about how she can leave a message for you if you’re not immediately available.

Finally, the mentor-mentee relationship is built on trust. You need to be supportive but you also need to be honest. Feedback should be specific and candid so that your mentee knows exactly what she does well and what she needs to do to improve.

You’re doing an important job for your mentee and your school. And mentoring is a great way to enhance your own professional development!

Q: “My summer school students seem unmotivated. In a way I don’t blame them—it’s gorgeous outside and we’re trapped indoors. Do you have any suggestions for connecting with these kids?”

Suzanne: Most students are in summer school because they weren’t successful during the school year, and they need your course to move to the next level. There are lots of places they’d rather be!
One teacher I know has had great success with students by simply acknowledging the situation up front. Instead of trying to cajole kids into doing the necessary work, he takes a more pragmatic approach. “Look,” he says, “I know it’s tough to go to school in the summer, but you need this course. So here’s my promise: I will do everything I can to get you through it and help you pass the exam. In return, you need to be here every day and do the work. I won’t waste your time with anything you don’t need to know, and you won’t waste my time by missing class or showing up unprepared.”

Older kids appreciate a straightforward approach, but you have to do what you promise. Use every minute of class time wisely. Start on time and end on time. Be judicious with homework. Treat all kids with respect. Don’t use threats or make dire predictions of failure. Give individual and specific praise for good work. Show rather than tell. Provide hands-on activities. Remember: A proven way to connect with kids is to help them accomplish something they couldn’t do before.

Q: “I’m eligible to retire this year but feel ambivalent. My principal has hinted strongly that he would like some of us to retire so that he can rehire teachers who were laid off. Yet I still love teaching and am not sure I could keep busy if I retire. What should I do?”

Suzanne: Only you can make the decision about when to retire—not your principal, not other teachers, and certainly not me.

I can, however, suggest a few things you should think about, starting with the financial aspects of retirement. If you haven’t already done so, make an appointment with an adviser from your retirement system to discuss your pension. For example, if you’ve already taught for 30 years, teaching for 31 years will perhaps do nothing to enhance your pension. On the other hand, if you’ve taught for only 29 years, one more year could make a very big difference in what you receive. Make sure you know exactly what your health care contribution is now, what it will be next year, and what it will be in retirement.

Next, think about how changes in class size, new teacher evaluation procedures, or other trends in the school district will affect you. The budget situation is unlikely to improve anytime soon, so you may be looking at significantly fewer resources. Consider, too, your tech skills and how you’ve integrated technology into your classroom, an increased expectation for teachers today.  

On another note, some teachers worry about finding enough to do in retirement after being so busy with students for all those years. There is an adjustment period, but most retired teachers I know hardly have enough time to pursue all the interests that they put aside during their years in the classroom. Some travel, some pursue favorite hobbies and develop new ones, and some even work part time.

If you’ve pondered all the aspects of retirement and still think you’re not ready to pack up your books, then commit to having an outstanding finale to your career. Throw yourself into the school year with renewed vigor. Volunteer to mentor younger teachers, join a school committee, and look for opportunities for professional growth. Excellent, energetic teaching coupled with working with students outside the classroom tends to silence those who think all teachers should retire at a proscribed time.