When the mentor relationship works, it’s magic. New teachers get valuable advice on how to manage their classrooms and deliver instruction, and mentors further hone their techniques for helping to build strong educators and strong students. But with so much to teach and learn, how do you know where to focus your time and attention? And how do you shape the conversation so that you’re getting what you need out of the relationship?
In her book 101 Answers for New Teachers and Their Mentors, former classroom teacher and mentor Annette Breaux offers road-tested strategies to help facilitate a great relationship. We chose eight of our favorite tips and talked with Breaux and other educators about making the most of mentoring in the classroom.
Strategy to Work On: Greet Students Daily
It’s easy to get caught up in test scores and other quantitative measures of student achievement. That’s why it’s especially important to take a few minutes, every day, to connect with your students on a personal level.
When Barry Saide, supervisor of curriculum and instruction for Frelinghuysen Township School District in New Jersey, was a new teacher, he saw veteran teachers at his school greeting students at the classroom door—and he adopted their practice. “I began to ask each child how he or she was doing, and all of a sudden things changed,” he says. “Greeting and connecting with students before they walked into the room enabled me to understand quickly what a student needed in the moment and, to an extent, what I could expect from him or her that day.”
What to Do as a Mentor: Model the behavior, and give hints on how to engage students.
What to Do as a Mentee: Stand at your door and greet each child. It’s a great way to start your day as well!
Strategy to Work On: Teach Students at Their Level
Once upon a time, there was a social studies teacher who was a fantastic lecturer. But despite his enthusiasm, his students were less than engaged. His mentor sat down with him and reviewed the class list.
“It turned out that 80 percent of the kids in his class were either English language learners or had been recently reclassified as English proficient,” says Emily Davis, program director for the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Project and a senior adviser at the New Teacher Center. “The teacher’s mouth dropped open.”
If you’re an astute mentor, you can help the teachers you work with dig deep to understand what may be behind a roadblock to learning. In this case, the teacher realized he’d been teaching above the students’ level. He ditched the lectures, adopted an interactive teaching style, and saw his students’ interest (and achievement) soar!
What to Do as a Mentor: Look for the reasons behind learning barriers and help new teachers work around them.
What to Do as a Mentee: Don’t give up if your techniques aren’t working. Collaborate with your mentor to look more deeply at why that might be so.
Strategy to Work On: Keep an I-Am-Special Folder
“New teachers don’t realize yet that soon they will have bad days,” Breaux says. “On those days, they may contemplate their decision to become a teacher or question whether they are really making a difference.”
Mentors can encourage new teachers, but they won’t always be around. When she worked with fledgling teachers, Breaux advised them to maintain an I-Am-Special folder filled with notes of student successes, photographs of fun classroom activities, letters from students, and thank-you notes from parents.
“The I-Am-Special Folder can be a lifesaver,” Breaux says. “I still have mine, after all these years. It’s one of my most prized possessions.”
What to Do as a Mentor: Encourage your mentees to compile a cheery scrapbook for those “rainy” days.
What to Do as a Mentee: Don’t throw away thank-you letters and special drawings. Make a scrapbook to look at when you need a boost.
Strategy to Work On: Have Procedures for Almost Everything
With so much material to cover over the school year, it’s tempting to jump right into the curriculum. But spending time up front establishing classroom routines will save hours of instructional time later.
“Teaching routine is instruction,” says Mattie Wynne, a consulting teacher/mentor with Baltimore County Public Schools. Wynne works with new teachers to establish procedures for everything from securing student attention to turning in homework.
The actual procedure doesn’t matter as much as the consistency, she explains. The trick is to observe the new teacher and her class in action and give detailed notes on what clearly worked (and what didn’t).
What to Do as a Mentor: Provide specific feedback to make routines rock solid.
What to Do as a Mentee: Embrace the idea of teaching students routines; it’ll make everything go more smoothly.
Strategy to Work On: Don’t Let Negative Coworkers Affect You
Not all teachers retain the energy and enthusiasm that attracted them to teaching in the first place. As a mentor, you can help protect new teachers’ optimism by encouraging them to align with positive, can-do educators.
Breaux always advised the teachers she worked with to avoid negative colleagues “at all costs,” even if they seemed to be lending a friendly ear. “On your most frustrating days, they’re ready to listen and commiserate, but they can only hurt you and taint your outlook on teaching.”
What to Do as a Mentor: Provide a shoulder for your mentees to lean on, and encourage other sources of positive feedback.
What to Do as a Mentee: Resist the urge to join the “complainers” in the teachers’ lounge, even if they have reason to grouse. Negativity will get you nowhere.
Strategy to Work On: Dignify Incorrect Responses
Marcus Jackson, principal of William M. Boyd Elementary School in Atlanta, says that how you respond to student answers—no matter how incorrect—sets the stage for future in-class interactions, and even whether students see themselves as competent learners.
“Some students will raise their hands once. If they get the answer wrong, how you respond to them is critical,” says Jackson. Shame or humiliate the student, and he may never raise his hand again. Jackson recommends saying something like, “What a great job! He was very, very close. Will someone assist him?”
What to Do as a Mentor: Model phrases for affirming student effort.
What to Do as a Mentee: Never make a student feel she shouldn’t have tried; build her up and she will work hard.
Strategy to Work On: Take Time to Plan Lessons
Jennifer Dunkle, supervisor of teacher development at Baltimore County Public Schools, says that new teachers she and her mentors work with need plenty of time to plan and prepare lessons. The mentors do things like provide their charges with lesson-planning templates and teach them a step-by-step process. Using a consistent, systematic approach to lesson planning can save time—and the structure makes it easier to dive in and get it done.
What to Do as a Mentor: Share your best templates and systems.
What to Do as a Mentee: Put systems in place and follow them avidly.
Strategy to Work On: Devise a Teacher Report Card
Teacher report cards can provide valuable feedback in those early years. “Students receive report cards from us several times throughout the year. Yet few students ever evaluate their teachers’ performances until they get to college!” Breaux says.
Teachers of all levels can create simple report cards for students to fill out anonymously. Try asking, Does my teacher make class interesting? Am I allowed to contribute my opinions? What I like about this class is _______.
“I’ve received better and more constructive feedback from my students than from anyone else,” Breaux says.
What to Do as a Mentor: Find exemplary models of teacher report cards, and help teachers turn negative feedback into positive action.
What to Do as a Mentee: Be open to student feedback, and be prepared with a sense of humor!
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