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May 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 8

Ten Ways to Make Mentoring Work

Implement these strategies to cultivate productive mentorships for new teachers.

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Keisha is the kind of mentor our new teachers need. In addition to carrying a full teaching load, the North Carolina educator also mentors two new teachers each year. She enlists the assistance of other teachers, conducts in-person and video observations, and helps her new teachers build support networks. Keisha says she loves the work and has become so adept at it that she has offered to take a third new teacher under her wing.
We know that new teachers who feel supported and successful are much more likely to remain in teaching and to positively affect students' lives. When we hire new teachers, we have a choice: We can train and support them so that they stay and thrive, or we can let them fend for themselves so that they leave or struggle to survive. The choice is obvious. Our students deserve to be in the hands of competent, capable, caring, well-trained professionals. And it is our job, as educators, to provide every student with just that type of teacher.
There's no argument on the research front about the simple—and obvious—fact that teacher effectiveness has a significant impact on student success, or that how well a new teacher is trained and supported during the first few years of teaching influences how effective he or she will become. This is where mentors like Keisha can have a substantial impact.
In my years of studying, working with, and writing about new teachers, induction programs, mentors, and mentoring programs, I have learned that successful mentoring programs have the following 10 commonalities—none of which is difficult to implement.

1. Treat Mentoring as Part of a Whole

First and foremost, for mentoring to be successful, it must be one component of a structured induction process. This process provides systematic, ongoing training for new teachers, typically starting before the first day of school and continuing throughout the first few years of teaching. It includes administrative support, training conducted by teacher leaders and other teaching experts, opportunities to observe master teachers, participation in professional learning communities, and more. Although mentors can and do play a vital role in the induction process, the training of a new teacher should never be placed solely in the hands of even the most competent mentor.

2. Provide Clear Expectations

Mentor roles and responsibilities vary by school or district, but there is general consensus regarding what a mentor is and is not. A mentor is a role model, guide, support buddy, source of encouragement, model for effective teaching strategies, good listener, objective observer, trusted counterpart, resource, and coach. A mentor is not a formal evaluator, source of stress for the new teacher, nay-sayer, "spy" for the administration, or any kind of threat to the new teacher's developing growth and confidence.
If you want mentoring to work, then mentors must have an understanding of what their roles do and do not entail. Those roles must be spelled out, plainly and simply.

3. Select the Best—and Only the Best

Having no mentor is preferable to having an ineffective one. Ineffective mentors negatively impact new teachers—by modeling less-than-effective techniques or behaviors, intimidating new teachers (often unintentionally), providing negative feedback, or making unrealistic suggestions. Still, far too often, mentors are selected on a voluntary basis. The old "who wants to be a mentor and maybe make a few extra dollars?" method is not in the best interest of new teachers. The bottom line is this: If you want your new teachers to be effective and to stay in teaching (and in your school or district), then only your most effective teachers should help train them.

4. Make Sure Mentors Epitomize Professionalism

New teachers are impressionable. They often feel frustrated and overwhelmed as they learn just how difficult teaching can be. If a mentor acts frustrated, often complains, and doesn't seem to enjoy teaching, the new teacher might see that as a model of how teachers are supposed to feel and act and might easily fall into that trap. Yes, it's true that teaching can be overwhelming and frustrating. But professionals handle those situations professionally! These professionals are the ones we want to serve as role models for new teachers. They lead by example and show how to handle difficult conversations with parents and other sensitive situations. A person with an attitude that falls short of true professionalism—even if he or she is a good teacher—should never serve as a mentor for a new teacher.

5. Help Mentors Use Time and Resources Efficiently

Even the best teachers can often feel overburdened and overwhelmed. Teaching is not for the faint of heart. But isn't it true that the best teachers on the faculty are usually those with the kindest and biggest hearts? They often have the most difficult time saying "no." And because of their effectiveness in the classroom and ability to work well with others, we often pile more and more onto their overflowing plates.
That said, aren't those the same teachers you want and need mentoring your new teachers? The key is to train these coveted mentors to use their time and resources efficiently so that mentoring does not become an overwhelming task, but rather a manageable, supportive relationship that benefits both the mentor and the new teacher.
Keisha, the North Carolina mentor, has mastered the art of mentoring effectively and efficiently. "I realized I could do my job better by enlisting the support of others. If I'm working with a new teacher who needs to see a teacher managing three or four groups at a time during instruction, I send him or her to observe a teacher who manages groups well," she said. "All I do is take five minutes to schedule that observation for the new teacher." After the observation, Keisha spends a few minutes with the new teacher discussing what he or she learned.
Although she used to conduct all of her new teacher observations in person, Keisha found they were sometimes difficult to schedule and often time-consuming. She now gives the new teacher another option: record the lesson. "That way, I can view it on my own time, not having to take so much time away from my students. Sometimes I just want to see one technique, so the video is only a few minutes," she said. "If I need to see an entire lesson from beginning to end, I observe in person."

6. Stress the Importance of Trust

Relationships, relationships, relationships. The relationship between a mentor and new teacher cannot be stressed enough. Trust, of course, is the foundation of any healthy relationship. A new teacher has to trust a mentor enough to share both successes and mistakes—and to feel safe making mistakes in the mentor's presence. That new teacher has to feel comfortable with the mentor and believe that the mentor is there to help—and only to help. During the first meeting with a new teacher, the mentor should assure the new teacher of the following: I am here to help; I am not here to formally evaluate; I will keep all of our communications private; I will not speak of you even in a complimentary way without first asking your permission; I will be someone you can trust; I will listen to you without judgment; and I will do everything I can to help you succeed.

7. Adhere to the Basics of Effective Teaching

It's not unusual for a mentor to observe a new teacher, spot 10 problems, and want to fix all 10 today. Tempting? Yes. Effective? No. We cannot dump all we know into the lap of a new teacher and expect the new teacher to run with it.
Instead, it's best to offer advice in small doses and work on one area of improvement at a time. And it's wise to stick to the basics—basic classroom management and basic instructional strategies. Without those in place, nothing else matters because nothing else will work. If a new teacher is doing A to Z wrong, help her to master A before moving on to B.
For instance, if the new teacher cannot quiet the class, the mentor may show her how to implement a simple hand signal to get the students' attention. Only after that has happened can the new teacher dive into teaching the lesson. One small success at a time will lead to bigger victories as the teacher's skill levels improve and her confidence grows.

8. Provide Ongoing Training for Mentors

Selecting the most effective teachers to serve as mentors will not guarantee effective mentoring. Knowing how to teach and knowing how to teach someone to teach are two different skill sets. Many schools and districts fail to realize this and don't provide the training that mentors need and deserve. Or, they provide one-shot training, as if to say, "We'll train you this year and assume you now know how to mentor for the next 10 or 15 years."
For example, Janelle spent 15 years teaching at a high school in Texas and served as a mentor for seven of those years. In that district, mentors were assigned to new teachers and told to mentor them. With no training, no rules, and no sense of roles, Janelle tried to figure it out herself. "I thought I was doing a good job. I never really understood all that good mentoring entails," she said.
Janelle recently changed districts and took part in her new district's mentor training. "Only now do I realize I've been mentoring ineffectively all along," she said. Janelle learned how to establish rapport with a new teacher, how to make suggestions for small improvements, and how to analyze her own teaching to be a model for the new teacher. "I know what to do, when and how to do it, what is and isn't expected of me, and who to go to if I need help," she explained.
After teachers like Janelle understand the art of mentoring, use them to help train future mentors. Soon, you'll have a pool of effective mentors who can regularly meet to provide ongoing training and support.

9. Allow Mentors to Make Suggestions That Shape New Teacher Training

Mentors quickly learn the types of support new teachers need. These needs vary from teacher to teacher; ongoing training opportunities should reflect that. When a school or district is planning for next month's new teacher training, they should ask the mentors to help determine the topics. As easy as it is to do, many schools and districts neglect to do this. If you are a mentor and are not asked for your input, it's OK to offer it anyway. It's possible that whoever spearheads the training for new teachers simply hasn't thought to ask.

10. Encourage Participation in Professional Learning Communities

Effective mentors encourage and foster a culture of continuous learning. They are not isolated behind their classroom doors with a "leave me alone and just let me teach" attitude. Rather, today's mentors are connected educators. They view themselves as part of a collaborative effort (in their schools, districts, and beyond) to learn from others and move toward two common purposes—becoming better educators and nurturing student achievement. They are active in the development of and participation in professional learning communities. And, most important, they help new teachers embrace a culture of continuous learning by connecting them with other educators who share their goals. "I make sure these new teachers are active on social media sites that provide support to new teachers," Keisha said. "There's a worldwide support community out there waiting and wanting to help."
There is nothing haphazard about the mentoring process. For mentoring to be successful, it has to be highly structured and part of the overall induction process for new teachers. We should train our mentors to draw on their own talents and to solicit the support of others, all with the goal of fostering the growth of new teachers. This way, mentoring will not be seen as a chore, but rather as a privilege, an honor, and a way to do what teachers were born to do—help others. Select the best teachers to serve as mentors, train them well, and then witness both mentors and new teachers make a difference where it matters—in the lives of students.

Annette Breaux has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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