Lindsey Helm jokes that as a first-year teacher, she started out with “lofty goals,” but quickly learned that even with the best intentions, she needed some help. “I walked into a very established school and it was awful,” Helm says. “I thought I could be friends with these kids.”
That early experience prompted Helm to later become a district mentor for Springfield (Ill.) Public Schools. It’s a role she now shares with one other full-time teacher mentor within District 186’s New Teacher Induction and Mentoring Program.
“New teachers need moral support,” says Helm, who mentors teachers in the 22 elementary (K-5) schools in her district. “A lot of the teachers come in and they are very green. They have so much they have to do and so much they have to learn.”
Participating in a mentoring program, as mentor or mentee, helps all educators perform their jobs well—and survive from year to year.
How to find a mentor
Many schools offer official mentoring programs, so speak with your administrators or NEA representatives. If not, you can still build a relationship with an educator, preferably in the same building, same grade or same subject. Some schools have “site mentors” who are typically chosen by a principal and paid a stipend to assist new educators with building procedures and routines, Helm says. Or seek out online resources. (See below.)
6 ways to get the most out of your mentor
Once you’ve found someone to mentor you, here are six ways to get the most out of the relationship.
1. Shadow a veteran: Helm asks all first-year teachers in her mentoring program to observe a veteran for half a day. “It’s well received,” Helm says. “A majority of the time, the veteran teachers will have resources for the newbies. This meeting also helps to build a relationship that will help them throughout their year.”
2. Ask your mentor to watch you teach: Most veteran teachers don’t think about what they do anymore because it comes naturally, says Penny Kittle, an English teacher and literacy coach at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H. and former director of mentoring for the Conway (N.H.) School District. That’s why asking a veteran teacher to observe your classroom is so important for both teachers. “You learn so much by sitting in the back of the classroom,” says Kittle, who had to do this at Eastern Michigan University as a teaching supervisor. “It really taught me so much about instruction.”
3. Ask your mentor to track your classroom time management: When a mentor is observing you, Kittle suggests asking them to take notes and track the time on the left side of a piece of paper, and then take notes on the right to correspond with each major topic and discussion. This will help you understand and learn about classroom management. Or consider setting a timer, Helm says, to track and time each task.
4. Ask your mentor to monitor student questions: As a new teacher it can be hard to differentiate if you need to change your classroom management style or need more artful instruction if students aren’t engaged. To solve this problem, Kittle suggests having your observing mentor make a map of the classroom and monitor and track which students are responding to classroom questions.
5. Ask your mentor to role play problems with you, and then go find your own personal style: To work through difficult situations, ask your mentor to model how they would solve the problem. Some teachers want to copycat, Vilson says, but then they will realize they need to incorporate what they’ve learned into their own teaching style. “There were six teachers I wanted to be like, but I could only be me,” Vilson says. “I had to take those attributes, the things I wanted, and make them part of myself. I had to be myself, but be my best teacher self.”
6. Ask lots of questions: Don’t be shy about asking questions. “Early on, teachers tend to keep their classrooms closed,” Vilson says. Instead, approach other teachers and see if you can get some help. Many schools “give teachers a piece of chalk and say ‘go teach,’” Vilson says, which is why a mentor can make such a difference in a new teacher’s success.
If you can’t find a veteran to help mentor you, here are additional online resources that can help: