Teaching is a very rewarding field, but no one has ever claimed it is easy. First year teachers often find they are entering a whole new world to navigate, one with many challenges they may not have anticipated. Be it managing the classroom, working with parents, or exploring their role in the school they work in, many things can leave new teachers feeling lost and discouraged. That’s why one of the best strategies to support new teachers is mentoring. There are many roles in the school community whose tasks include mentoring new teachers. Principals, administrative faculty, and even just more experienced educators can all have a part in supporting new teachers, a role Nancy Alexander calls “Technical Assistance.”
In her book Nailing Jelly to the Wall: Defining and Providing Technical Assistance in Early Childhood Education, Alexander provides mentors with useful information about coaching new teachers. The text explains what constitutes a mentor and what role they serve in teaching a new classroom. While a mentor’s value to a new teacher is unfathomable, it first helps to understand who mentors are and what they do.
The mentors of new teachers must be versatile and willing to be peers as well as instructors. They can’t overstep their boundaries and attempt to take over for a struggling teacher; instead, they act as a guiding hand, someone who gives teachers the advice they need to go in the right direction . That means playing many roles, some more involved than others:
Role Model: Mentors have to demonstrate the proper way to work with children, appropriate behavior for the workplace, and the proper lesson plans for the curriculum at hand. It’s best if mentors and new teachers share a very similar environment, such as the same classroom age, the same school, or the same subject.
Planner: As a planner, mentors help new teachers select designs or setups they think will work for the classroom. Rather than being part of the original decision process, mentors should provide input when asked or make suggestions or amendments to the teacher’s original plan.
Instructor: Instructors, despite the name, don’t instruct directly; rather, they prompt their subjects with questions and phrases to help the learner reach the best solution on their own. Instructors may also demonstrate that solution, showing the most efficient way of solving the problem.
Facilitator: Emotional support is just as important as providing plans for the classroom. This support is shown through complimenting the new teacher’s plans and letting the teacher know what is working, while also answering their questions and responding to requests for assistance.
Resource Person: As the name implies, being a resource person means supplying new teachers with resources for their lessons and activities. If you know of a book that fits perfectly with the teacher’s dinosaur unit, share it with them. Or, if the teacher is struggling to find a fun activity for math, offer them an activity from your own classroom curriculum.
Advocate: This role is one of the most important. As an advocate, you help remove obstacles from the teacher’s path. Standing with them as a colleague in new situations and teaching them how to conduct themselves in your particular work environment makes it easier for them to set up their place among the school faculty.
Co-Learner: Always remember that even as a mentor, you are learning too! It’s good to have an open, two-sided communication system set up where you and the teacher exchange ideas. They may provide you with some tips of their own.
Skills Mentors Need
Interpersonal Skills: This one is a given. It’s difficult to be a mentor figure if one isn’t good with people. Strong mentors enjoy working with other people and are able to demonstrate patience and lack of judgment. This patience comfort often comes from confidence in one’s own abilities and knowledge, since it is difficult to empathize with others if one doesn’t understand their own emotions.
Strong Supervisory Skills: Supervisory skills are a balance of being able to step back and observe and take charge. To be a mentor, it’s important to be able to recognize when the new teacher will figure it out on their own and when they truly need your assistance. Reinforcement when things are going right is a powerful way to encourage teachers to keep going on their own, but you may need to demonstrate leadership if you see them sinking under the pressure.
Knowledge of Resources and Opportunities: As a mentor, you are the new teacher’s main source of information. After several years in the field, you most likely have accesses to job opportunities and resources that will benefit the teacher, as well as knowledge of education policies. Teachers will come to you with issues that arise, so it is up to you to provide them with the information they need to find solutions.
Interest in Someone Else’s Growth: Of course, none of these skills mean anything if you’re unwilling to use them to help someone else! Interest in the growth of a new teacher means caring whether or not the new teacher succeeds, even if that does not benefit you. A mentor can’t be afraid of another person’s success, and they should be able to always be encouraging regardless of how their own classroom is faring. That kind of empathy is an invaluable skill as role model and an educator.
It can be difficult to be a new teacher, but veteran educators make the transition from student to teacher a lot smoother. Mentor a wonderful role to play as it shows just how far you’ve come: though you may have started scrambling to educate a kindergarten class, you now have the maturity and world experience to teach adults. Those mistakes and pitfalls you may have encountered can be put to good use when you help new teachers get through them. This is a great power, and using it to mentor new teachers can be an incredible, rewarding experience.