Mentors Teachers Aren’t Done Learning!

Michele Regan

You Were Asked to Be A Mentor for a Good Reason  

Words like knowledgeable, expert and even wise come to mind.  As veteran teachers, we are full of good ideas, tried and true tricks that we’ve perfected over the years.  And most mentor teachers are really well-meaning when they share advice with new teachers.  

But consider this: more than anything, new teachers want to be heard.  That’s right…they want to do the talking.  Therefore, we need to do the listening.  Not so easy when you are used to talking all day, and you like to share your experiences.  Yes, you have learned from your mistakes.  But those tidbits, while helpful, may not meet the new teachers’ need to figure something out for themselves.

Think Back to When You Were a New Teacher  

You had lots of good ideas that you wanted to try, and some went well…many of them went wrong, however.  But through that experience of failure you learned a few things.  So this is what we must do for our new teachers.  Setting the tone for making mistakes is critical for a new teacher.  Trying to be and do everything from the start will end badly, both for the teacher and, likely, the students too.  A stressed teacher is not a present teacher.  Instead, he/she is focused on the next thing to do.  

What did you learn today?  What mistake did you make that taught you something? What did you try hard at today?

-Carol Dweck

Safety First

I don’t mean physical safety here.  Rather, our mentees need to feel that we have created a safe place for them to be vulnerable about their current experience.  Focus should be placed on making the time spent together non-judgemental.  How do you do this?

  1. Start by planning on NOT talking for the first few minutes.  Ask your mentee an inviting open-ended question that allows for reflection:
  • How did the lesson go in your eyes?
  • Why do you think so?  
  • Where are you seeing successes?
  • Where are you facing challenges?
  1. Once they share a bit, try to get them to identify some specifics by simply asking:
  • Can you tell me more about that?
  • Can you give me a specific example?
  1. Don’t let them linger on general or vague statements like:
  • The lesson was terrible, or the kids don’t respond.
  1. Instead, use specific follow up questions to bring them back to what has occurred:  
  • When did you feel the lesson did not go well?
  • What happened that made you feel that way?
  • At what point did you think the students weren’t responding?
  • Why do you think that might have happened?

The goal here is to maintain a focus on the actual facts of what happened.  Keep in mind, oftentimes they are caught up in their perception of how it went and not the reality.

Consider how your questions allow them a safe space for reflection.  It is often just the act of being heard that will allow for clarity about the experience.

glass cup full of chocolate
guide to better learning


Choose Your Words Carefully

When you’re ready to provide feedback, use the same techniques you use with your students.  Start with the positives. Even if you were not impressed with much, find something you can praise.  

You might start off with:

  • I like the way you greeted every student on their way in.
  • I can tell you put a lot of time into creating your behavior program.
  • I noticed that the students really seem comfortable in your class.

When providing constructive feedback, be sure to pick only one or two areas to focus on.  If student behavior was an issue, for example, you would want to highlight that.  

Make your feedback student-centered.  In other words, rather than focusing on things that the teacher did, identify behaviors that students engaged in (positive or negative) that get to your area of concern.  

Here are some examples:

  • I noticed that the students had moments where they were off task, specifically during the independent practice.
  • I noticed that it took a long time for students to settle down and begin their work.  
  • I noticed that only 3 students participated in answering questions.

You will note that this feedback does not make inferences about why these things happened.  That is what you should do together.    

  • Instead of saying: Some of the students seemed confused about what to do.
  • Try saying: I noticed that several students seemed to be asking each other for the directions throughout guided practice.
say what? image

Questions are Your Friends

Armed with more open-ended questions (see our Reflective Questions for Mentors), you will be able to guide novice teachers through the problem-solving process necessary for them to learn from this experience.  Think about the questions you use with your students to get them to reflect:

  • Why do you think that happened?
  • What might you try next time?
  • What might happen if…?
  • What else have you considered?

You may not have all the answers for your mentee; however that’s probably a good thing.  Time spent engaging them in the process of reflection and discovery is an excellent use of your time.  

And it doesn’t hurt to share a story or two about when you were new.  The empathy you show in that one conversation will go far to build the trust that is needed for a successful mentoring relationship.

Alone we can do so little.

Together we can do so much!

-Helen Keller

Reflective Questioning for Teacher Mentors

Who: This guide is made for use by mentor teachers.

What: Through the incorporation of guiding questions like these, the mentor teacher can help the mentee/novice teacher engage in the reflective process.

Where: These questions can be used in any mentor/mentee discussion, including post-observation meetings.

When: These questions can be used throughout the school year. Since they are sentence starters, you will find that they can be adapted so they are applicable to many situations.

Why: By engaging novice teachers in the self-reflection process, mentors can help them grow. Reflective questioning can improve problem-solving skills, enhance self-awareness, encourage “outside the box” thinking, develop new ideas for teaching and learning, and, overall, become a better educator.

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