After 10 years of working with pre-service teachers, I was tasked with creating a new mentoring program for new teachers. Although I had lots of practice working with novice teachers, I wanted to develop an experience that would help veteran teachers who were being tapped as mentors connect with their mentees on a personal level.
Hmmm…what does everyone like that could create positive feelings while having those initial awkward conversations?
It didn’t take long for me to blurt out to myself: CHOCOLATE!
My premise was that everyone likes chocolate, so I headed out to the grocery store. Once in the candy aisle, it dawned on me that this could be more than a sweet treat that bribed the teachers to talk; it made me realize that there are a lot of different tastes when it comes to chocolate. That was my AHA moment. Like chocolate, we are all very different and, by sharing those differences, we could get to know one another on a deeper level.
I found a really great icebreaker online that used Hershey’s Miniatures as the basis for four personality types (this was not my brilliant idea, so kudos to the creator) that I could present to my audience. This was the perfect starting place as I felt it was critical that the mentors were willing to open themselves up to their new protégés. As I walked around listening to them laugh as they told each other, “I’m a Mr. Goodbar because I’m super analytical” or “I am totally a Krackel because I’m really creative,” I knew it had been a success (not so much for the original reason of bribing them with chocolate, but more because they were connecting).
A strong mentor program cannot survive on chocolate alone. Once you have set the foundation by having teacher partners learn about one another as people, you should continue the building of trust by providing them with two important ingredients for a successful program: time and training.
Training for BOTH Partners
Just because someone is a great teacher, doesn’t mean he will be a great mentor. Similarly, a new teacher may have lots of great new ideas but the ability to communicate effectively with a peer may not be one of them. Specific training on communication skills is critical for both the mentors and mentees. The basis of a strong relationship will end up coming down to feeling heard and understood.
So What Does This Look Like?
- Set expectations for what each person’s role will be and what timelines are involved. (i.e. There will be a debrief after classroom visits during a shared prep period.)
- Provide resources and documents that can be used to support the mentor process.
- Set aside time for the partners to learn about critical skills, such as active listening techniques (see downloadable).
- Give partners opportunities to practice skills, through scripted and unscripted role plays.
- Provide real scenarios (video clips are a great resource) for teacher partners to discuss, paying specific attention on to how to handle a difficult conversation from both people’s point of view.
“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”- Steven Spielberg
What About Time?
The best case scenario would provide some sort of shared prep time. If that is not possible, then the pair should have lunch together, in order to touch base regularly. Even if they don’t formally discuss classroom issues, just a casual conversation can make the new teacher feel connected.
The mentor will need some release time in order to visit her mentee’s classroom to provide feedback. These should be built into their schedule from the start of the year, and occur at regular intervals, perhaps monthly. Moreover, it would be beneficial if the new teacher could have a few opportunities to observe veteran teachers to learn from their experiences. Again, scheduling these in advance allows for the teacher to get the most benefit as he/she can plan what to look for based on what needs.
What Does the Research Say?
What we know from research is that teacher turnover rates are at an all time high. It has been reported that many leave the profession within 5-10 years. So how can schools keep their teachers?
The best way to retain teachers is to provide them with a comprehensive system of support. The number one concern that new teachers report is feeling isolated. That experience of being alone when faced with challenges with students, learning a new curriculum, dealing with parents, and keeping up with a mounting paper trail can feel insurmountable. Teachers report high levels of stress and, therefore, school leaders need to have a clear, comprehensive approach to facing that head on. From the day they walk in the door, novice teachers need a support system, and mentors are the first and best members of this team.
A 2016 report from the Education Commission of States reviews research that has found that, not only do mentor programs improve retention, but they also improve job satisfaction. It goes on to give examples of urban districts in Ohio and New York that saw huge changes in retention rates when a quality mentor program was instituted, with a two-thirds decrease in attrition.
Making It Work
When I think back to when I was a brand-new teacher, immediately those feelings of insecurity, fear and doubt come rushing back. Don’t get me wrong; I was so excited to put all my training to use and share what I had to offer. But, let’s be honest; it’s intimidating to think that you have all of these children’s fates in your hands.
All of us want to feel like we are competent at what we do, and getting encouragement and support is key to achieving this feeling for new teachers. As I think about what helped me cope with the many challenges I faced, I picture myself walking down a long hallway to Ms. Saalfield’s room, where I was welcomed with open arms. She was warm, willing to answer all of my questions and, most importantly, non-judgmental. She knew what I needed and was willing to give her time and share her talents.
Like the aforementioned quote says, she didn’t try to make me just like her; instead she allowed me to see in myself what I may not have been able to do on my own. While it wasn’t a formal mentor program, it was just what I needed, and here I am still in classrooms 20 years later. While that doesn’t mean that every day is rainbows and unicorns, teachers with support make it work! And when we face a tough day, and our mentor isn’t around, we eat chocolate!
Tips for Effective Mentoring
Who: This reflective activity is meant for use by mentors in a mentoring program.
What: Through the incorporation of this reflective activity, the mentor can can reflect upon important aspects, such as effective communication techniques, and create a plan in regards to how to implement them
Where: This activity can be used in any mentor program.
When: This activity is a reflective tool that will guide and mold the relationship between novice and veteran teachers. As such, it is best utilized in the beginning stages of the mentor program.
Why: In order for mentors and mentees to have successful relationships, they must be aware of their own beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses. This activity allows mentors to consider the methods they can use to observe, communicate with, and question their mentees while being positive and respectful. When feedback is given effectively, the novice teacher can grow and learn.