Mentoring Young Teachers

In a recent post I addressed young teachers. Today I write to their mentors. (If you’re a mentor, you should probably read both posts.)

I chaired the math department in a small private school for almost 30 years. When we had an opening for a math teacher, the head of school made the final decision, but I was asked to do a first pass through the résumés of applicants. My department’s policies departed from tradition in various ways: we had no “honors” vs. “regular” tracks; in most core courses, we didn’t use textbooks; teacher collaboration was at the core of our practice; we had a broad selection of post-Algebra 2 electives; we actively discouraged the taking of Calculus prior to the 12th grade. 

Because of our unorthodox practices, I was reluctant to hire someone who would not be “a good fit”. Many qualified and experienced applicants went into the “no” pile because a phone interview revealed they were so pleased with their own teaching that they had no interest in our highly collaborative setup. Many young and inexperienced teachers went into the “yes” pile because they seemed to be quite compatible with our approach — and moreover, by catching them early in their career, I would be able to train them to our specs!

As a result, I ended up mentoring quite a few young teachers. Here are my thoughts about what made this work. (Obligatory disclaimer: I realize that schools are all different — what worked for me may not work for you. Still, I’ll share my experience, and I hope you’ll find one part or another of the post useful. To get a sense of my overall orientation, you might check out the links on my About Teaching page.) 

— Henri

Collaboration

The best feature of our system was that I was able to schedule new teachers to teach different sections of the same class as long-time members of the department. The experienced teacher would map out the week, and discuss the plan with the new teacher in a regularly scheduled weekly meeting. This was quite useful to the beginners: it saved them a lot of planning time, it meant the plans were likely to work, and the regular conversations with a seasoned colleague were invaluable. A new teacher who was assigned two such collaborations with different teachers gained even more as they benefitted from two sources of insight. (To be clear, that arrangement also benefitted the experienced teachers: we got to see our curriculum with the help of a fresh set of eyes, which often helped us clarify and rethink various lessons.)

Classroom Visits

My schedule allowed me to visit the new teacher’s classroom almost every week. Those visits gave us something to discuss, but it also helped to break down the closed door approach that prevails in many schools. They helped reinforce the idea that curriculum and pedagogy were a department-wide responsibility.

During classroom visits, I organize my note-taking into these four columns: 

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  • Time: as often as I think of it, I enter the time. This can be helpful later to see how much time is spent on specific topics, or to get a sense of the balance of group work vs. all-class discussion, or to track down the duration of non-productive digressions, etc. 
  • Teacher: what the teacher says and does, both in terms of running the class, and in terms of math content. 
  • Students: what the students say and do — contributions to class discussion, questions asked, who’s on task or not, and so on. 
  • Comments: any thoughts I have about what I see. If I don’t make such notes, I’ll probably forget those ideas!

If the teacher wants a copy of those notes, I do give it to them.

Meetings

The notes provide a (somewhat) factual foundation for the de-brief discussion that should take place as soon as possible after the visit. In that conversation, I highlight any successful teacher moves. Just like in working with students, it is important to build on strengths. On the other hand, I do not shy away from a direct critique of poor choices and from suggesting alternatives. My overall strategy is to offer genuine praise and constructive feedback. In the end, teachers appreciate both.

Young teachers may not be sufficiently tuned in to what is actually going on among the students. Teaching is complex and multidimensional, and an extra pair of adult eyes can be hugely helpful. I try to be as specific as possible about student behavior and understandings, and to suggest ways to obtain that sort of information while teaching. (See these blog posts: Every Minute Counts and Project SEED, and this Group Work checklist.)

I also try to pay attention to intangible things. Are the students comfortable in this class? Is the engagement authentic? Is the teacher tuning in to student feelings and questions? I only bring up those sorts of observations if the answer is positive, because those are issues that are hard to gauge, and in any case they can only be attended to by addressing concrete behaviors. But if those things are going well, it is crucial to tell the new teacher about them, as in the long run those are the most important concerns.

I tried to meet frequently with new teachers to answer their questions, hear their ideas and suggestions, and so on, even if I had not recently visited their class. While much of a teacher’s work is in the classroom, there’s plenty to talk about in addition to that: planning, grading, and the general school context.

School Context

It is crucial that the mentor not be seen as an evaluator. Moreover, any administrator actually evaluating a young teacher should emphasize supporting and helping them. Also, since beginning teachers tend to be overwhelmed, it is best that they not be burdened with non-teaching responsibilities. On all these fronts, the mentor should be an ally and advocate for the young teacher.

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