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Sunday / December 15

First Time Mentor? A Baker’s Dozen Tips for Guiding New Teachers Through Their First Year

There is lots of advice floating around in the blogosphere for new teachers about how to navigate the first year. But what if you’re an experienced teacher who’s been asked to mentor a first-year teacher? Schools don’t often provide you with much guidance or support. So to help, here are my thirteen tips, in 5 categories, for new mentors working with new teachers this fall.

Be an encourager, not a fixer

  1. Listen twice as much as you talk. We have two ears and only one mouth for a reason. Your mentee is going to need lots of opportunities to share, to think out loud, and to vent. Give them plenty of space to do this without judgment or analysis. (Thanks to Colin Davitt, @room214 on Twitter, for suggesting this tip.)
  2. Don’t solve every problem for them. As you listen a lot, you are going to be tempted to provide lots of answers. Resist. Just be a shoulder for them to lean on. It’s not your job to rescue them from every complication. (See tips #4 and #6 for related advice.)
  3. Let them get out of their own classroom. This tip comes from Lyn Hilt (@lynhilt), former elementary principal. Find times you can cover your mentee’s classroom for a bit so they can get out and visit other spaces. Let them experience many different styles and techniques so they can begin building their own toolbox.

Be a soaker hose, not a firehose

  1. Give targeted advice. Or “Don’t try to give them 25 years of experience the first week.” You’ve learned a lot in your time as an educator, and it’s natural to want your mentee to learn from your experience. After all, that’s why you’re a mentor. But be selective. Listen a lot, find one area to work on, then focus on that for a while.
  2. Share, but don’t inundate. Gardens need water to grow, but dousing them with a firehose is as bad as a drought. Be the “slow drip” type of soaker hose instead. Once every couple of weeks, send a link to a brief article, suggest a single strategy to try, or share one interesting digital tool.

Learn to say “Let’s find out”

  1. Model lifelong learning. Be transparent about what you don’t know. Because you don’t know it all. Even when you do know a good solution to a problem, instead of “Here’s what you should do,” try saying “Let’s find out.” Help your mentee learn to navigate the system and find his or her own answers.
  2. Introduce and connect them to your network. The most powerful tool you can give a new teacher is a broad support network. So jump start the process by connecting him or her into yours. What? You don’t have a network yet? Start here.
  3. Create a shared space to collect ideas and share. Extend your influence by finding a place you can capture the ideas and conversations you have with your mentee. This can be as simple as a Google Doc, or a shared Evernote notebook.

Ask forgiveness, not permission

  1. Take calculated risks. Andy Marcinek (@andycinek) says it’s important for new teachers to step out of their comfort zone and take a few risks. Teach them when to run with an idea and ask forgiveness after the fact.
  2. Failure is not only an option, it’s guaranteed. Let your mentee know how to grow from the inevitable missteps and fumbles. Cushion the fall when you can, and help anticipate possible hurdles, but there’s no getting around that there will be some bruises.

Be human

  1. Smiling before Thanksgiving is OK. Like many proverbs, there was a nugget of truth behind what has become a platitude. Students need a lot of consistency early in the year until they understand the culture of your classroom. But they also need to connect with a human being. Help the novice teacher remember that the job is first and foremost about relationships, not content, paperwork, and schedules.
  2. Eat lunch. This has less to do with nutrition (though that’s more important than it may seem during a teacher’s first year) than with connection. Jen Ward (@jenniferward) recently shared that during her own first teaching year, a mentor advised her to “make sure that I ate lunch with colleagues instead of working through lunch each day.” Eat lunch regularly with your protegé. But also eat with students frequently. It’s another way to let them see the human side, and for a young teacher to learn about what makes kids tick.
  3. The first year is overwhelming and stressful. There has to be time and space to slow down, reflect, and decompress. Even when deadlines loom and there’s no end to the planning and student feedback, be sure to help carve out opportunities to recharge the batteries.

For those of you who’ve been mentors before, what other tips do you have? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Bonus tip #14: Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get this mentoring thing right the first time. Or the eleventh. Learn from your own mistakes and share your learning with others, including your mentee. It’s both powerful and healthy.

Written by

Gerald Aungst has more than 50 years of personal and professional experience fostering curiosity in learning through play and making stuff. During the last 25 of those years, in his various roles as a classroom teacher, gifted support specialist, administrator, curriculum designer, and professional developer, Gerald has worked to create a rich, vibrant, and equitable learning culture in schools. Gerald is currently a gifted support teacher in the Cheltenham School District in suburban Philadelphia. Gerald is also one of the organizers of Edcamp Philly and a founder of AllAboutExplorers.com. His book, 5 Principles of the Modern Mathematics Classroom, is available from Corwin. You can also connect with Gerald on Twitter at @geraldaungst.

Latest comment

  • Thank you for these very helpful tips for mentoring a beginning teacher! When giving targeted advice, I have found it helpful to use questioning techniques that help the beginning teacher focus on student performance. The focus on the desired outcome for student performance is very helpful in developing and determining teaching strategies to support students in achieving the learning goal. Also, I have helped beginning new teachers to not only get out of their own classrooms to observe techniques and environments, but modeled a lesson for the beginning teacher to observe in her/his own classroom. Happy new school year!

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