After over 30 years of teaching, I still recall my feelings of panic during my first year. I wondered how other teachers kept their heads above water with all the meetings to attend and papers to grade. Every Sunday evening I asked myself how in the world I was going to finish my lesson plans and somehow maintain the semblance of a home life.
I wondered if I would ever sleep again.
I did have some experienced teachers who took a few moments each day to give me tips. My fondest memory is of a senior English teacher who often sat down with me to plan together. Now, even after all these years, I still remember her kindness. “You have so much to offer,” she said. At that moment, her words were enough to keep me in the profession.
Too many times, my words have not been enough.
Despite incorporating the best mentoring techniques from my younger years, I have not always succeeded in keeping great teachers from leaving the profession. Providing resources and offering uplifting compliments have fallen short. One young teacher, who was the favorite among students, suddenly took another job because she couldn’t balance work and her personal life. Another changed his career path because teaching wasn’t a perfect fit.
What had I done wrong? Or, more importantly, why weren’t my efforts enough to encourage these talented young people to stay?
We want our best young teachers to thrive in the profession.
The demands on teachers today, including prioritizing standards, creating common assessments, and analyzing growth measures, often create anxiety and minimize confidence. In short, today’s new teachers face different challenges. Our mentoring should be deliberate, planned, and inclusive. Sometimes minor changes in present practices and a strong commitment to mentoring new teachers can make all the difference in the longevity of an educator’s career.
The best mentors are the ones who teach at least one common course with their mentee. Planning together becomes an opportunity to share curricular strategies and classroom management ideas. Ongoing conversations about the classes you teach, especially in the hallway between classes, can improve a new teacher’s day, simply because you checked in and asked them how a specific lesson was going.
Regular meetings can be difficult to fit in, but it works if some of the time spent together is brief and focused. Spend 20 minutes walking through a writing rubric, followed by scoring a few essays together. Eat lunch together—just you two—and swap stories. Occasionally meet outside of school—a coffee shop, a bike trail, a football game—to develop a more personal relationship. Develop a personal connection outside of teaching. These meetings might be exactly what a new teacher needs to feel supported and remain a teacher.
Ongoing conversations with a colleague can be valuable, but time to think about teaching, especially the importance of our roles in our students’ lives, is invaluable. Mentors should encourage new teachers to pause and reflect. Journaling works, but sometimes casual conversations can become reflective. Weighing in on the effectiveness of our strategies and management allows us to assess our own strengths and weaknesses. All stakeholders benefit.
Be vulnerable and share experiences.
Mentees need to know veterans are not immune to negative emotions and that we all search for acceptance and positivity. When veteran teachers share their own successes and failures while maintaining boundaries and balance, teaching becomes a process rather than a product. We continue to evolve and improve—even after 30 years! New teachers can see that mistakes are not permanent and that everyone makes them. However, without this honesty from a veteran teacher, it’s easy for a new teacher to think they are the only ones failing. If you’ve been working in a school for any amount of time, you know this isn’t true! This is why it’s so vital for new teachers to learn this.
We all know how easy it is to become frustrated with additional time spent on committees, paperwork, and initiatives. However, successful mentors seek—and usually find—positive outcomes. When tired, we are all vulnerable, so it is especially important to model a positive attitude and share forward thinking. Before committee meetings, share expectations. During professional conversations about initiatives, model engagement. After a grading session, discuss learning. It’s easier to find positives when we look for them.
Feeling valued and valuable is the bottom line.
New teachers need to feel supported and valued. When they attend meetings, they want to know their ideas count and that they are being heard. A mentor’s availability to listen is crucial. Knowing that you are just a text away means so much to a new teacher who simply needs to connect with someone who understands. We all know that time is precious. That’s why it means so much when it’s given in a generous spirit.
We want our new teachers, the diamonds who bring new life to our profession, to sparkle. Successful mentoring can make a difference if we help our gems develop their own particular shine.
Above all, we want them to stay and thrive.
Join the great conversations going on about school leadership in our Facebook groups at Principal Life and High School Principal Life.
Plus, check out this article about supporting new teachers and staff.