Make the Most of Your Mentor
New teachers share their ideas for building great mentoring relationships.
By Cindy Long
Since her first day in the classroom, Sarah Hone, a third-grade teacher at Municipal Elementary School in Roy, Utah, has kept a CYA folder. She got the idea from a mentor.
“CYA stands for Cover Your Anatomy,” says Hone.
When she gets an upbeat note from a student, a thank-you card from a parent, or a positive evaluation from an administrator that says what a great job she’s doing and how much she’s loved and appreciated, she puts it in her CYA folder.
“This folder can protect you if someone questions your authority, like an angry parent,” Hone says. “Plus, it’s a great reminder for yourself on rough days when you’re wondering why you ever got into this profession in the first place.”
All teachers have rough days when they question whether they made the right career choice, and a good many of those days occur during your first years on the job when you are least prepared to deal with them.
That’s why it’s so important to take advantage of a mentoring program, Hone says. Building a strong mentoring relationship cannot only help you survive your first few years in the classroom, it can also help you “cover your anatomy.”
Here are Hone’s top ten tips for building a great mentoring relationship.
Start that CYA folder. Put all the positive notes and evaluations you receive from your mentor in a folder along with notes from students and parents. “I know you can't keep every little note that you get,” she says. “Students often shower you with multiple scraps of paper a day covered in hearts, but keep the ones that can be used as strong evidence that you are doing your job well.”
Ask for resources. “My mentor would always provide me with information on upcoming meetings for new teachers, and give me extra handouts of ideas for management and lessons, either from the district, or what she had seen in other classrooms,” Hone says.
Schedule extra time with your mentor. “I loved sitting down and talking with my mentor after the kids had gone out to recess or lunch,” Hone says. “I could ask about what she saw going on in my room and conference about issues I was having in the class. I've never liked people to just come and go mid-lesson. I like to talk after—it's a time to answer questions, clarify, and get immediate feedback. Share success stories from your classroom. “I was always excited to show off things we had done recently that my mentor hadn’t been able to see. I wanted to share my ideas, which my mentor appreciated because she would pass them on to other new teachers. Giving goes both ways!”
Take constructive criticism. “Then learn from it and use it!”
Be open and honest. Hone says to use your mentor as a type of counselor because he or she is there to help with your professional relationships. “I think it should be okay to talk about relationships with your teammates and other teachers,” says Hone. “Not all teachers have personalities that mesh well, and you have to be able to talk to someone confidentially without it interfering with the workplace, professionalism, and most of all, your teaching. Your mentor is an objective outsider from whom you can get advice.”
Laugh. “It eases tension and relaxes the atmosphere.”
Always maintain your professionalism as an educator. “Never, ever talk negatively about your students to your mentor,” Hone says. “There’s a difference between venting about classroom management problems and just being negative about individual students.”
Communicate your needs. Sometimes a mentor and mentee don’t click, but they have to find a way to make the best of it. You need to tell your mentor what you like from the relationship and what isn’t working for you. If that’s difficult for you, Hone recommends writing it in a note or an email. “Sometimes it's easier to write things down and think through what you want to say, before you actually say it,” she says. “That way you don't accidentally say something you might regret and end up further damaging your relationship.”
End on a good note by focusing on the positive. “My mentor would talk about how she visited lots and lots of classrooms, but would point out something unique in mine that she just loved,” Hone says. “When I heard that I was doing something unique, it always made me feel so confident and good about myself!”
Want more ideas?
Bradley Bolt, a middle school science and social studies teacher and former student member from Southern Illinois University, shares how he got the most out of his mentor during his first year in the classroom.
Ask for specific ideas and feedback. In my first year of teaching I was having difficulty getting my students to write. I thought I tried everything and was still having problems. I asked my mentor to come in and observe me during a writing lesson, and she saw that I wasn’t incorporating the right graphic organizers for the academic level of my students. She gave me a few strategies to use during writing that dramatically improved the students' performance.
Ask your mentor about the scenarios you dread the most. Since it was my first year of teaching I was nervous about handling the sticky situations, like angry parents and negative colleagues. She answered all of my questions with candor, and provided proven strategies I felt I could use when tackling the situations.
Have your mentor teach a lesson and show you best practices. I was unfamiliar with our district’s "Working With Words" series so I asked my mentor if she had any advice. She volunteered to come into the classroom and model the correct way to conduct the lesson. It was great!