You’re not alone
Mentors help with everything from emotional support to classroom strategies.
By Amy Buffenbarger
It’s hard being a teacher these days. It’s even harder being a new teacher who doesn’t know that all educators went through the same learning process of dealing with doubt, exhaustion, loneliness, and the sense of being overwhelmed.
Even veteran teachers can feel isolated in their classrooms; struggling to stay on top of curriculum requirements, grading, communicating with parents, and other duties.
The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone. Your fellow educators at school—many participate in mentoring programs created by your state or local Association—can help.
Consider New Jersey’s Support on Site (SOS) program. About a decade ago, several teachers in the state’s Gloucester Township noticed new teachers leaving the profession. Angel McDermott—president of the Gloucester Township Education Association—was one of the veteran teachers who wanted to reverse the trend.
McDermott and several colleagues started monthly SOS meetings so new teachers could hang out and talk with their more experienced counterparts about obstacles they faced in the classroom. The informal and confidential meetings, which are led by an SOS facilitator, continue today.
“The idea was that this program would be a safe haven for new teachers to be able to come and pick up some vital skills on things like how to run a classroom, how to engage with parents—the do’s and don’ts they don’t teach you in college,” says McDermott.
With the support of the New Jersey Education Association, SOS has rolled out statewide.
“It’s been very positive in building bridges between younger teachers and veteran teachers—so it’s not an ‘us versus them’ thing,” says McDermott. “It makes for a stronger community of teachers in the building and a stronger Association.”
Erica Guillama (pictured left), a music teacher in Gloucester Township, was an early participant in SOS. She found the program so beneficial that she now facilitates SOS meetings at her school.
“It helped me acclimate to a new school, a different position and find out various things—like how to run a parent-teacher conference and how to fill out report cards,” says Guillama.
Like many mentoring programs, SOS isn’t just a one-way exchange of advice from veterans to new teachers. Last year an entire SOS meeting was dedicated to Pinterest, with younger members explaining how teachers can use the site to find ideas for their classroom.
“SOS has been a really good way to meet people and socialize,” explains Guillama. “Because we have a mix of new and veteran teachers, we cover topics interesting to everyone.”
Retired Teachers as Mentors
In Hampton, Va., new teachers get double support. Regardless of their level of experience, new hires are paired with a mentor in the same school building. New teachers also receive a retired-teacher mentor.
In 2002 the Hampton Education Association, the Virginia Education Association (VEA), and VEA-Retired used $8,000 from the NEA-Retired grant program to create a mentoring program that pairs new and retired teachers. The program was so successful that when funding for the grant ran out, Hampton City Schools picked up the program to keep it running. Local universities joined, too.
Retired teachers apply through the program to become mentors. Once they’ve been selected, mentors receive training on coaching techniques that will help them ask the types of questions that will allow new teachers to take ownership of their experiences.
“It’s more collaborative that way,” explains Su Lively, a 30-year preschool and kindergarten teacher now working as a teacher specialist who coordinates and trains mentors for Hampton City Schools. “You can’t just tell a new teacher what to do. The key is for the mentors to be a resource and know what questions to ask the teacher to help them process what to do themselves.”
For Annette Crothers, the emotional support from her retired mentor helped get her through the first year of teaching with confidence.
“My first year would have been totally different if I hadn’t had my retired mentor,” says Crothers, now in her third year teaching language arts. “Being a first-year teacher, you’re not sure if what you are going through is the normal thing. My mentor let me know I wasn’t alone. I knew she was invested in helping my classroom and helping me be the best teacher I can be.”
Often, retired mentors can provide more time and opportunities for confidential conversations than teachers who are balancing their own classes and workloads in the same school. For some, the mentor/mentee relationship develops into a friendship after the first year.
“If I ever need help, my mentor still comes to visit,” says Crothers.
In Virginia, support for new teachers doesn’t end after the first year. For those who have been teaching for five years or less, there is the Sparks weekend.
Created by the Washington Education Association, and implemented by the Virginia Education Association in 2006, Sparks helps new members gain a better understanding of their Association while learning skills and making connections.
Every February, approximately 100 new teachers and education support professionals from across the state gather at a ski resort in Virginia at no cost to the member. During the participant-led weekend, new teachers talk about the joys and trials of being an educator, explained Tami Sober, assistant director of the Office of Teaching and Learning for VEA.
During the event, trained facilitators model best practices and lead conversations about issues like classroom management. Attendees also participate in team-building activities and learn what it means to work collectively with the Association. Sober says that approximately 50 percent of Sparks’ attendees assume leadership roles with the Association.
Eric Pioch (left) was a Sparks’ participant during his second year of teaching. “The biggest benefit was the opportunity to take a breath and share your story with people who are in the same boat and going through the same experiences,” says Pioch. “It made you feel like you’re not alone. It was therapeutic.”
Pioch had such a great experience during the Sparks weekend, he decided to “pay it forward” and become a facilitator. “As a facilitator, my number one objective is to listen. I try to recreate my experience each time I facilitate,” says Pioch.
For Samantha Killion, meeting other members from different parts of Virginia and interacting with VEA staff who could “help me develop my career” was a big benefit of the Sparks weekend.
“At worst, you end up with a free weekend at a ski resort,” says Killion, who is also a facilitator now. “At best, you start to figure out your career and who you’re going to be as a teacher.”
And at the very best, it’s safe to say that mentoring helps teachers develop skills much quicker than they would on their own, and also strengthens the friendships and community at a school. If your school doesn’t have a formal program, reach out to your local Association through the building representative and ask for help.