One of the best parts of being part of the teaching profession is the chance to be a mentor teacher. It can be a tough job, particularly if the mentee needs a lot of support.
Being a great mentor does not come easily to everyone, but these are seven ways we were mentored by great teachers and now try to do the same while we work with pre-service and new teachers.
This post talks about mentoring student or pre-service teachers. Most of the ideas can also apply to new teachers in your school.
Let Them Try It
A good mentor teacher lets the student try.
When you ask a student teacher to do something and then micromanage every step of the way, you undermine their ability to solve problems as they go. Problem solving is an important skill for teaching. It doesn’t always come innately for everyone. One of the hardest things to learn as a new teacher is how to adjust lessons as they are underway. If you always jump in to rescue them, they won’t be able to learn this.
It might mean the lesson falls apart. That’s ok. It’s what the learning process is all about. As long as no one catches fire, it’s all good.
From a Personal Experience
I learned this lesson from an amazing cooperating teacher during my first teaching experience. I had planned a wonderful forty-five minute lesson. The lesson plan was about six pages long and I thought I had planned for every single possible situation.
I was wrong.
The students grasped the concept right away. I was left 43 minutes of dead air. When I turned to my cooperating teacher and said that I guess I was finished with the lesson, her response was, “Ok, so what are you going to do now?”
I had nothing else planned. That is when I learned to always plan ahead and plan extra. Then teach the most important things first and if students get it quickly, you can add in all the other things or get ahead. I was never left with “nothing to teach” again. More importantly, I wouldn’t have learned that lesson as well if she had simply told me my lesson plan was too short or easy for the students.
How Far is Too Far?
Unless a lesson or activity can harm students, there is no reason not to let your student teacher struggle a bit (under supervision of course). If they want to learn why glitter is a nightmare or why cutting out objects takes more time than they’ve scheduled, let them.
Make It Realistic
A good mentor teacher shows the reality of teaching (without scaring the crap out of them).
It is important for student teachers to see what teaching is and what it isn’t. So many young, new teachers are all excited about decorating a classroom and planning amazing lessons. That’s great, but there’s so much more. Give your students a realistic view of all the other stuff that comes with teaching.
Include your student teacher in meetings with parents or guardians, let them see how you respond to emails or phone calls from parents and guardians and have them attend the meetings you are part of including committees or volunteering. It doesn’t mean they should take over those jobs, but give them a realistic view of how much extra time that takes.
Your student teacher might need more time to plan lessons because they don’t have the resources in place yet. Give them enough time to get their planning done. Show them how to get the work done as efficiently as possible.
While you want to show your student teachers the realistic side of teaching, remember they are still learning. A student teacher should not become your personal assistant. Avoid giving them tasks to help you out. They are not going to learn how to be a good teacher by grading, making photocopies or making bulletin boards. Instead, make those tasks part of their own experience. Have them grade the assignments they give. Have them make their own photocopies. Allow your student teachers to create a bulletin board with an assignment with your students.
A good mentor teacher makes time for learning outside of class time.
Talk to your student teacher about how and when to provide advice or correct. Try not to correct them in front of students, as this will undermine their authority and make it more difficult for classroom management. Instead, try low-key reminders or a system that you’ve agreed on.
For example, one student teacher and I had a symbol to remind them to slow down. His nerves often got the best of him and he would talk WAY too fast. I would hold up a piece of blank paper which would be a signal to slow down or review what had already been said. After a while, he didn’t need the reminder. The kids never noticed.
Choose a way to communicate. Over the years we’ve used a variety of methods. During the day, we ask student teachers to write down any questions and we do the same. This works for big ideas, but sometimes we need to talk sooner or debrief after a lesson. Take notes so you don’t forget what the problem or concern is.
Before your student teacher starts a lesson, ask them what they would like you to watch for. Instead of correcting every single thing, focus on the things they are trying to improve. Stick to big ideas like pacing, classroom management, communication, giving instructions, and supporting differentiation. Use the evaluation forms provided by their university program as a guide.
Ask your student teacher open-ended questions as opposed to judging lessons. This will help them develop skills to reflect on their teaching. For more ideas about open-ended feedback, read our post How to Give Student Feedback That’s Amazing.
Sometimes student teachers struggle. Not all of them are meant to be in the classroom. When a student teacher is not meeting your needs, be clear about what needs to change.
Intervene quickly. Most of the time student teachers have an administrator or university mentor who facilitates on behalf of the university. Be honest with the facilitator and work together to help the student teacher meet the expectations.
Don’t allow a student teacher to get to the end of their teaching experience before finding out they are not meeting expectations. They should always know where they stand with you.
If it’s a personality conflict (which can happen), look for a solution early. Sometimes this means moving the student teacher to another mentor in the school or having the university intervene.
Your opinion on their teaching ability is important. It will be used every time they apply for a job. Your reputation and name are attached to that, so don’t pass students just to be nice. They need to know exactly what they need to improve.
Let Them Be In Charge
If you treat the student teacher as a student, rather than a teacher, your students might not see them as a teacher. Inform your classroom that they student teacher is in charge. Have your student teacher be clear about their expectations, even if they are slightly different than your own.
It is likely your students will generally behave for your student teacher. This is especially true if you’re in the room while the student teacher is teaching. When possible, hand over control of the classroom to your student teacher and then sit back and let them handle the situations. Make yourself as invisible as possible.
If a student is misbehaving, allow the student teacher to handle it. Back them up. Instead of stepping in, observe and give feedback for the next time. Sometimes you’ll have a student that just makes life difficult for your student teacher. This doesn’t reflect on you as the mentor teacher. Make your expectation clear to both the student and the student teacher. Back up the student teacher in front of the student to ensure they understand that the student teacher is in charge.
Let Them Be Idealistic
The teaching profession can be a wonderful place. It can also be a challenging place. Sometimes the adult interactions make it difficult to continue. Let your student teachers discover this on their own. Avoid sharing your cynicism.
Don’t forget to share all the wonderful things about teaching. There are so many of them. Share some of your best moments to help inspire them.
We’ve always kept teaching journals to help remember all the special things that happen every day. You can find a copy of our Teacher Gratitude Journal in the Resource Library. We can also send you a copy directly to your inbox.
Keep it Professional
Treat your student teacher like a colleague. Regardless of the age difference, experience level or personality your student teacher shouldn’t feel less than. Avoid talking about your colleagues and their personal lives in front of or with your student teacher. And don’t talk about your student teacher to other teachers without their consent.
Your relationship with your student teacher is an important one. My mentor teachers have become life-long friends and many student teachers are still in my life. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a student teacher succeed.
Your role as a mentor teacher continues after they’ve left your classroom to begin their own career.
What other advice do you have for mentor teachers? What is your favourite part about being a mentor teacher? What are some of the challenges you’ve had to face as a mentor?
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