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September 11, 2015

Three Mentoring Mistakes (from someone who knows)

This week, I’m meeting a new teacher at our school. Someone else will be her “official” mentor, and this kind of encounter is always awkward, like a blind date. When I emailed her to set up our meeting, I told her that “I have red hair, and I’ll be sitting to the left of the counter.” Luckily, she seemed to appreciate the humor of the situation, as she replied to the email with: “Though I usually carry a single red rose, I’ll wear a Bills T-shirt.” Why then am I meeting her for this “blind date”?

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This week, I’m meeting a new teacher at our school. Someone else will be her “official” mentor, and this kind of encounter is always awkward, like a blind date. When I emailed her to set up our meeting, I told her that “I have red hair, and I’ll be sitting to the left of the counter.” Luckily, she seemed to appreciate the humor of the situation, as she replied to the email with: “Though I usually carry a single red rose, I’ll wear a Bills T-shirt.” Why then am I meeting her for this “blind date”? Because mentoring is the most mutually beneficial, gratifying and important work I can do as a teacher. And, frankly, I’ve been lucky enough to have great mentors over the years and like to balance out the kindness received with kindness I give. And here’s the biggest secret: I’ve learned more from the people I mentor as we sit around drinking coffee than I ever did when I was being mentored myself. Here are some tips I’ve discovered on what not to do as a mentor:

Mistake No. 1: Assuming “new” means anything other than “new”

I’ve found that teachers entering the profession today (contrary to popular belief and media hype) are far more prepared than I was, and they certainly have more access to materials, research and advice via the Internet, social media and better college preparatory programs. Mentors must respect the fact that these newbie teachers are talented and excited; many have life experiences that make them perfect for the classroom. It’s easy to generalize and act as though “new” means inexperienced, anxious, unprepared or something else, but it just means “new,” and treating it any other way can be condescending and hinder the mentor/mentee relationship. As well-intentioned as you may be, don’t project your fears or shortcomings onto the mentee. Maybe, despite the fact that you were a sweaty nervous wreck on your first day, the mentee has been waiting to hit the proverbial stage his whole life and doesn’t have a nervous bone in his body. “How to calm your nerves” chats won’t do the mentee much good, and you’ll end up seeming like a mother hen. When I feel the desire to deliver my motivational speech about something I’ve experienced, I take a deep breath and ask the new teacher, “So, what are your feelings right now?” Surprise, surprise, the relationship is much better if you actually address how the newbie is feeling, and not your own emotions!

Mistake No. 2: Assuming your mentee wants to be like you

Mentoring is a fine balance between utilizing your expertise and realizing that it takes all kinds. I’m known for project-based learning, and I’ll talk your ear off about it; however, I have to remember not to push my preferences onto a person I’m mentoring. One of my mentors was awesome at interdisciplinary lessons, truly bringing the history in fiction to the forefront of her lessons, often leaving me wondering if I was observing an English or social studies class. She was brilliant at making connections across the curriculum. Me, not so much. I tried to mimic her as I taught The Scarlet Letter for the first time, and I was horrible—so horrible that almost 20 years later I still feel sick to my stomach thinking about it. Why? I was me, with my brain, and my experiences and my preferences, trying to pretend that I could recall historical facts and details off the top of my head. It was a disaster, and I had a great mentor who gently said, “There are lots of ways to teach this novel. Figure out your way.”

Mistake No. 3: Forgetting that the mentee probably has a life as complex as your own

We’ve all been there. The power was out when you woke up, which means the hot water heater didn’t work, which ruled out a shower. You’d meant to get to school early, but your children can’t comprehend life—even temporarily—without a microwave, so there’d been some complications, to say the least, to your morning routine. You walk in with five minutes to spare, greasy hair, and a knot in your stomach about how you’ll wing your way through first period. And you’ve been teaching for a decade. Now imagine that you are inexperienced and untenured. That’s pressure.

I was mentoring a young woman who needed some help with pacing her lesson plans. Pretty common mistake and relatively easy to fix, so I offered to meet her before school for several days to help. She was late the first day, and she had to cancel one of the other days. As I started to formulate some very judgmental opinions that she wasn’t “committed” and that she seemed pretty scattered, I happened to overhear her on the phone in the faculty lounge. Come to find out, the poor woman’s car had broken down, she’d been getting rides to school, and her other job started at 5 p.m., so she was waiting until the weekend to get her car fixed. In my tunnel vision, I’d failed to remember that she too had a life and that she was doing the best she could do. Good teachers have problems, and the more important lesson we ended up learning together is that being able to show up and shine on the worst kinds of days is a necessary skill for teachers—just as important as pacing.

Teaching can be lonely. Teachers—because of departments or teams or years of service—can seem like tiny little communities no longer taking applications for new residents. It’s very difficult to ask for help, especially as an untenured teacher who hasn’t formed alliances yet. Be the alliance. Be the listener. Be the room with coffee, but take it from me, as someone who has made all three of these mistakes, be ready to learn. Guess where I learned about project-based learning.

Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is a National Board Certified middle school ELA teacher in Hamburg, New York with a Master’s Degree in Literature, as well as a School Building Leader certification.

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