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Professional Development: Support Via Mentors

Jordan Catapano

Our newest teachers often come to us fresh from the university, filled with idealism about finally having their own classroom and ready to apply their newly minted education. As we all know, there is only so much about a given job one can learn through professional development training. Teaching, in particular, cannot be mastered simply by reading a textbook or observing a few classrooms. The real training starts when a teacher begins teaching. Unfortunately, many of our teachers quit as soon as they get started. A report by the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute found that nearly 8 percent of the teaching workforce is leaving every year, the majority before retirement age. The reasons for attrition vary, but center around a lack of having a voice in the school, classroom struggles, and low income. The Washington Post expands on some of the data related to teacher attrition rates. The preparation and professional development training a teacher receives before taking the reins of a classroom matter, of course. The Learning Policy Institute notes that, “Teachers with the least preparation are 2 to 3 times more likely to leave the profession than those with the most comprehensive preparation—including student teaching and courses in teaching methods.”

But preparation in the teaching profession cannot equip teachers with all the answers they need for continued growth once they have a job. The Learning Policy Institute goes on to make one of its major recommendations for schools to “Provide high-quality mentoring and induction to beginning teachers ... High-quality induction programs that reduce attrition include mentoring with observation and feedback, time for collaborative planning with colleagues, a reduced teaching load, and a focus on high-leverage activities — such as analyzing student work and discussing instructional strategies.”

Having a fellow teacher-mentor serves as a sort of personal coach for teachers, connecting them with an experienced peer who can guide them through the inevitable struggles of the profession. The National Association for Colleges and Employers emphasizes that “It is normal for new college hires to evolve as they gain work experience and recommended that new hires can speed and strengthen this growth process by seeking out professional development opportunities and mentors — and engaging with those mentors frequently.”

So let’s take a look at what a mentor program in your school might be structured to maximize its impact on your newest hires.

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Professional Development: A Good Mentor

Most veteran teachers can look back on their career and identify at least one teacher who helped them through their first few years. They can identify those who were supports, sounding boards, and coaches. Whether through a formal mentoring relationship or not, successful teachers were more likely to find success and stick with the profession when they had a trusted colleague they knew they could go to.

Schools are beginning to formalize these relationships and assign mentors to each of their new hires. A designated mentor becomes the “Go-to” colleague a new teacher can lean on for support. Unfortunately, these relationships are often established at the beginning of a given year and then provided with limited oversight or direction to make the most out of it. Mentors can feel isolated or unsure of what they ought to provide to their mentee.

Administration should work with teacher leaders to identify the ideal mentors for incoming hires. This should be a collaborative effort to look at which current veteran teachers possess the qualities you eventually want your newer teachers to have. James B. Rowley describes in “The Good Mentor” a list of six qualities he recommends mentors have.

A good mentor is:

  • Committed to the role of mentoring.
  • Accepting of the beginning teacher.
  • Skilled at providing instructional support.
  • Effective at different interpersonal contexts.
  • A model of a continuous learner.
  • Able to communicates hope and optimism.

Which of your teachers possess some or all of these characteristics? They may make the ideal mentor for your newest hires and be most likely to support them in a meaningful way through their first years at your school.

Mentor Interactions and Supports

When mentors are deployed to help with new hires, here are some of the interactions they should expect to engage in:

  • Have a regular meeting time and place.
  • Discuss timely and relevant topics such as teaching challenges, upcoming events, and recommended next steps.
  • Listen.
  • Build a relationship and get to know teacher personally.
  • Introduce the teacher to other staff members around the building.
  • Help the teacher get involved in chaperoning, coaching, or sponsoring various activities.
  • Give teaching tips and recommendations.
  • Observe the new teacher and give feedback; be observed by new teacher.
  • Keep informed of expectations for upcoming events such as Field Day, insurance enrollment, or required meetings.
  • “Check-in” on the teacher’s ongoing mental and emotional well-being.
  • Discuss work/life balance.

Once mentors are identified, they should not just be patted on the back and thanked for taking on the role. Designated mentor coordinators should be put in place to support mentors as well. Just like the new teachers will need someone to go to for support, mentors themselves will be more supported and effective in their role when they have a designated, consistent person they can lean on.

Here are a few ways mentors can be organized and supported as they go about mentoring their designated teachers:

Training = Trainings do not necessarily have to be extensive or elaborate for mentors, especially if they have been identified as individuals who possess many ideal qualities already. However, some basic overview is necessary. Focus trainings on explaining to mentors what the expectations for the role are – including the time commitment involved – as well as what qualities and behaviors are the most appreciated.

Timely Information and Recommendations = Since mentoring is an ongoing support throughout the entire school year, so too should the supports for mentors be year-round. Provide regular recommendations for discussion points through a brief newsletter or email. Mentors will be equipped with time-sensitive, relevant information they can bring up with their new teacher.

Mentor-to-Mentor Discussions = Facilitate times for mentors to get together – possibly over a Thank-You luncheon or after-school social outing – and share their experiences. Working with a new teacher can be a lot like working with students; it requires coaching, teaching, relationships, and strategy to appropriately support a colleague. Mentor teachers will feel connected to one another and supported when they can share experiences of mentoring with one another.

Connected to Broader Program = Many schools have new-teacher events that extend beyond a mentor program. Do your mentors know what is taking place with new teachers beyond their relationship with them? Keep mentors informed of other trainings that are coming up, and mentors will be better equipped to have personalized follow up discussions with their mentees.

Thank Them = The typical mentor teacher is acting as a volunteer and unlikely to receive compensation for the hours they spend with their new colleague. This makes it all the more important to express gratitude for their role.

Author John Maxwell reminds us that, “One of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” Teaching is a challenging profession to navigate when you’re first starting out. Thankfully, a mentor is a mature professional who in many ways has been there, done that with much of teaching. A well-organized and supported mentor program is likely to not only help retain many of the profession’s rising stars, but will help new teachers have faster and stronger impacts on the students they are entrusted with.

How has your school used mentors to support your newest teachers? Mentor us, and share some of your professional development strategies and experiences with us in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website