Principals Are Great But Sometimes a Really Good Mentor Can Mean Everything for a Teacher

I’m often reflective at the start of any school year. And lately, when I think about the six years I’ve been teaching and leading, I find myself somewhat surprised by the progress I’ve made and grateful to the mentors who helped me along the way. Mentorship is so critical in the education profession, so why is it still so underutilized as a school improvement tool?

Research shows giving new teachers mentors improves teacher attrition rates. It should be rite of passage for teachers to receive a mentor, but that’s not how it work in many places. Until that changes, it’s up to those of us in the profession to do what we can. I say this because it’s the righ thing to do, but also because it can vastly improve our school communities and experiences.

My own story can be instructive. I started as a kindergarten teacher in a public charter school in Atlanta. I joined in the middle of the year and felt unsure of myself that first day. Sensing my discomfort, the school’s math curriculum coordinator took me under her wing. She created time and space to work through questions I had and assess my teaching in a non-evaluative, non-judgmental way.

I firmly believe her supportive, understanding mentoring helped propel me toward my current role as an elementary school math specialist. It’s just not a role I previously envisioned for myself. The truth is I had a lot of fear about teaching math, a subject I wasn’t particularly good at growing up. But Nikki, my curriculum coordinator, shared insights and strategies to help me develop a confidence and genuine love for math—and math instruction—today.

After that year in which I taught kindergarten, I moved to first grade, and another mentor, the instructional coach at my school, helped me grow further. Again, she wasn’t officially assigned to be my mentor, but we worked in a collaborative school and in that environment it was natural for her to step into this informal role. She shared resources and invited me to professional learning programs. I knew someone cared and wanted me to succeed, and that had a huge impact on my work with students.

My experience with mentors in the classroom didn’t end there. More recently, a coach and assistant principal I had when I taught third grade supported me with extra coaching that led to solid math gains among my students. And a former principal suggested I lead professional development sessions and take on an interesting committee assignment. These mentors helped me secure my current role as Achievement Director of Primary School Math for our citywide network after serving as an assistant principal and math instructional coach at my school.

Not every teacher wants to be an assistant principal or take on a role in school or district leadership. But everyone wants to grow and develop and be the best teacher they can be for their students. Becoming a mentor doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are steps you can take to get started and improve your school culture and support new teachers. Here are my top five tips.

  1. Ask a fellow teacher, particularly a new one, what they want to do long-term and help them chart a path toward getting there.
  2. Share resources. One person does not win for an organization. If you have great tools, sites, and curriculum materials that have enhanced your teaching, share those. Create a Google Drive folder or a landing page to share resources. 
  3. Get your mentee involved in a small task to experience a higher role, to see if they even like it. An example might be leading a PD for the school or district. Or, have them start by leading a meeting or a co-observation.
  4. Support your teammates. Create a space in which they will come to you when they feel lost. For example, do a weekly check-in to see how they are doing. Google Forms is a great tool to create a short survey. Always ask how they are doing personally first. I set aside time for teachers to talk about whatever is on their mind.
  5. Spend time looking for local professional development opportunities for teachers. Some organizations, like curriculum developers, have summer work opportunities for educators, which can help enhance their teaching practice.

Teaching is exhausting, and the job is hardly over when the bell rings at 3 pm. But taking on a mentee doesn’t have to be difficult, and it will be rewarding. It’s a strategy that works, and, unlike some school improvement levers, it’s within your power to give it a try.

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