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How To Find A Mentor Teacher

Establishing a mentorship with a skilled teacher is crucial to your success in the classroom. Here are three steps to finding the right one.

By The myEDmatch Team

February 27, 2013

It might not surprise you that last week’s story of Blain’s dramatic exit from the classroom (followed by own) wasn’t the only challenging experience during my rookie year teaching.

No, there was also the day one of my students popped a “fart bag” in the hall during dismissal—seventh-graders!—and the day another one started a fight in the cafeteria. Plus, there were the everyday sorts of challenges like forgotten homework, library books, and even pencils.

It wasn’t until reinforcements arrived—Ms. H on the first floor and Mr. M across the hall—that things started to improve.

But first, I had to make the decision to look for these people—because in the words of Donald Graves in The Energy To Teach: “A strong colleague is too important in your professional life to leave to chance. When pressures rise that separate teachers from regular communication, you need to work even more actively to establish a relationship with one colleague who will help you to be the teacher you envision.”

Here’s how you can find that colleague who could become a mentor teacher:

#1: Identify your “Must Haves” and “Nice to Haves”

While last week’s post covered these in detail, it really comes down to this: Your mentor teacher must have a track record of success and the ability to help you achieve the same success.

Beyond that, it’s about what matters to you on a personal and professional level. Impressive leadership skills? Innovative instructional techniques? Someone who gets you?

Be honest with yourself about what you really need to take your teaching to the next level—or, to just get out from under that pile of ungraded papers.

#2: Survey Your Options

So, you have your “must haves” and “nice to haves” and perhaps you’ve started sifting through a mental list of colleagues who meet certain criteria…and then a jarring thought: this person doesn’t exist.

Honestly? You’re probably right.

But, don’t despair. Instead, keep these things in mind.

The “nice to haves” are just that: nice to have. Just because someone isn’t exactly who you’re looking for (i.e. he doesn’t teach the same subject as you, or she’s only had five years of experience, not 10), doesn’t mean he or she can’t be a great source of support. Don’t settle, but do keep an open mind. You might be surprised by what you can learn from someone with a different perspective and/or style than your own.

Your teacher mentor can be more than one person. If it overwhelms you trying to select just one mentor, consider the “personal board of advisors” approach. Find one colleague who can offer you instructional support, another who can offer emotional support, and a third who can give curricular support. Remember, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Go hybrid. Though you shouldn’t trade an in-real-life mentor for a cyber mentor, there is a certain energy to online professional groups these days—not to mention a breadth of perspectives and experiences. Take, for example, the Wednesday night #ntchat on Twitter where veteran educator Lisa Michelle Dabs moderates a mentor-like chat for new teachers. (There’s also a Facebook page.) Or, the English Companion Ning’s New Teacher Group where pre-service and new teachers “ask questions, let off steam, tell stories, celebrate.” People in these and other groups could nicely complement the relationship you have with your teacher mentor.

Now, return to your mental Rolodex and relax your thinking. Who comes to mind?

#3: Make the Ask

Once you’ve made your choice, it’s time to act.

Set aside time to sit and talk. If you’re serious about the relationship you’d like to develop, set the tone with the ask. A fly-by ask in the halls between passing periods, won’t cut it. Instead, e-mail your prospective mentor and request 15-20 minutes before or after school to discuss establishing a mentor-mentee relationship.

Be honest about your needs and expectations.Be fair to you and your prospective mentor by laying it all out there. If you’d like an hour a week of his time, tell him. If you’ve been disappointed with support (or lack thereof) from others and want something different from her, tactfully make that clear. Being upfront now will not only allow your prospective mentor to evaluate whether he or she can offer what you need, but will also prevent misunderstandings down the road.

Don’t make it all about you. While it’s true that the nature of a mentor-mentee relationship is that one person benefits in very specific ways (and perhaps a bit more) from the relationship than the other, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the give-and-take dynamic that makes most relationships work. So, tell your prospective mentor that you’d like the relationship to be mutually beneficial and discuss what that might look like.

Decide on next steps. Before the meeting ends, make important decisions—When will you meet next? What will be the purpose of the meeting? How will you follow up after each meeting? If you’re struggling to come up with ideas—and you should be the one to present ideas—consider these:

  • go over your classroom management plan
  • observe his or her classes
  • have him or her observe your classes
  • share resources
  • work on assessment strategies and tactics
  • analyze lesson plans
  • read a professional development book together
  • schedule meetings around significant occasions (like before/after parent-teacher conferences, before/after principal observations, after grading periods, before/after state assessments, and at the end of the year)

If you have a professional mentor in your life, let us know how you established the relationship. What’s the best way, in your opinion, to find this important person?

Read more stories about mentors and finding a TFA mentor or advocate in our network.