I’m 23, fresh out of graduate school when I move to Miami to teach at Palmer Trinity, an independent school in Palmetto Bay, Florida. I have no friends or family nearby, and I’m completely unfamiliar with my surroundings. I’m also trying to get a firmer handle on my three preparations—Yearbook, AP United States History and United States History—frantically conducting last-minute tweaks before opening day.
I have little classroom teaching experience, and I fear I’m in over my head. Despite my frantic state, I agree to coach junior varsity soccer. I’m young and new, and I want to prove my worth. Still, I’m overwhelmed and overstressed. I have difficulty with effective classroom management, and try as I might, I can’t get through to many students. This reality, more than anything else, is making me feel upset, depressed, and angry.
If not for the mentorship of seasoned veterans, I would have quit after that first year. But before, during, and after school, devoted colleagues would meet with me to offer support, compassion and advice. In the gentlest way, they asked probing, powerful questions that made me realize my own mistakes, and, more importantly, how I could make things better.
Today, my success as a teacher—not to mention the lives of all the students I hope I have inspired and changed in my seven years in the classroom—is directly related to the thoughtful guidance I received during my first year of teaching. I kept my own experience in mind as I was reading Mentoring New Teachers by Hal Portner:
Rasheed had always wanted to teach, and now he had landed his first teaching job. In spite of his excellent student teaching experience, he found himself overwhelmed by the activities and responsibilities of the first few weeks. The formal orientation to the school and bus tour of the town helped a little, but for the most part, he felt that he was operating in the classroom without sufficient information and with little support.
Without an effective mentoring program, Portner writes, it’s no surprise the “the first few months of teaching were somewhat chaotic for Rasheed.” Luckily, I had a very different experience. I leaned on teachers like Adrianna Truby, chair of the English department, who, through listening to my troubles, frustrations, and goals, helped me over time to foster self-confidence. Truby did so much more than just listen, though. She reviewed lesson plans and suggested ways to think about more effective assessment.
I reached out to Portner recently, interested to learn more about his take on the importance of mentoring. “I guess you can equate it with the old saying of ‘give someone a fish if they’re hungry to feed them for a day, but teach them to fish and they can feed themselves for life,’” he says. “This is really what you want to do if you’re mentoring someone, is to eventually stop mentoring them, in a sense, because they’ve become self‑sufficient. In other words, they develop a capacity, and competence, to make their own informed decisions.”
Portner and I also talk about why trust is crucial to the mentor-mentee relationship. New teachers must feel confident in expressing doubt or mistakes to experienced teachers, without fearing embarrassment or repercussions. In this respect, it’s crucial to note that mentors don’t serve as evaluators. Instead, the mentor serves as a confidant, concerned only with helping mentees—and, in turn, students—succeed in the classroom.
“If you know a person is going to be evaluating you, it really puts a little damper on things,” Portner says. “Having a peer evaluate you does have a lot of positives, and does work, but I really don’t want to call it mentoring.”
I wholeheartedly agree. Like students, adults learn best from being allowed and even encouraged to fail–and then learning from their mistakes. I also feel incredibly fortunate to have learned from Aldo Regalado, my colleague in the history department. During my rookie year, he constantly encouraged me to experiment with new assignments, while giving me much-needed guidance along the way. When attempts to increase student engagement failed, which happened, he didn’t record or report my mistakes to any superior. Instead, he helped me refine and analyze my approach to be more successful.
Within the first three to five years, Portner says, about 50% of new teachers quit the profession. If not for Truby and Regalado, I might have contributed to that statistic. “New teachers are put in their classrooms; it’s a sink or swim situation,” Portner says. “If they survive and end up liking what they’re doing, fine, but almost half of them, if not more than that, don’t.”
I also think of Mark Hayes, another colleague from the English department. My first year on the job, I taught two periods a day in his classroom. Sometimes, I would ask Hayes, another seasoned veteran, who also happens to know a ton about American history, to observe my class. Afterward, we would meet to discuss what went well and what I could change. All the while, Hayes never intimidated or threatened me—quite the contrary. He listened intently to my frustrations. I could tell that he was really listening—not just hearing. Portner reminds me of my good fortune with Hayes, and all of my other mentors.
“Unfortunately, the receiver of the message, in most interactions with people, is not really listener but a hearer,” Portner says. “They hear the sounds, but they don’t take the time to really understand what’s being sent. It’s more than just the words; it’s the feeling behind the words. There’s the body language that might be involved, all those kinds of things.”
I also think of Bruce Musgrave, a veteran educator who recently retired after 42 years in education—most recently as Palmer Trinity School’s assistant head of school for academics. Musgrave, who now serves as my editor, would never scold me for making mistakes. In fact, I can only recall his offering me support and praise, along with pragmatic advice on how to continue maturing as an effective teacher. Musgrave didn’t just simply pat me on the back and send me on my way. He too took the time to truly listen, and that I had such a positive and trusting relationship with the man in charge made all the difference in the world.
I realize my tremendous good fortune, and I ask Portner how new teachers without mentors can manage as well. Portner says that even at schools without a formal mentoring program, new teachers should never be afraid to ask questions or seek help. “They may not be trained as a mentor, and there are certain things they can’t do, but certainly they can provide support and some suggestions to you,” he says.
I also tell Portner about websites that encourage teachers to upload videos of lessons, like SmarterCookie, which also provides a forum for feedback from educators around the country. “A teacher or coach records video of a lesson with a phone, laptop, or camera; uploads it to our platform; and privately shares it with others,” the website reads. “Coaches, mentors, administrators, or other colleagues provide asynchronous time-stamped feedback on the teacher’s lesson. The teacher can then implement the actionable, specific feedback immediately.”
In January, I spoke with SmarterCookie founder Tess Brustein. After three years of teaching Elementary School in New York, she moved to California to develop the site. She speaks with youthful vigor, and I’m interested to learn more about her time as in the Teach for America corps.
“I didn’t have much preparation going into the classroom,” Brustein says. “There were people there to support me, but they were just spread so thin. They had so many teachers on their plate that they needed to support.”
Brustein says that she really wanted to improve, but ineffective professional development meetings—which took place in a massive auditorium—made it difficult for her to implement new techniques and practices.
“I always found one-on-one coaching was the most helpful to me and actually changed what I was doing,” Brustein says.
I couldn’t agree more. Every new recruit deserves a mentor to develop strengths and keep effective teachers on the job. At schools where mentors are in short supply, though, SmarterCookie affords the next best thing—the chance to view and critique lessons at one’s convenience.
I’m proud to support SmarterCookie, but I’m even more grateful for the tremendous one-on-one mentorship I received at Palmer Trinity School.