Leveraging Mentors in Your First Year of Teaching: A Perspective

Posted by David Alviar on August 18, 2017



The first few years of teaching are rough. Struggling with how to teach, what to teach, how to communicate with parents, and how to navigate the pressures from school administration are common. Many teachers feel isolated, unable to improve, and—perhaps worst of all—unsure of how to improve. Professional development is always a powerful option to help improve teaching proficiency, but only when used judiciously. You have to attend (and participate) in professional development that targets your weaknesses rather than reinforcing your strengths. What options do teachers have when such professional development programs are not readily available, or when they don't know where to begin? The answer: fellow teachers.

I spent part of my first year teaching imagining that I was self-sufficient. This thinking inhibited a growth mindset: I missed the opportunity to improve my teaching by tapping into my fellow teachers' expertise, criticism, and praise. A colleague who observes your classroom and teaching style can provide you insights that administrators do not always have. Not only do they often share students or subject areas with you, but experienced teachers know how the theory of teaching plays out in practice (e.g., this is what student-guided inquiry actually looks like). Best of all, a fellow teacher's advice comes unweighted— there's no fear of how it might affect your future. You asked for it. You wanted it. You can take it in, discuss it with them, and figure out what to do about it without the pressure of a formal evaluation from administration. 

Where do you start? The teachers' lounge may seem like an obvious choice, but it is not always the most positive of places. Instead, ask your assistant principal or principal to identify some of the top performing teachers at your campus. Share your idea with them— for example, you'd like to use a few minutes from a planning period each week to observe them teaching. Visit each of them and ensure that they are comfortable with you visiting; let them know that you are looking for ways to improve your own teaching. During your observation, write down things you see that you feel could have a positive impact on your teaching (e.g., how they interact with students, the sort of questions they ask, the structure of their classroom). In a follow-up conversation, tell them what you saw that you enjoyed and ask them if they would be willing to look for those things in your teaching by visiting during their own planning period in the following week. Encourage them to also look for areas where they feel you could improve and provide you feedback. 

After both observation classes, compile the feedback and tie it to student performance. For example, your fellow teacher may have observed that you spend too much time providing instructions. Through reflection or discussion with your observer, decide on what you could do to remedy this problem and what it would mean for student achievement. For example, by improving your classroom expectations and behavioral management through team building exercises and clearly defined consequences or rewards, you could cut down on time spent providing instructions, which would free up more time for students to do the work, resulting in greater student achievement because they practiced the content and skills longer. Do this for each problem they observed and for each strength of theirs that you observed that you do not currently possess. If you cannot tie the behavior to an increase in student achievement, cross it off your list. 

Improving your classroom experience, adjusting to the lifestyle of a teacher, and leveraging mentorship with experts in your school will help you get on the right track to becoming an educator who effectively supports student achievement. 


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