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15 March 2018

Thoughts about mentoring new teachers

I was asked, "what does your department do to mentor new teachers?"

We haven't done anything formal, nor do we really want to.  The veterans have generally taken it on themselves to keep in touch with the new people, answering questions and being available as we can.  My philosophy is, there's no point in talking at new teachers before school starts more than we already do (and we already talk at them way too much).  Teaching – for the first time, or at a new school – must be experienced.  "Mentoring" consists of showing through our actions the type of teacher we hope that the new folks will become.  The best way for new young teachers to learn is to watch the pros, and then to talk shop.  

I think veteran teachers underestimate the fear of failure and the desperate, beaten-down mindset of the new teacher.  (Possibly because we have consigned those dark years to the deepest inaccessible recesses of our brains.)  I remember being so, so worried about doing things wrong, knowing that I was not as comfortable and in charge as my colleagues, knowing that there were complaints everywhere from students testing my resolve, feeling the disapproval of my colleagues.  I beat myself up so much -- and colleagues and bosses beat me up so much -- that I never really realized what a damned good job I did in my first couple of years.  I felt like I was expected to be perfect, and then to get better; I felt like, even though I recognized and tried to learn from my mistakes, that nevertheless I was always in danger of being sacked for my lack of perfection.  (And in fact my contract was not renewed.  At two separate schools.*)  It wasn't until I had been teaching for nearly a decade that I stopped feeling like I had to prove myself every day.

* How’d you like your physics programs now, schools that booted me out the door?  

My wife taught English as a 22 year old who was the youngest person on faculty, and one of only four women.  She similarly felt the constant disapproval from colleagues, the *perceived* disapproval from the older men in her department even when it wasn't there, and the disapproval from herself for not being practically perfect in every way.  She never noticed just how badly she was being treated by the school; she just assumed anything that wasn't perfect was all her fault.  Her colleagues, her students, and the administration drove her out of teaching.  And that is too bad, because she was really, really friggin' good for a new teacher.  She would be bloody amazing now had she stuck with it.  

Those same effects were *this* close to driving me out of teaching, but for one kind offhand comment from a veteran.  I'm glad I stayed, but I still sometimes wonder why I did.   

I suppose I think of mentoring new teachers much like sabermetrics thinks of evaluating baseball managers -- it's not possible for a manager to significantly improve his team's chances of winning by making "good" strategic choices.  The best managers statistically are the ones who back off and don't make actively stupid strategic decisions.  In that vein, formal observations and formal, scheduled discussions are often more intimidating / loaded with perceived disapproval than effective.  But those veterans who take care to develop personal and professional relationships with new teachers will place themselves in a position to serve as a sounding board, and then to gently offer advice where asked.

I can tell you what sort of "mentoring" did NOT work well.  It was NOT effective when I was told to use the calculus teacher down the hall as a resource -- he was actively unfriendly, unhelpful in a practical sense, and unenthusiastic about helping; he threw in some piss poor advice to boot.  I needed someone to tell me when I did things well, to talk through my ideas without dismissing them immediately out of hand, to allow me to try new things without prejudging the results.  I needed someone to vigorously shut down ridiculous complaints, to smite loser arseholes (like those who were caught but not held accountable for hollering "BITCH!" outside my wife's classroom her first year), to quelch the malicious gossip from students and less-than-friendly colleagues before it could snowball.  Then, only then, did I need someone to give me advice.  What I actually got was a bunch of old folks who freely dispensed advice, but who also sent messages in body language that I wasn't part of their club, and that it was largely my fault that the students whined about me -- blame the victim.  Know that this isn't just a me and my first school issue -- my wife had the EXACT SAME experience.  And I'll bet you know of someone else with this experience, too.

Just telling a new teacher to work with veterans who aren't invested in mentoring does not work.  One cannot be mentored when every event, every question is loaded with judgmental baggage.  It takes a special, special veteran teacher to build enough trust with a new young teacher such that the new teacher is willing to open up, to ask tough questions, to ask for advice, and to take advice without feeling sandbagged.  The number of veteran teachers capable of building that trust is, sadly, negligible. 

We should, wherever possible, put new faculty in close physical proximity with veterans who are easy to talk to.  A while back we got three physics teachers new to my school, two of whom were new to teaching as well.  Having the three of them share an office was priceless.  I was just down the hall, and was always in the coffee room.  Just that proximity let us develop a camaraderie.  We want new folks nearby to those who will be both helpful and nonjudgmental; folks who will not butt in unless asked (or unless it's blindingly obvious that butting needs to be done).  Even if no actual advice is dispensed, just watching the professionalism of our veterans builds a positive corporate culture in which we have to convince faculty to STOP working rather than to start.

Point is, there can be no formula for mentoring new or young teachers.  So much is driven by personalities and relationships.   I'd say that former football coach Clint Alexander has been a better academic mentor to me, and to a large number of our faculty, than pretty much anyone else I've met professionally - when I had trouble with a student or a colleague, I asked Clint for advice, even though he wasn't a fellow teacher in my department.  Our head track coach has mentored his assistants in a way that goes well beyond track.   We can't know ahead of time whose spouses or families will get along with those of a new teacher.  We can't predict who will get along well within a department, or who will become more friendly with teachers on a coaching staff.  

All we can do is continue to hire and develop veteran teachers who remember what it was like to be new, and who consider it their job to support new folk in an atmosphere of authentic, non-judgmental caring.  Keep the control freaks, those who judge, those who give too much credence to silly kid complaints, far away from the newbies.  Keep those who work hard and professionally visible and prominent; make it clear to the new teachers through our actions what phenotypes of teachers are valued by the school.  That's all we can do.  After that, teachers will have to sink or swim on their own abilities.


  1. What a great post! Thanks Greg! As someone who is currently in a mentor role; this perspective is quite valuable.

    Just out of curiosity, what was that "kind offhand comment from" the veteran?

  2. Thanks, Michael.

    There was one teacher in my first school's department whom I particularly respected, though she was given and took no role in mentoring me. I mentioned to a few of my colleagues in a social situation the feelers I had put out in the business and engineering world, hoping for a contact. While the others either stayed silent or talked with me about (non-teaching) job options, that one woman said she thought it would be a mistake for me to leave teaching; that she thought I was very good at it, and should keep at it.

    I had no other prospects yet, so I went ahead and added teaching to the kinds of jobs I was pursuing. I got multiple interviews very quickly. Turns out she was right.