Paying it Forward: My Role as a Mentor Teacher

Student teacher Mentor

Mentoring student teachers is one of the greatest pleasures of my job. I’m not on of those who looks to it as an opportunity for a break in my course load, and, if one is a good mentor, the work load certainly multiplies instead of diminishes. I enjoy many things about working with new teachers– chief among them is their enthusiasm. I recall what it was like being a new teacher when so many possibilities were ahead of me, especially the unexpected twists and turns that my career has taken along the way.

I’ve had the good fortune of three very different stages in my career, as an educator, which I share with my students so they know that the traditional path isn’t the only way. When I graduated from college, my idea of being a teacher was having my own classroom, and a class– a cohesive unit of kids who were excited to learn– to share my wisdom and enthusiasm about learning with. That ideal notion was quickly expelled when I couldn’t find a job and had to “settle” working for Adult Education, under the guise of working with adults, but, in fact, most of them were anything but. I say “settle” because it certainly was not what I had planned, but it turned out to be the best thing for me because, there, I learned that each student/learner is an individual with his/her strengths, weaknesses, interests, obstacles…. Most had not been successful in the traditional classroom, so I needed to find new ways to get through to them, tapping into their individual learning styles. My next job I would classify as one that taught me the essentials of teaching writing, reading and critical thinking, interdependently, along with learning how to build a cohesive course threaded by connectivity. I learned that everything in life is based on making connections. The next stage in my career brought me to what I early on referred to as the Shangri-La of teaching– a small suburban, upper/middle class community that put priority on education. Well, I’ve come off of my cloud a bit, but I certainly have learned a great deal about teaching in a traditional, public school setting.

So, how did I get where I am, today? Not to negate the hard work, the passion , the rewards, but if I had to point to one thing that consistently got me to where I am– I’d have to say it’s been my mentors. They have been supportive and have taught me hard lessons. They have been role models, allowing me to develop my own sense of uniqueness and individuality. They have opened doors, very generous some of them. They have coached and cheered. And some of them, I’m sure, didn’t even know their influence on me at the time.

I’m a pay it forward kind of person. So, each opportunity I have to work with a young teacher, I take it. Some have been the most rewarding experiences of my life; while others have been excruciatingly painful. But isn’t that what education (microcosm of life) is? It’s all about the experience, and there is, in fact, learning to be had in each and every experience.

Student teacher Wordle

Student Teacher/Mentor Pedagogy:How I approach this experience…

A Reflective Process

First and foremost, student teaching should be a reflective process for everyone involved. There will be highs and lows, teachable moments, and moments you never want to relive as a teacher, but at the end of the day, the teacher needs to look back to ask: What worked? What didn’t work? Why? And  how does all of this play a part in how I’ll do it next time? The ability to reflect on a lesson, all of the tangibles and intangibles, is essential to good teaching– for mentors and mentees, alike.

The Role of the Mentor

As a mentor, one needs find a balance of being directive by establishing parameters that will promote a successful experience while allowing the student teacher creative license to shape his/her student teaching experience. In my department, we encourage student teachers to work with two teachers to gain a more diversified experience. It helps if these teachers are already adept at collaborating. The best situation, as far as I’m concerned is a complimentary one where mentors differ in some way, but work well together, thus, modeling a team approach.

Ideally, mentors should have the opportunity to converse with the student teacher before taking him/her on as a mentee. During this conversation, mentors should gain a sense of the potential mentee’s background, strengths, challenges and goals. A good working relationship is key to the success of a student teaching experience.

Next, mentors should meet to work out possible schedules for the student teacher, with the goal of providing choice while taking into consideration the content of the courses as well as variant levels and not too many preps. A conversation with a potential student teacher early on will help guide this process. It is my belief that a good schedule, one that includes content which can showcase the student teacher’s background/knowledge/interests coupled with the challenge of working in a subject that the student teacher is less comfortable with provides a good foundation. Moreover, it’s ultimately up to the student teacher to choose which schedule will be most conducive to his/her learning goals. One note of importance is that when working with two mentors, it’s essential to have a common prep when all three can meet to debrief on lessons (planning, preparation and implementation).

Letting Go

As a mentor, I feel it is imperative to let go in order for the mentee to get an optimal experience. This means, making the student teacher aware of my own goals for my students for the year, offering him/her choice in what to teach within the parameters of the curriculum, while keeping in mind my overarching goals. This means, that he/she might choose to teach something I normally do not, so long as it adheres to the curriculum, which is something I fully support if not encourage. I see my role as a guide, so my own curriculum/units/lessons/activities are available for my student teachers to use in varying capacities. Some teachers will literally take my lessons and implement them as is; these are often the teachers who lack confidence or the creative prowess to develop their own. While others go to the completely opposite extreme, making units/lessons their own from the start. Most fall somewhere in between. Regardless the type of teacher, I feel it’s my job to point them in directions but not dictate how they use the material. And the goal for each student teacher is autonomously to develop & implement a unit from beginning to end before the end of the student teaching block.

Observation Period

During the first two weeks of a student teaching block, the student teacher’s role is to observe, engage, and begin planning for his/her own first unit/class. In class, I invite the student teacher to jump in, to take part in what the class and I am doing, to work one-on-one and in small groups with students to create a smooth transition. After observing one or several of my classes, I conference with the student teacher, asking him/her to identify what they thought my goals were, based on a given lesson, and to assess whether or not and how those goals were met based on the behavior of the students in the classroom. I also ask what I might have done differently or what the student teacher would have done differently. This way, we begin to dialogue about the connections and scaffolding that occurs within a lesson and from one to another. Modeling is a very important part of teaching, as is reflection, and it all begins, here in these early conversations.

Grading Instruction

As part of the observation period, I ensure that a student teacher observes an essay lesson from beginning to end. As a proponent of the process writing school of thought, we do a lot of writing in class for that first writing assignment, especially, which is good for a beginning teacher to see. Upon its conclusion, I copy a handful of papers (attempting to collect an array of levels of writing). I send one set home with the student teacher to grade & comment on while I grade and comment on the same set. Together we go through the papers one at a time discussing the grade choices/comments we made. It’s a good exercise for me to see the thought process behind the assessment and for him/her to see mine. This will help me determine the level of attention I need to pay, moving forward, to his/her ability to assess the students. Further, we discuss grading policies (weighted vs. percentages) and rationales behind determine what assignments are of what value.

Unit Building

This is the foundation for good teaching. I call it unit “building” because scaffolding is very important. And I don’t just consider the unit as an entity unto itself, prior knowledge is key to determine which unit should be taught first, second, and so on and why.  As mentioned earlier, I share my overarching goals for each class for the year with my student teacher, pointing out how what he/she observes works toward achieving those goals.

Once the student teacher establishes the content of his/her unit and can articulate how the instruction of this unit “fits” into the big goals for the year, I ask the student teacher to consider what his/her ultimate goals for the unit are.  In other words, you should know where you’re headed before you determine how to get there. It all boils down to one question: what is the end product and what skills are you looking to assess from that product? Once that’s established, I direct them to work backward from there in planning the daily lessons.

Is it easy? For some it comes naturally. For me, it is one of my favorite parts of my job. But my goal is two-fold: for the mentee, I need him/her to become at least proficient in unit building and to recognize how the construction of a unit is a microcosm of the construction of a course. Once those two things are clear, student teachers have the foundation they need for good teaching.

The Part that Can’t be Taught: Presence

Unfortunately, in my experience you either have it or you don’t. That isn’t to say it can’t be cultivated. And certainly, even the most dynamic teachers have grown into their role. It’s all about confidence, really. You have to know more than the class, first. Second, you need to give into the fact that you don’t know everything. And finally, you need to be flexible. You need to allow for the daily mishaps that occur in a classroom to happen, and pick up with grace and carry on. When students sense a teacher who is shy, or tense, or ill-at-ease, they can be ruthless in trying to expose it. I share this with my student teachers before hand: “the students will test you in every way possible, like it’s their job.” The thing about teaching is that you have to be “ON” constantly.

As an exercise to develop the presence of a teacher in a classroom, what I think works best is during that observation period to set up as many observations as you can in an array of classroom settings– in other disciplines, even. As the mentor, choose teachers’ classes for your mentee to observe the best of the best and those who seriously need improvement. Accompany your student teacher on these observations if you can. It makes the dialogue so much richer. Give the mentee a heads up to pay attention to classroom management, teaching style, and how the teacher responds to what occurs in the classroom. By having this shared experience, when the mentee faces some of what was observed, you as the mentor can go back to that … “remember when we saw Student throw a wad of gum across the room… how did TEACHER handle that?” It’s all about modeling, making connections and reflecting. All of teaching is.

All Kinds of Observing

It’s the role of the mentor to guide her student teacher.  I love this quote:

“The essence of education is not to stuff you with facts but to help you discover your uniqueness, to teach you how to develop it, and then to show you how to give it away.”
-Leo Buscaglia

I think it really applies here because I see my job as one who guides the student teacher in becoming the best TEACHER he/she can be.

If, as the mentor, you dictate what you want of the mentee, than flying won’t be so easy when leaving your nest. Just like teaching, student teaching is a trial and error experience. Sometimes a student teachers want to do something that I can see in the planning will probably not work, and so long as it isn’t harmful to the students, I let them go with it in order for them to discover how and where it went wrong on their own.

My job is to observe and help the student teacher walk through a reflection. I provide both commendations and recommendations based on the mentee’s own reflections of a lesson. My observations range from very informal (just eavesdropping really while tending to some of my own work) to both planned and unplanned formal observations. Sometimes I script everything from the class which tends to be an enlightening experience, even for a seasoned teacher, because, as much as we like to think we are, we are not omniscient. We can’t see when a student is doodling or texting or passing notes or pretending to work when really they’re daydreaming. And sometimes an observation is very focused when I’m just looking to report on a specific goal the student teacher has.

Conferences with the mentee are a must after each observation, no matter the kind or purpose. They always open up with me asking: “So how did today’s lesson go?” Then, depending upon the mentee’s response, I move to questions like these: “What were the strengths?” “What would you change and why?” “What did the students not get that you need to continue working with them on?”

Hands-Off Approach to “My Students”

As teachers, we are a little possessive over our students; I’ll admit it. Each year, I always say, “I have 123 kids and three of them are my own.” So, it’s hard to give up one’s own students to a student teacher, especially when the student teacher comes later in the year after bonds have already been formed. Having said that, it’s imperative to have a “hands-off” approach to a class of students that a student teacher is presiding over. Imperative. The teacher cannot gain credibility if you allow your students to come to you instead of the student teacher. It’s like children in a parental situation– when a child plays one parent against another– if you allow it to happen, it will. It’s the job of a child to test authority. If lines are made clear, the child feels safe. I make it clear to my classes the shift in authority when a student teacher begins his/her teaching. I reinforce that each time a student asks me, “Can I go to my locker?” “Can I work with Student A instead of Student B?” “Can you look at this essay, Mr. So & So gave me a C but I think you would have given me a B.” No. No. And no. Go see Mr. So & So. The worst thing a mentor can do is undermine the authority of a student teacher. Now, having said that, it’s the job of a mentor to ensure that the best interests of the children are being met at all times in addition to the best interests of the student teacher. It’s a balancing act, but as teachers we’re fantastic jugglers.

An Ongoing Relationship and Letting Go

Like preparing a child to leave its nest, teaching,  like parenting, is ultimately about letting go. Some students come back time after time while others are never to be seen again. We don’t know how our words will or will not resonate with them long after they’ve gone, but it sure is nice to hear when they do.

I recognize each of my own mentors, some of whom I keep in contact with, today, and some whom have become an important part of my past. I’ve thanked some personally and, to others, I’ve sent random letters of thanks. It’s important to say thank you to some one who’s affected where your journey leads you.

When student teachers leave, particularly those I’ve had a strong connection with, I try to leave the door ajar, just a little. It’s important to empower each of them with how far they’ve come, and some come farther than others to be sure, but everyone has his/her own path. I hope, in the end, a few of the teacher tricks I’ve passed on will be of help in the future– that my reach will not end with the student teaching experience. And, more so, I hope that I’ve instilled the idea of paying it forward in my student teachers, that one day, when they are confident enough that they have wisdom to share with others that they do.

Teaching Jung


One thought on “Paying it Forward: My Role as a Mentor Teacher

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  1. Usually I don’t learn article on blogs, but I wish to say that this write-up very compelled me to try and do it! Your writing taste has been surprised me. Thanks, very nice article.

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