New Teacher Toolbox: Finding an Inspiring Mentor to Improve Your Teaching Practice

None of us can, or even should, navigate the classroom without support from mentors. Mentors can be formal-teachers who are assigned to support you as a new teacher in the school- or can simply be teachers you admire and who support you. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to have both formal and informal mentors who have supported me in being an effective teacher for my students. 

Janice S. When I was a preservice teacher, Janice was one of my first practicum hosts. Janice was that elementary teacher who made every genius move look effortless. Her ability to form relationships with her students and to use those relationships to push them academically and socially was #teachergoals for me. Janice was generous with her time and when I made a mistake, helped me see how to grow from my error. Janice used multiple layers of differentiation groups, collaboration groups, and had an organizational style that made switching from these different learning centers efficient. Listening to her lovingly-and humorously-chastise a student for being off-task with her Brooklyn accent was the icing on the cake. The kids adored her and so did I. 

Cheryl C. Cheryl was a middle school language arts teacher who let me complete a semester-long practicum in her classroom when I was a preservice teacher. Middle school was not my jam; I was never going to teach middle school. Fast forward a few years and I’ve now been teaching middle school science for six years! Cheryl inspired confidence in me and her students. She was the calmest teacher I ever met and was unflapped by her grade level department partner’s constant over-excitement and gossiping. Cheryl taught me to believe in myself as a teacher and helped me to secure a long-term subbing position within our district when I finished my practicum. 

Janice R. That’s right: Another Janice! On my first day of back-to-school teacher prep in Germany, Janice came into my room to suss me out. Within about five minutes of talking in my new, bare, and chaotic classroom, I thought to myself, “This is my person.” Janice and I couldn’t have been more different. She was a very experienced teacher and Gifted and Talented Coordinator for our school. I had completed my Master’s of arts in teaching just days before I was hired for the fourth grade teaching position, and with three years of teaching under my belt, I felt like a credible teacher. I wasn’t! I was a baby teacher still, but Janice taught me to be credible and supported me in growing as a teacher, co-worker, and learner. One of my main goals in life was to make Janice laugh; her delight in a funny story about the kids was a great part of my day. Janice taught me how to deeply listen to parents who were dissatisfied with the support I was giving their child, and how to use that criticism to improve my teaching practice. 

My Minnesota team. I struggled with my move and transition from overseas to the midwestern U.S., but I eventually got my #teachersquad and found my stride. My classroom in Minnesota was a tiny, Northwoods cabin that served as a summer camp bunkhouse during the summers. In the spring my students would be covered in Lyme disease-infested ticks and in the frigid winters they’d have to completely cover up just to get to the restrooms in the next building. From a cultural standpoint, I did not fit in with our small community. But my teaching squad helped me to see the need for partners to rely upon, cry with, laugh with, and grab a beer with after work. These passionate teachers made a lot out of a little and cared deeply about sharing authentic experiences with their students. They didn’t have to accept me, but they did and for that, I’ll be forever thankful.

It is almost embarrassing how many people I could name as past mentors within my teaching career. This blog post could easily be twice as long! Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t found a mentor or partner who can support you in improving your teaching practice. In every building, there is a teacher or staff member who can become your person. They might be the school secretary, the counselor, or a teacher in a different grade. Embrace the opportunities to talk to teachers and staff in hallways, in the office, and in the staff lounge. Offer to buy an experienced teacher a coffee in exchange for some time with them. It will be well worth it for you, and for your students.

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