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Be Your Own Mentor

August 24, 2017 / by Margaret Shafer

I began my teaching career in January, after a December graduation.

That first day, I took a deep breath and started to tell my first period class of eighth graders about my expectations.

A boy I’ll call Ben bounced out of his seat and turned away from me.

“Sit down,” I said.

“No,” he said. “We have to say the pledge.”

Just then, the speaker crackled to life and a voice from above asked the students to stand.

Ben was a challenge throughout the semester. But the first day Pledge of Allegiance was just the first of many things that could’ve gone better -- if only I’d had someone to tell me the simple things about the school’s routines, and was there to help me improve my classroom management. By the end of the semester I decided to give teaching one more year, promising myself that if it didn’t get better, I’d look for a different career. The next fall I had a new job in a different district, where I was happy to stay.

Over time, I’ve benefited from the help of many of my more experienced colleagues. And I’ve mentored numerous student teachers and first-year educators, both formally and informally, and learned from them as well. Unfortunately, many districts still expect beginning teachers to "go it alone."

What can you do if you find yourself in this situation?

Your only choice is to be your own mentor.

Chances are good that your district will give you -- at minimum -- a curriculum guide or a syllabus, as well as the board approved materials for your class. Beyond that, what do you need to know before you begin?

Here are some ideas for resources you can seek out and the types of questions you can ask to get the support you need to start off strong:

School Culture

First, consider the daily logistics, like including the Pledge and morning announcements. Then, think about regular weekly tasks, as well as monthly assemblies, emergency drill procedures, aftercare, or clubs.

What will you need to know to keep your classroom running smoothly each day?

Traditions can be sacred and every school building has them. Every fall, students watch our town’s fall festival carnival rides being set up on our school grounds. For that week, the carnival theme rules. If you don’t pay attention to long-standing traditions, you might set yourself up for classroom management drama or even get yourself into some hot water with a colleague.

  • You wouldn’t plan a zoo field trip if you know adjacent grades already go there.
  • You might want to know that chemistry classes celebrate Mole Day, or that the sophomore English class always teaches Julius Caesar around the Ides of March.
  • You wouldn’t pick Holes as a third grade read-aloud if you know fourth grade uses it for a novel study.

The basics are easily overlooked and if nobody tells you, the only way to find out is to ask.

VIDEO: New Teacher Survival Guide: Mentoring 

Who to Ask

Ideally, the people in your department or grade level will be receptive to your questions. Most educators are in the business of helping people, and will naturally take you under their wing. If that’s not the case, cast your net wider.

Think of the teacher who, when you first met, said, “Let me know if you need anything.” Ask questions of the most and the least experienced teachers in your building. Get to know your building secretaries and custodians. As you talk with a variety of people, see who’s most receptive and who you “click” with, and who you’ll feel comfortable coming back to when new questions arise.

Form a Peer Group

While finding a mentor is crucial, finding someone in the same boat and experiencing the same challenges can be a lifesaver. Seek out a friend with whom you can problem solve, celebrate, and just vent. If there aren’t other new teachers in your building, look for a colleague from the same district, an online community, or a college friend to share the daily ups and downs of teaching.

Changing the Culture

You may come into a situation and see everything that’s wrong. You might even be on to something, but you’ll never be able to affect real change outside of your own classroom unless you forge relationships with those around you. While you’re out seeking information from your colleagues, offer to help them in return.

  • Did you create a great activity? Share it with your teaching partner.
  • Are you a whiz with technology? Share your skills with any frustrated colleagues who may not catch on as quickly.

And when someone offers you information or an activity to use in the classroom, be open minded enough to accept it, whether or not you’ll immediately use it. Many new teachers begin by instructing the way their cooperating teachers taught. Everyone needs a beginning set of skills, but realize that there are a variety of other ways to teach and you're in the best position to learn from, and with, the experts!

Few individuals look back on their first year of teaching and think, “That was wonderful… I wouldn’t change a thing!” It’s okay if you’re constantly pressed for time, that you have to rethink several lessons a week, that you’re a good teacher, but not the best… yet. Take a deep breath. Next year will be better

Topics: Professional Learning, New Teachers, Coaching

Margaret Shafer

Written by Margaret Shafer

Margaret Shafer teaches third grade at Jefferson Elementary School in Morton Unit School District. She has a background in special education and is passionate about meeting the needs of all students. She volunteers and sometimes writes for Edutopia. Connect with Margaret on Twitter: @Mshafer3g.

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