I’ve been in education for six short years, but I have been fortunate to be mentored by a number of incredible educators. I know that not everyone shares my experience; several of my teacher friends have lamented that they haven’t gotten much out of the mentoring program in their districts or that they weren’t given much guidance when they became an assigned mentor to a new teacher. I don’t think, though, that becoming an inspiring mentor requires a 30-hour training or a certain number of service years. In my experience, teacher-leaders just need 3 key traits to empower others.
1. Mentors share.
This might seem like a no-brainer, but when I say that mentors share, I don’t mean that they pass on lesson plans or tried-and-true strategies, though every once in a while, that certainly helps! Mentors share their passion for learning and facilitating. They understand that they don’t know it all, and so they come to mentorship as a partner — someone to work with rather than under. And when they experience a struggle, they are transparent without being negative. They model the attitude that there is no problem impossible to solve, and they actively seek out alternatives when one possibility doesn’t work out.
When I became a student teacher, my cooperating teacher shared her classroom and her passion, but Susan also shared with me a gift much greater: confidence. As a co-department chair, Pre-AP teacher, and a teacher of a state-tested grade, she had lots of reasons to keep a watchful eye and give pointed suggestions. Instead, she trusted me completely (or at least pretended at first!). Knowing that someone else trusted me to teach her students made me feel confident in my abilities, and as a novice teacher, there is no gift shared more beneficial than that.
2. Mentors listen first, then coach through noticing and questioning.
Anyone in a position to lead others should spend 70% of their time listening, 20% asking questions, and 10% making observations. Did you notice that none of that time should be spent giving advice or solving problems? In our classrooms, giving students answers to questions generates dependence. The same becomes true with adults. If we want to develop teacher capacity, we have to make teachers feel capable to come to solutions independently. The way to do that is to guide them there until they don’t need to be guided anymore. George Couros, in his book Innovator’s Mindset, explains the importance of teaching to strengths first. Influential leaders know how to help others discover strengths so that they can capitalize on those and develop a framework for improving areas where they see opportunity for growth.
My former ELA coordinator, Michelle, is the perfect example of someone who guides people to greatness without prescribing. One of my favorite memories at my former school was the moment my entire team realized we had been teaching a standard ineffectively because we interpreted it incorrectly. We looked over our common assessment data more than a little flabbergasted that one of our easiest standards was so often missed. Michelle was in our PLC meeting and asked a few simple questions. Almost instantly, we discovered our error. Then, rather than tell us how to teach that standard more effectively, she listened and supported us as we brainstormed new methods. Because of her, I not only understand how to use data effectively, but I also recognize its value.
3. Mentors are never “done.”
Susan and Michelle are still people that I go to when I have a question or need some guidance, even though I am not a new teacher anymore. In fact, I left that district (and that state) when my husband received orders almost two years ago, and yet, they have never said they can’t/won’t/don’t have time to help me or hear me out. Good mentors understand that support and relationships are what make a strong team. When colleagues are in constant conversation about their craft and practices, that dialogue helps everyone grow. If the goal for our students is continuous growth, shouldn’t that be our goal for ourselves and each other? Effective mentors see the big picture and know the job is never done because there is always more to learn, try, and share.