Guide for a Mentor Teacher

Hedge: So @Hillby258 and I were throwing the idea back and forth about doing a blog in the same spirit of “Advice for Student Teachers”, but for mentor teachers instead. We both have basically the same ideas, but I’m overly wordy and dramatic (Hillby:  expansive and passionate). Hillby’s advice points are short and precise (Hillby: aw shucks).

Hillby:  Hedge @approx_normal did such a good job on writing up the list for student teachers, and I immediately thought how we also need a list for mentor teachers.  So I asked her if she wanted to collaborate.  You see, my student teaching was with two separate teachers, one in math and one in physics. Math was horrible and Physics was great.  I think if that math teacher and I had been more truthful with her expectations, things would have gone better.  In my 3rd year of teaching, I knew I was leaving at the end of the year so I took on a student teacher in the hope that I would find someone competent willing to replace me. With these experiences I have my opinions on what has made successful Mentor Teacher / Student Teacher experience.

H&H:  If you’re a student teacher reading this, first read Mentor Teacher Advice: 34 (and counting) Things Every Student Teacher Should Know by Approximately Normal. (The overwhelming feeling you get from reading that will make the transition into teaching less of a shock)

Now WE want to speak to those who are choosing to Mentor a Student Teacher.

At the beginning, all was well…

1. Say this sentence out loud: “I will turn over MY classroom and MY students to this student teacher.” Did you choke in the middle of the sentence? Have trouble getting it out? Feel a little sick to you stomach? I (hillby) started tearing up when I said that to my student teacher the first time. Try this sentence instead: “I will help this student teacher become good enough to take over my classroom.” Feels a little more positive and hopeful.

*** If you have trouble thinking that anyone could be good enough to take over your classroom, stop right now. Tell them to find another Mentor Teacher. DO NOT CONTINUE. You will only make your and your future student teacher’s life miserable. Keep on doing the (hopefully) awesome work you’re doing, and allow other teachers to do the training.

2. Get them into your classroom early.

Hillby: Preferably before the previous school year ends. This may be impossible depending on when student teachers are assigned, but if possible this will help.

Hedge: Hopefully most colleges are better than mine in relationship to this. I usually find out I’m getting a student teacher about a semester in advance, but I don’t find out who it is until (usually) the day before they show up. The student teacher usually doesn’t know they’re placed with me until about a week before they show up. But ideally, student teachers and mentor teachers need the opportunity to meet and share with each other WELL in advance. It’s best when the student teacher knows their placement at the end of the semester prior to their student teaching. Why? Because they can call the mentor teacher, set up a meeting, get materials for the courses they will be teaching, talk about what they’ll be doing, and be BETTER PREPARED. So if your student teacher calls in December about meeting you, please don’t blow them off – invite them to your room during your planning period or go meet them for coffee. Give them copies of EVERYTHING you can think of to make their transition better. (See my list here). /=

3. Figure out what your expectations are for the student teacher. Be very explicit and truthful with yourself. If you expect them to show up 10 minutes early every day, understand that you are not a relaxed person. If you expect them to be able to teach using a certain method, you’re going to have to teach them that method. Figure out where your organization is important to you. I’m (hillby) not to good about physical clutter, but everything has its place on my computer.

4. You need to define professionalism for teachers.

Hillby: Define professionalism behaviorally. Write that down. Everyone has a different definition on professionalism, make yours explicit.

Hedge: This might have to be changed on a case-by-case basis, but a lot of the student teachers really don’t know how to behave like a professional in the classroom. They are overwhelmed and stressed and, for some, this is their first time teaching. I think part of the reason students lack respect is due to the lack of professionalism displayed by the student teachers. They are sometimes immature and don’t realize they have to act “like a boss” (not the Lonely Island version, a real boss). They don’t know how to have “presence” in the classroom. I’ve had to tell them things like, “Don’t run around the classroom.” “Don’t flirt with the students.” “Don’t tell students to shut up.” “Don’t tell students that you hate them.” “Don’t be alone with a student, EVER.” “Don’t bend over to talk to a student.” “Don’t wear revealing clothing.” And they most awkward conversation EVER: “Um, make sure you are, uh, careful when you tuck in your shirt… because, um… see, uh…” (Thankfully that student teacher understood where I was going with that. It wasn’t a rare occurrence – it was an epidemic. The kids were tired of seeing his tighty-whities every time he turned his back to them.)

5. Take those classroom expectations and definition of professionalism, and DISCUSS them with your student teacher.

Hillby: Talk with the student teacher about your expectations of them. Discuss. What are their expectations of you? Before you start, everyone has to agree on what’s going to happen. This will make it much less confrontational if things start to fall apart. It’s a lot easier to say “you didn’t do the thing we agreed upon” than “you didn’t do the thing I expected you to know to do.”

Hedge: This is KEY. Write it down. I have a sample “Welcome Letter” to the student teacher that you can use to help you get those ideas down. It might take you a while to really think about what you want, and I want you to spend a day or two on it. Leave it, reread it, add, edit, etc. And I know you (cuz I know ME), you’re thinking, “I’ll just tell them when we meet in person.” NO. It’s not a plea – I’m not asking you, I’m telling you NO. Why am I being so bossy? Because (a) you won’t remember to cover everything – even if you jot it down on a list, something will be left out and (b) they will be SO overwhelmed and intimidated by the situation, all they’ll hear is the “Wah wah wah” of Charlie Brown’s teacher. They MIGHT take away about 15% of what you say (yeah, I made that up based on experience – so what?). So give them something they can go back and read and reflect on later. Use the list to help you add to the letter. And, just because I’ve had, um, issues with student teachers, it might help if you had them sign something saying they read the letter and understand your expectations. Here’s a worksheet that I threw together (so keep your expectations LOW) to help you jot things down.

6. Decide who’s going to buy drinks. This needs to be talked about. I felt that buying coffees and/or beer were a way to pay it forward. Some people (justifiably) think the student teacher should be buying for the same reason. In addition to avoiding the awkwardness, this is a nice way to diffuse a bit of the incredibly weighted power dynamic in your relationship.

7. Make time for drinks. Coffee/Tea, Beer/Wine. Get out of the classroom, take the stress level down a notch. Be human.

8. Acknowledge the power dynamic that exists. You’re this weird pseudo-boss that can effectively make or break their career. That’s going to make some things weird. Admit that you’re not going to be friends on an equal setting because of this, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly.

9. Take them on a tour to MEET other teachers. You can even make it easier on them by pointing out the 2 or 3 other teachers that you interact with the most and therefore get priority on name memorization. Make sure they end up back at your room with you at the end of the tour. True story (hillby): in one of my observations, within 10 minutes I got dropped off at another teacher’s room, abandoned to “chat” with the about-to-retire-worksheet-master and spent the next 40 minutes trying to extricate myself from that conversation. That observation didn’t end well.

10. Decide and discuss how much freedom the student teacher has to change your classroom as they take over. No matter how many times you say it, this is not “their classroom.” For a short time, it will be a shared classroom, but make no mistake that the students will not allow them to totally replace you. Can they change the organization? Homework policy? Grading policy? Classroom rituals? As I discussed these with my student teacher, I (hillby) realized there were some rituals and policies that had no justification. There were a few others that I couldn’t let them change b/c it would take too long to undo.

11.  “Student #352 is not my name”

Hedge: It would really help your student teacher if you would put students in a seating chart until he/she can learn student names.

Hillby: It would also help if you reminded them to write their name on the board. Entering grades tends to help in learning names for me. Not that I would ever push off such a thing to a student teacher for any other reason. Not me.

12. Tell your students ahead of time about the student teacher WITH the addendum that you expect MORE from them because you’ll have a visitor for an extended period of time. And BE POSITIVE about the student teacher coming into your classroom – make the students believe that you’re excited to have them. DO NOT give the impression to your students that having a student teacher is a pain (see #1) because they will use it to divide the two of you. Your kids are going to try and blame the student teacher for everything under the sun and take advantage of the situation as much as possible. And don’t think, “MY students would NEVER…” They’re KIDS!! OF COURSE they will!  I (Hedge) promise you that some are going to run home and tell their parents they’re not doing well because of your student teacher. I would send home a note to the parents about the student teacher. Let them know that you are still available for the students at all times and that you expect the students to come talk to you if there are any issues. Also tell the parents to contact you if they have concerns. This will establish up front to the students that you will NOT tolerate excuses on their part because there’s NO REASON for them to do poorly.

Transition to Teaching…

13. Make them prepare in advance.

Hedge: Unless the university requires a longer period of time, the student teacher needs to be prepared to give you everything he/she will use for a lesson A WEEK IN ADVANCE. Not the lesson plan, not a nice outline… EVERYTHING. That includes bell activity, every example shown to the students, activities, detailed explanation of how it will be taught, etc. You’ve got to be firm on this, do NOT let them slide. This is where I fall sometimes, because I WANT to be helpful and I know how stressed they are with the additional paperwork they have to complete. So I’ve always been nice and given an extension and it’s come back to haunt me a few times. But ultimately this is YOUR classroom and YOU are responsible for these students. So sit down with them and go through what they expect to do. Sometimes what they think will last 90 minutes may only last 30. They may have 10 examples of something when they really only need 2. Give them constructive criticism, citing what you LIKE along with what they might want to change. Ask questions, notify them of topics that will probably be easy/hard to explain. Offer suggestions. Then tell them you want to see the revised version ASAP. Then repeat the process. If you set this expectation up front, hopefully they will begin to refine their skills so that you don’t have to many many (if any at all) adjustments.

Hillby: We should all be honest here, if you really want to enforce them meeting your deadlines on lesson prep there should be a proper consequence. A week gives you time to make your own lesson, so unless they are prepared they don’t get to teach. I can’t say I’ve ever tried this, but I know if that was genuinely a threat over my head I’d get my butt in gear proper quick. If you are headed down this route, make sure that there is an escape route for the student teacher. The focus should be on making sure they are prepared, not the punishment. I envision this meaning you might need to sit down and make the lesson together to help them meet that deadline.

14. Get them out of your classroom. That planning time you have during the day should be used to get into other classrooms and watch other teachers. Start out with a few suggested teachers, because you know who the student teacher will learn the most by observing. Make the first few observations with the student teacher. Use some observation tools, simply so you’re not overwhelming them with information. My opinion is that you should also push this when they take over. For me, knowing I can’t use planning time for last minute plans makes me prepare better.  (Hillby: in my last school, we were comfortable enough that I could use my planning period to drop in and observe other teachers without notice)

15. IF you’re going to let them totally bomb a lesson, be ready to help clean up the mess. Take notes. Make suggestions, and be forthright with those suggestions. After their first failed lesson is not the time to “test” them. Ask them “what ideas for changes have you come up with so far” rather than “what changes will you make.” Tell them what you think would have worked better, and be clear why you think that works better OR admit if you’re not sure why.

16. Don’t be afraid to help with discipline, especially when they first take over. Of course you need to talk about this before and after any lessons. They’re still new at sorting the vast amount of information travelling through a teacher’s brains. Some things may go unnoticed until they know what to look for. Provide that backup for the student that’s trying to push the limit. If you think it’s time for them to deal with all situations, make that clear.

17. Some of your students don’t like you (shocker) and will be happy to have the student teacher and try to make you feel bad. Hopefully you’ve got thick enough skin that you expect this and won’t be bothered by it, but I’m surprised when some of my coworkers are hurt by it. But please don’t make the student teacher feel bad – it’s not their fault, it’s just YOUR student being a little immature (which we all expect, right?). Let it go.

18. If the student teacher goofs up while teaching (or you see a problem is about to go bad), try not to correct them in a manner that the students see it. Work out a signal ahead of time. Mine (Hedge) was to scratch my nose if we made eye contact and then I would write the issue on a post it or piece of paper that the student teacher would pick up as he/she made a random walk around the room. But you need to show them in advance how to deal with a mistake, because it WILL fluster them and shake their confidence.

19. If you expect the student teacher to use technology, make sure they KNOW HOW TO USE IT. I use flipcharts, but many students feel comfortable with PowerPoint or Keynote, and that’s fine with me. I expect student teachers to make use of the interactive response systems, so we talk about how to do that. I expect student teachers to use the emulator software for our graphing calculator. Just make sure they know how to use it comfortably BEFORE they get in front of students.

20. You have to tell student teachers not to discuss student issues outside the classroom. They sometimes interpret that as “don’t talk about it outside of school”, and will try to talk about some pretty intense things while walking down the hall. No, no, no. You need to remind the student teacher that the students are always listening and so are the other teachers. KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT for legal reasons.

21. Encourage your student teacher to get involved and support the students. Invite them to a game or a band concert. Once the students see the student teacher at events they’re not required to attend, they will see the student teacher isn’t just about “the job”. Or at least MY students always appreciated seeing student teachers show up. Or if they didn’t see them, hear the student teacher say, “”Killer pass last night when you guys split the post!” or “Great job on that solo!” (Ok, if your student teacher doesn’t follow sports or band or drama or whatever, you might have to coach them on what to say.)

22. Find out what they’re required to do for their program. Ask. Write it down, or go over it together. At the minimum you won’t be surprised by new requirements as their time draws to a close. They’re probably overwhelmed with the scale of what’s being asked of them. For my student teaching, I (hillby) had to produce a report that ended up being 110 pages long. My student teacher had to submit video documentation along with the written report. His was like a baby National Board Certification.

23. Grade them with the university teacher rubric a few times before their formal evaluations. It will help them get used to the things expected by their university supervisor. Or you could use this observation form.

24. Be constructive with your criticism. You were a student teacher once. Remember that they know what the books and philosophers think the classroom is like, but that’s not always reality. They haven’t put it into practice yet. It would be like me reading a book on the history, practice and theory of hockey and expecting to go out and make the NHL (or even SKATE for crying out loud). They’re gonna mess up. They’re gonna fall. HELP them along the way.

25. Give them a “mid-term” grade. Using either the university final evaluation form (I’ve got a sample if you want it, just e-mail) or one you create yourself, or using the expectations you agreed upon at the beginning of the semester, let them know how they’re doing. This will help you address things that may be “building” up that you’re afraid to be confrontational about. Be HONEST. Be prepared to give examples.

26. DOCUMENT everything. Please, if nothing else, trust us on that. If that means you buy a notebook and journal it or you keep an online file, just document. You may have to provide specific examples if your grading of the student teacher is called into question.

27. Keep in mind that the student teacher is trying to gather as much experience and information as possible for their future career as a teacher. One day, have a conversation about what you’ve done in the past (good and bad, worked and didn’t work, etc.).

All good things must end…

28. Discuss the transition back to you before they begin teaching. Make it gradual. If everything went well, towards the end you’ll have gotten bored and filled up your newly free time with other responsibilities. This glorious period will come to an end. Don’t jump back into the race without a proper warm-up. You’ll pull a pedagogical muscle.

29. Letters of Recommendation. If you’re writing one at the end, ask for a deadline and stick to it. Now that you’re back in groove of lesson planning, it’s always going to feel less immediate than tomorrow’s lesson. A letter of Recommendation is pointless if it comes from an unreliable source (so send it in on time!). If… IF you’re uncomfortable writing a letter of recommendation, or you can’t write a positive letter, don’t write one. If they ask, refuse. If they want to know, explain why. Sometimes people ask simply out of respect.

30. Try to make it a great experience for them. We WANT good teachers on our team. You’re helping make them who they will become and they will ALWAYS remember you for it (good or bad).

I’m sure we’ll be adding to this list, so check back often.

4 thoughts on “Guide for a Mentor Teacher

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  2. While I appreciate the effort, and truth be told, almost all of this is fantastic advice, you sure are wound up much too tight!

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  4. Pingback: Guide for a Mentor Teacher – Collaboration w/ @hillby258 | Approximately Normal Adventures in 8th Grade Math

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