Mentors open the door, but you must enter by yourself.
by Hal Portner
Regular contributor to the Gazette
July 1, 2008
Mentors open the door, but you must enter by yourself
If you have recently been hired — or expect soon to be hired — as a first year teacher, congratulations! You have entered — or are about to enter — one of the world’s noblest, most gratifying professions. How does it feel? Exhilarating and inspiring? Confusing and scary? Perhaps a little of each or somewhere in between?
Hopefully, you will be assigned a mentor, an experienced teacher, to guide you through these first couple of years.
Whether you have a mentor who offers little or no help or support; or a mentor who throws so much information and help your way that you are constantly overwhelmed; or even if you have the good fortune to have as a mentor an experienced teacher who understands how to work effectively with a protégé; you will still get more out of being mentored if you are proactive in the mentoring process.
Being a proactive protégé includes remembering that you must cherish the mentor’s time and make the most of it. Mutual trust is dependent upon maintaining confidences. A protégé must learn from his or her mistakes if he or she is to grow. Being receptive to feedback, both positive and negative, is essential to maximize the mentoring experience. Promises made must be kept if the relationship is to last.
While not all of the advice given needs to be followed, the protégé should genuinely consider the guidance that is given and, if the advice is rejected, explain to the mentor why it was not followed. Clarifying expectations will ensure that the type of help wanted is provided and that the mentoring goals are achieved. Protégés must never use their mentors to intervene in issues between the protégé and his or her supervisor or principal. When bringing problems to their mentors, protégés should also have possible solutions in mind to foster the development of their own problem-solving skills.
Some Specific Things You Can Do
Take the Initiative. In many instances, new teachers won’t meet their mentors until the first day of teacher orientation. Don’t wait until then. If at all possible, find out before the school year begins who your mentor will be and how to contact her or him. Introduce yourself. Arrange to meet. If you do have the opportunity to meet and have no particular agenda other than to get acquainted, then let the conversation take its own course.
Develop the Relationship. Building a solid mentoring relationship doesn’t happen over night, nor does it always happen smoothly. Scholtes, (The team handbook. Madison, WI: Joiner Associates Inc., 1988) identified four stages of group development that apply equally to the stages you can expect your developing relationship with your mentor to take over time. Going through these stages is a normal function of building a mentor-protégé relationship. Understanding and honoring them will help you work through whatever difficulties you might encounter. The stages are:
Forming. This is the stage in which you and your mentor cautiously explore boundaries and begin to build trust. It is characterized by excitement, anticipation, and anxiety about what lies ahead. Attempts are made to define the task at hand and discussions tend to be both problem oriented and about general topics. Little may be accomplished in terms of tasks or goals; the focus rather is on developing rapport.
Storming.This is the most difficult stage. This is when you may become defensive and question the wisdom of your mentor. You may become impatient, tense or indecisive with any lack of progress.
Norming.During this stage, you and your mentor will have reconciled any differences and will be able to express any concerns constructively. Trust and collaboration is evident, and a friendship above and beyond the mentoring relationship may develop.
Performing. You share a sense of loyalty and satisfaction with your mentor. You know and respect each other’s style, and work well together. The benefits of having developed a solid working relationship are paying off; you are “learning to teach better.”
Earn and Keep your Mentor’s Trust and Cooperation.
Trust is vital to a mentoring relationship because it allows both you and your mentor to discuss situations beyond their superficial levels, and to work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Here are a couple of ways that you can contribute to the development and maintenance of trust between you and your mentor.
Respect confidentiality. There may be times when your mentor decides to share something with you in confidence in order to help you better understand the crux of a situation. It may be that what is shared will expose a colleague’s insecurity or lack of knowledge, thus leaving him or her vulnerable to ridicule, should you repeat what was confided in you. Suppose, for example, that you ask your mentor whether you should observe Mr. Jones’ class, and your mentor replies: “I recommend that you don’t. Every time I pass his classroom, his students are out of control and he just ignores their behavior. I suspect he is burnt out.” If you were to repeat your mentor’s comments to a colleague, imagine what effect such a breech in confidentiality would have on your mentor-protégé relationship!
Walk the talk; that is, do what you said you would do. A teacher-mentor I recently heard from, let’s call her Phyllis, participated in a series of four workshops on brain-based learning. With her principal’s approval, Phyllis asked her protégé, Brenda (not her real name), to participate in the series with her so that they could learn and discuss the strategy together. “I certainly will,” was Brenda’s reply to the invitation. “Thanks for asking me. I’ll see you there.” Brenda never showed up; not for the first session or for any others. In fact, she waited until the next day to apologize and promise to be there next time. Unfortunately, both Phyllis and Brenda avoided discussing the situation. Their mentoring relationship suffered accordingly.
Share Experiences. Where personalities and schedules permit, attend workshops and meetings together with your mentor. Engage in informal conversation about teaching, politics, sports, or books. Using e-mail to keep in touch is also effective. All too often, mentors and protégés tend to limit their interactions to the routine, whereas expanding the venue of the relationship can add to its depth, and therefore its effectiveness.
At times, while discussing attributes of trust and relationships, the word respect surfaces. Most of the synonyms for “respect” in my dictionary do not define the word in the way I conceive of its application to the mentoring relationship. The dictionary’s definition contains such words as obeisance, homage, reverence, deference, esteem, honor, tribute, and adoration.
During a recent conversation about the dynamics of the mentor-protégé relationship, Jenny, a colleague of mine, observed, “It is natural that some people new to the profession lack confidence. My guess is that protégés who don’t move beyond defensive responses to new situations miss out because they never make it past finding fault into genuinely understanding and honoring differences. These are the ones who lack respect for their mentors and the mentoring experience and are most likely to leave education early.”
Like Jenny, when I use the word respect, in the context of the mentor-protégé relationship, I mean the willingness to understand and honor differences. Although a young student or beginning-teacher, for example, may feel uncomfortable developing a mentoring relationship with an older person or one of a different gender or ethnicity, making the effort to understand and honor the differences is vital to the success of the relationship.
In addition to the age, ethnicity, gender, and experiences of others, differences requiring respect include the tradition, culture, and dynamics of the teaching-learning environment. For example, teachers placed in urban schools, where the dynamics are very different from the middle class environment they may have come from, may have difficulty respecting (i.e., understanding and honoring) its culture.
Protégés get the most out of being mentored when they are able to contribute to the development and maintenance of the mentoring partnership. You will be contributing to the mentoring relationship when you do the following.
Do what you say you will do.
Let your mentor know if you are unable to follow through on a promise, and suggest an alternative.
Unless given permission by your mentor, treat in confidence whatever of a personal nature he or she tells you or what you observe.
Acknowledge, understand, and honor your mentor’s feelings and ideas, even though you may not always agree with them.
Next month, I will have some more suggestions for getting the most out of being mentored. Meanwhile, have an enjoyable and productive summer!
Material for this article is an adaptation of Chapter 1 of Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés, by Hal Portner, published 2002 by Corwin Press.
Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.
Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) – all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¬istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program.