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Learning from a Veteran Teacher: How and Why to Cultivate This Relationship

A veteran teacher in her class

It was my first year teaching, and like many rookies, I was having my ups and downs. There were days when I felt inspired and inspiring and days when I felt like I had chosen the wrong career and the best thing I could do for my students would be to call in sick for the day. I needed a veteran teacher to help me find my rhythm—and then I found Elaine. Here's what she taught me, plus some tips for developing a relationship with and learning from a more seasoned teacher.

Learning a Lesson

For behavior that now seems trivial, I held a student in for lunch. He had become so angry during my math lesson that he threw his workbook across the room. I lost my cool and took away his recess. As the rest of the class left the room, he and I sat across from each other, both fuming as we ate and stared each other down. Then, in walked my chosen mentor and veteran teacher, Elaine, to check on me. She saw the two of us sitting and immediately told my student to go outside to play and eat lunch. Shocked by her casual response to what I thought was the beginning of World War III, I stared at her in confusion. She simply said, "Let him go." Before I could say anything else, my student had packed his lunch box and bolted out the door.

Elaine turned to me. "What good was that doing you? And more importantly, what good was that doing him?" she asked. "Take your lunch and let him run around and get his anger out." I nodded in acknowledgment and lay my head on the table, exhausted. "See?" she laughed. "You need the break too." She explained to me that I should use the break to reflect on the morning and prepare for the afternoon. She then suggested that I talk to the student when he got back to the classroom. "Resume the conversation when you're both more calm," she said. "Don't let it go but find the right time to talk about it."

Forty-five minutes later, he returned. Before I could say a word, he approached me and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. K." I also apologized, knowing I hadn't done a good job reaching him. We talked and I learned about how badly he wanted to understand the lesson and how frustrated and angry he was when he didn't succeed. He also told me about how he wanted to emulate his older brother, who gets everything right the first time. I quickly assured him that not getting something right the first, second, or even the third time was OK. I told him that making mistakes was a great way to learn, and that I make them too.

We would have never reached this understanding had I kept him in my room. Elaine's advice came at the perfect time and it helped me from that day forward. But was that luck that she came into my room? No way. I had developed a relationship with my mentor beforehand because I realized she had certain skills that I wanted in my teacher toolbox.

Cultivating a Mentor-Mentee Relationship

There are countless benefits to developing a relationship and getting advice from a veteran teacher. Pick someone you feel connected to and at ease around. You should feel comfortable asking them basic questions—like "What is the bathroom routine?" or "Where do you put recycling?"—and more challenging concerns about the intrinsic value of homework. You should also think about which teachers at your school are masters in areas that you want to learn more about. For instance, who's known as the most innovative math teacher? Whose morning meetings are incredible? Who dismisses their class calmly and effectively? Your mentor's teaching style should inspire you. And, most importantly, they should be open to helping you out.

When you have someone, or multiple teachers, in mind, stop by their classroom at the end of the day, after they have dismissed their class, to ask if you can observe their class. If that makes you too nervous, drop a note in their faculty mailbox or send them an e-mail. When you watch your mentor teach, take notes on how they do things. This is time well spent and you can pick up strategies and skills by observing—even if it's for just 15 minutes. Sometimes you can even learn by seeing things you would never want to do in your class.

So on that lucky day when Elaine came to my room, she didn't show up out of nowhere. I had observed her, asked her for help, and invited her to stop in any time to see me in action. I'm thankful I did because that advice was some of the best I got all year, and I use it to this day. In fact, my teaching style is a patchwork quilt of what I've learned from many veteran teachers. I think of them and how they helped me to develop my own teaching style every day. So go find the gold mine of information and experience at your school. Seek out the masters, and watch them, use them, and learn from them. Before you know it, you will have assembled your own quilt of experience with the aid of veteran teachers.