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The Mentor-Mentee Relationship: How to Make It Work

Two educators walk together through a school building

A mentor-mentee relationship can help support and retain new teachers.

A good mentorship program can save a new teacher's career. When a mentor-mentee relationship works, it's a lifesaver for beginners who are trying to improve their skills and learn school protocols.

Of course, simply pairing a new teacher with an experienced teacher doesn't automatically result in a successful partnership. But programs that carefully match teachers and offer training for mentors can have far-reaching positive results.

A mentor can improve a new teacher's confidence, performance, and satisfaction with their job. Research from the U.S. Department of Education shows that without a mentor, one in three new teachers will leave the profession by their fifth year. A positive mentor-mentee relationship drops that ratio to one in seven.

Further Reading: 7 Tips to Take You from Student Teacher to Full-Time Hire

What does a successful mentorship look like? Let's break it down.

Mentorship Helps Retain Good Teachers

As a Southern Regional Education Board report on new teacher mentoring explains, a new teacher's experience might be described as teaching "unfamiliar content to unfamiliar students in an unfamiliar grade level using unfamiliar materials." Time and resources are often limited, and some schools still expect new teachers to take on extra responsibilities such as advising students or coaching sports.

New teachers can feel overwhelmed, but as that DOE research points out, when they have a mentor, over 92% of new teachers return to the classroom the following year. Many continue to consult their mentors long after a formal program is over. Retaining teachers—and helping them feel supported—saves schools time and money otherwise spent on recruiting and interviewing new hires.

The Mentor's Role

Some schools offer training that defines a mentor's responsibilities and identifies specific needs new teachers may have. Here are some tips to foster a strong mentor-mentee relationship:

  • Mentors should praise mentees when they do well. It goes a long way toward building confidence.
  • Mentors should teach by example. This includes demonstrating a positive and professional attitude toward their colleagues.
  • Mentors are not supervisors. Instead, they offer support, guidance, and understanding to a new teacher during their first year—a critical professional learning phase.
  • The goal isn't to develop a mini-me. Effective teachers come in a wide range of styles and strengths.
  • Confidentiality is a must. If a mentor shares information about their mentee with colleagues or administrators, they can damage the relationship.

When a mentor is also a full-time teacher, it's not always easy to find time to work with a mentee. Some schools choose to release mentors from nonteaching duties like study hall or lunch duty so they can visit their mentee's classroom.

 

The Mentee's Role

First-year teachers need both educational and emotional support. Classroom management, giving directions, working in groups, or pacing lessons can be challenging. New teachers may also need help with the best way to handle common issues such as demanding parents, kids who are disrespectful, or students who are chronically late to class. Here are some tips for mentees:

  • Mentees should ask for honest feedback; it shows a desire to improve.
  • Mentees should be willing to try out their mentor's suggestions.
  • Mentees should ask to observe the mentor's and other teachers' classrooms, if possible. This is a great way to observe strategies they'll want to adopt or ones they'll want to avoid. Both experiences are invaluable.
  • Mentees shouldn't be afraid to reveal what they don't know. Every mentor was once a first-year teacher and probably had many of the same questions.
  • Confidentiality is also a requirement for the mentee; it builds trust with the mentor.

Some schools have monthly meetings with groups of mentors and mentees to discuss common issues and build camaraderie. Sharing with others reminds new teachers they're not alone as they find their feet.

Success Is All About Trust

Mentors need to be nonjudgmental: They offer guidance, not supervision. My friend Angel, a first-year teacher, was shocked when her principal, who had never observed her class, told her, "I hear you're coming right along, except for the discipline issues with a couple of your students." When Angel asked her mentor about the principal's comment, her mentor admitted she had shared that information. Angel and her mentor continued to work together, but Angel became more reluctant to ask questions or reveal her concerns.

Breaches of confidence like this are rare in successful mentoring programs, though, and the relationship is much more likely to be trustful. In recalling his first-year experience, elementary school teacher Otis Kriegel fondly remembers all the solid advice that his mentor Elaine gave him. That advice has stayed with him throughout his career. "In fact, my teaching style is a patchwork quilt of what I've learned from many veteran teachers," he notes.

"Seek out the masters," Kriegel advises, "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."

Forging Your Own Mentorship

Despite all the positive results that mentorship programs can bring, not all schools have one. It's something prospective teachers may want to ask about in a job interview. But what if you're offered a job in a school that doesn't have a program?

Further Reading: Read this Letter on Your First Day As a Teacher

Talk to administrators to see if they can suggest a staff member or two who might agree to serve as your mentor. Explain why it would be helpful to you and what kind of support you'd be looking for. Ask whether an administrator would speak on your behalf to a prospective mentor. If a teacher agrees to serve in that role, speak with that teacher yourself.

If you're an experienced teacher who is asked to be a mentor, understand that it's a compliment to your skill, professionalism, and leadership. It's an opportunity to make a difference in a new teacher's career and the profession in general. And if your mentor-mentee relationship is a hit, it could be the first step in a program that benefits you, your mentee, and the entire school.