Mentors for teachers are essential. I started teaching in 1996 before they were required by my state. Thankfully, I was still able to form a bond with someone who helped me immensely.
Working with Dianne
Dianne and I both started working as teachers in my school twenty-two years ago. Even though she was ten years younger than I was, she'd already taught for three years at a private school—and I looked up to her for that. I often went to her with questions about classroom management and dealing with parents, and she gave me great advice that I always tried to follow. It was also clear from the start that, while I knew my career would always focus on teaching in the classroom, Dianne had her sights set on becoming a strong administrator (and a great mentor for me).
After a few years of teaching, Dianne had been made Dean of Students—a role wherein she learned a great deal about individual students and their families. That information gave me insight that I carried right into my classroom.
The Devil's in the Details
When Jason repeatedly acted out in class, I was stymied. "What is going on with this kid?" I asked Dianne. "He's obviously bright, but he's driving me crazy." That's when Dianne told me Jason's father had recently been sentenced to four years in jail on a drug charge, and his mother was now forced to work long hours in food service. As a result, Jason was tasked with cooking, cleaning, and taking care of his younger siblings. The stress takes its toll, and it was a major reason why he was misbehaving.
By mentoring Jason with extra support and attention—including frequent check-ins, extending deadlines, and making sure he had the right materials—I empowered him to succeed in spite of those stressors.
After my third year of teaching, Dianne insisted I apply for the National Board Teaching Certification. She had earned hers, and told me the experience would be great for my practice, not to mention make me a valuable employee. She was right on both counts: I still consider National Board Certification one of the most powerful elements of professional development I have ever done.
Next, Dianne told me to get my Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study. But this wasn't just a step on our pay scale; it would provide me with the skills necessary to lead from the classroom. Once again, I took her advice. Earning my CAGS paid off and I started teaching classes at a local college, even conducting workshops for teachers at my school.
As Dianne's star continued to rise—first as Director of Science, Technology, Math, and Science and then as Assistant Superintendent—I continued to go to her for guidance. As Assistant Superintendent, she once helped me handle a very difficult parent, who jumped the chain of command to complain to her because I wouldn't accept a (very) late paper from his daughter. Despite my explanation that it would be unethical to change the rules in the middle of the semester—and the extra credit I offered his daughter to make up for it—he only became angrier, so Dianne took over.
Five Ways They Can Help
Now as Superintendent, Dianne is at the helm of our entire district. I don't see her as much as I used to, but it's comforting to know she's only an email or phone call away.
Mentors for teachers are important and necessary, and while most teacher-mentors are usually teachers, I do believe an administrator-mentor can also be extremely beneficial. Here are some guidelines for successful administrator-mentor relationships:
- Seek an administrator. Your mentor need not be from your department—Dianne was a Math teacher, and I teach English Language Arts. This often enabled her to see things from a different and valuable perspective.
- Recognize leadership pathways. Not all leadership pathways lead to administration. Dianne knew I never wanted to leave the classroom, but she helped me become a teacher-leader, so I could conduct workshops, present at conferences, and advocate for the teaching profession.
- Listen. Some of Dianne's recommendations were often like a cold splash of water to the face, but once I was able to think objectively, she was usually right on the money.
- Respect boundaries. Administrators and teachers each have clearly defined roles, and blurring them can cause difficulties. Don't whine about other employees or gossip. In that same respect, your administrator should not put you in a position to feel disloyal to the teaching staff.
- Understand a mentor's role. Mentors can guide and advise, but in the end, you are the one in charge of your career, and you'll need to make the decisions that are right for you. Leaning too heavily on a mentor or following one blindly can hurt you both. Work to maintain a healthy balance that is right for everyone.
Mentors for teachers aren't just for the rookies. An administrator-as-mentor can provide support and encouragement and promote growth and development throughout an educator's career. I would not be the teacher I am today without the help of my own, and someone I'm proud to call a close friend.