The Complete Teacher


How to be an exceptional mentor teacher

Posted by Hlengiwe Zwane on 21 July 2021, 14:50 SAST
Hlengiwe Zwane photo

Article by Gayle Furlow

To become a certified teacher, most countries require a bachelor’s degree, student teaching and a passing score on teacher certification exams. Although student teaching provides invaluable training, it rarely allows enough time for new teachers to learn everything they need to know when they first start teaching. This is why every new teacher needs an exceptional mentor teacher when they begin their teaching career.

 What are some of the main responsibilities for teachers?

  • Follow the curriculum and meet the standards.
  • Manage, organise, arrange and decorate the classroom.
  • Develop and follow a student discipline plan with rewards and consequences.
  • Use teaching strategies that accommodate different learning styles.
  • Use a variety of teaching materials and resources to reinforce skills.
  • Evaluate student progress and provide frequent feedback to students and parents.
  • Communicate effectively with parents and school professionals.
  • Plan lessons to meet short and long term goals and objectives.
  • Include activities that meet the individual needs of students according to their ability levels.
  • Participate in extracurricular activities and serve on school committees.
  • Review homework, grade papers, give tests and retest and reteach if necessary.

Given such enormous responsibilities, new teachers desperately need exceptional mentor teachers who are experienced, patient and knowledgeable to guide them through their first and second crucial years of teaching. Successful mentoring programs support the professional and personal growth of new teachers and provide professional development opportunities for mentor teachers.

As a starting point, mentor teachers should recall their own first year of teaching and empathise with what their new teacher is experiencing.

What do new teachers experience in their first year?
Consider the responsibilities of a new teacher on the first day of school as they face a classroom full of anxious students staring at them with great expectations. New teachers are, now solely in charge of a classroom of students, are still unfamiliar with the school, staff, schedule, students, parents, grade level, resources, textbooks and curriculum. Consequently, they go through several phases  during the first year. In recent research one teacher made the following statements after experiencing each phase.

Phase 1 -  Anticipation
Starts during student teaching. New teachers want to make a difference and feel excitement mixed with anxiety. 

Phase 2  - Survival
The first month of school, confronts many problems and situations, struggles to keep your head above water. “There is so little time and so much to learn.”

Phase 3 - Disillusionment
6 - 8 weeks of school, consumed with workload, has low morale, questions commitment and competence “I thought I’d be focusing more on curriculum and less on classroom management and discipline.”

Phase 4 - Rejuvination 
The last 6 weeks of school, teachers think about what worked and what didn’t and consider changes for next year. “Next year I think I’ll start the letter puppets earlier to introduce the kids to more letters.”

In consideration of these predictable phases, mentor teachers should support their teacher’s low-level needs first, then their mid-level needs, followed by their high-level needs.

1. Low-level needs  - Share simple information like using the copy machine, getting a substitute teacher, taking attendance, handling emails, collecting money, learning the names of learners. 

2. Mid-level needs - Share ideas and opinions like arranging the classroom furniture, using grading scales, entering grades, checking homework, scheduling and conducting parent conferences.

3. High-level needs - Share specific skill development like creating student work, meeting student learning styles, incorporating critical thinking skills, using peer group teaching methods.

There are countless lists of recommended skills, qualities and characteristics that exceptional mentor teachers should demonstrate in working with student teachers. Through careful analysis, we have consolidated these lists into the most effective mentoring behaviors that occurred repeatedly.

What common behaviours should mentors demonstrate to their student teachers?  

  • Be willing to share professional skills, knowledge and expertise.
  • Demonstrate a positive attitude and act as a positive role model.
  • Exhibit enthusiasm in teaching and learning.
  • Participate in ongoing learning and growth in teaching.
  • Provide frequent constructive feedback to the student, starting with the positives.
  • Exhibit excellent communication skills in both speaking and writing.
  • Command respect from co-workers and employees in other levels of the school and district, in a respectful maner. 
  • Work as a member of the team and value the opinions and initiatives of others.
  • Maintain total confidentiality in working with students.

Additional ways to be an exeptional mentor teacher.

  • Build the relationship first, as new teachers need a comfort level to ask for help.
  • Work on just 1 goal at a time. Classroom management will usually come first.
  • Spend as much time with new teachers as you can.
  • Collaborate with new teachers to create unique ideas and ways of doing things.
  • Listen intently and let new teachers come to their own realisations and conclusions.
  • Celebrate the big and little successes each day.
  • Track progress in writing so new teachers can see how they’ve grown.
  • Show your own weaknesses in teaching. Share your teaching stories from when you first began.
  • Tell the truth no matter what.

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