Mentorship Matters: 8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program-Series 1

This blog series is being written from my perspective as I was a Mentor Coordinator K-12 in a school district in Long Island, N.Y. I will share my experiences as my mission and vision was to continuously develop a Mentor Program that will build a strong foundation to support educators during their first years of teaching and for the rest of their educational journeys. Refer to the Mentor Program tabs, #LBLeads 2019-2020 and #LBLeads 2020-21 in my digital portfolio as a window into my experiences.

Making the Commitment

Every year, school districts around the world entrust thousands of new educators to serve their communities as they hire and provide them with a special opportunity to begin long, meaningful educational careers. Most likely, these educators have endured rigorous processes that have determined that they are capable of making an unmistakable and everlasting impact on the lives of the world’s most precious gifts….children.  Make no mistake about it, when one makes a commitment to becoming an educator, they are assuming a tremendous responsibility to create pathways of promise that have the power to influence learners for the rest of their lives. 

A Calling
Teaching is not just something you do, it’s a calling; it’s a beautiful gift; it’s an opportunity to unleash the talents within every human being you encounter; it’s a time to cultivate powerful relationships that have the chance to stand the test of time; teaching creates a space to collaborate with colleagues and builds bridges to connect previous learning to new and innovative ideas. Educators are responsible for shaping significant moments in time that can leave profound imprints in the hearts and minds of every learner they touch. Teaching is also hard work. It can be extremely emotional. It can be draining. But, it’s so incredibly rewarding. That being said, how can school districts build on the strengths of new teachers while providing them with the appropriate support for continuous growth and development? There is one phrase that comes to mind: Mentorship Matters!

Why Mentorship Matters

Developing a strong mentor program has one of the highest returns on investment. Leveraging the creation of powerful professional learning communities will foster the next generation of teacher leaders and help educators see the value of being in a constant state of learning and transformation. According to the New York State Mentoring Standards, “Teacher induction is critical to the overall preparation and professional development of beginning teachers and builds on their continuum of experiences from pre-service programs to ongoing career development spanning time as described within the Teacher Career Development Continuum. Coupled with mentoring standards, induction accelerates the process of creating highly effective teachers whose goal is to enhance student learning and achievement.” Establishing and implementing a strong mentor program enables novice teachers to be guided by mentors to help learners reach their maximum social-emotional, cognitive, and academic growth throughout their school years and beyond. This distinguished responsibility empowers more experienced educators to take everything they have learned and “pay it forward,” to help new teachers acclimate to the culture and climate of an organization, shatter the walls of isolation during the inception of their careers, and shape the next generation of teacher leaders.

8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program

8 Tips for Developing a Strong Mentor Program

  1. Align with State Mentoring Standards– It is paramount to refer to the Mentoring Standards provided by the state/country you reside in. These standards offer a set of guidelines that are critical to teacher induction and to the design and implementation of relevant and meaningful learning experiences. This enables the Mentor Coordinator to establish systemic efforts that will shape and sustain the first experiences in the careers of new teachers. 
  1. Voice and Choice– It is vital to include educators in the decision making process to share what kinds of professional learning they want to experience. It is also critical to recognize that educators enter the teaching profession with many strengths and areas for growth. It is also the responsibility of the Mentor Coordinator to ensure that the professional learning choices are grounded in the vision and mission of your school district. As an example, providing educators with a Google Form with a list of choices as well as a space to add any additional thoughts/ideas for professional growth will empower them to take ownership over their learning.
  1. Professional Learning Communities- By establishing a learner-centered culture of trust, connection, communication, and collaboration, educators have an opportunity to see the value in intentionally creating spaces to collectively set reasonable, learner-driven, evidence informed goals and share ideas of instructional practice that will benefit ALL learners in their organizations they live in. Not only will this improve the skills, expertise, and knowledge through professional dialogue, it will foster a desire to improve educational aspirations, achievement, and cultivate the next generation of teacher leaders. These teacher leaders will become an integral part of a cycle that improves and encourages innovative teaching and learning practices.
  1. Select a Professional Book as a Framework- One of the most valuable components of a strong Mentor Program is to find timeless professional books by outstanding authors who can share their authentic experiences as educators at different levels of an organization. These are books that encompass innovative and relevant messages that will stand the test of time regardless of what transpires in education. These leaders in education bring a special and unique value to the learning experiences you commit to embark on. Take a deep dive into these books and be sure to connect the messages of the authors with your district’s mission and vision. These are the books that will serve as frameworks to drive the learning process. The books I intentionally chose are The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros and Personal and Authentic by Thomas C. Murray. Both of these authors have shared incredible resources and have been continuously accessible and supportive to the new teachers, their mentors, and me in our efforts to keep learners at the heart of decision-making and implement lifelong practices that will prepare learners for any path they choose to create.
  1. Invite Other Voices- It is crucial to highlight the educators within your organization to facilitate professional learning experiences. This provides new teachers with opportunities to connect with other educators across the school district, but also elevates the teacher leaders and administrators that can share their knowledge and best teaching and learning practices with your educational community. Additionally, you will want to invite educators/speakers outside of your school district who can offer a fresh perspective on various topics in education. Those voices are also valued as they have seen the work of other school districts around the world and can share a lens that can push your thinking outside of your comfort zones!
  1. Create a Digital Footprint: I have always stressed the importance of making your learning visible by sharing best teaching and learning practices with colleagues in your organization and beyond. By creating a Mentor Program hashtag and Twitter handle, this allows participants in the program to showcase the incredible work within their learning spaces to a larger community. This will in turn help other educators create and form ideas that will ultimately benefit all learners! Feel free to check out the #LBLeads and @LBMentorProgram hashtag I created for the Mentor Program I facilitate.
  1. Connected and Networked: In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros says, “Being in spaces where people actively share ideas makes us smarter.” Social media provides a space to connect with other educators who can share our mindsets, but also push our thinking to create new and better ideas. It is in these spaces where we can get inspiration from other educators and organizations outside of education to try something we haven’t thought of before. Creating a culture of learning and innovation happens when meaningful connections are made beyond the walls of the organizations we live in. It is within these spaces that new possibilities are discovered to benefit learners who have the potential to make change today and in the future!
  1. Give Recognition: Everyone within an educational organization works tirelessly to meet the needs of their learners. New teachers are acclimating to the culture and climate of a district, are learning to understand their community, are building new relationships, learning new standards, and a new curriculum, while meeting the needs of all families and students. They deserve all the recognition in the world! Celebrate your teacher leaders. It is human nature to want to feel valued and recognized. At Mentor Meetings, highlight the work they have been doing by looking through the hashtag you created and put those tweets on a few slides! Have them explain their “why” behind their practices. For the educators who are not on social media, have them send pictures of their work and get their permission to share! The return on this investment of time will be monumental! 
Chapter 1 Book Quote– Personal and Authentic by Thomas C. Murray

Eternal Memories Manifest Hope for the Future

My Eternal Mental Movie

I’ll never forget my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Roth. Although I was only 9 years old, I can still remember thinking that she was one of the most innovative and inspiring teachers I’ve ever had. She had this unbelievable ability to make you feel special and valued. She celebrated your strengths and would ask you to share them with peers, she made learning incredibly fun, and continuously tried to implement new and better teaching and learning practices every single day. The overhead projector (remember those?) was a staple in her practice when most other teachers had them pushed into a corner in the back of the room (perhaps because it was a new and unfamiliar technological tool). I didn’t realize it then, but she used it to model her own writing life, make her invisible thinking visible, and showed us “the learning process” across various content areas. I often recreate the mind movie of me lovingly staring at her with my elbows locked on my desk and the palms of my hands cupping my chin as she gracefully carried around a book that was practically stuck to her hands like glue. This book looked important because it had that “lived-in” look about it. It was worn out at the edges like it had been thumbed through frequently, had colored tabs strategically placed throughout, and was covered with intentional highlighting, underlined words, phrases, and sentences from top to bottom. It was a book that reminded me of my favorite “go-to”  80s movies; you know, the ones I watched over and over again because I connected with the plot lines and hidden gems of life-lessons, or the humorous parts that made me laugh or the serious parts that got me to reflect on my own life and all of the “what if this happened to me?” moments!

My Lucky Day

I contemplated asking Mrs. Roth what the name of the book was, but I was a painfully shy young girl; so shy that I only spoke in class when I was invited to do so. Also, I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate for an elementary student to be interested in a grown-up book for teachers! And then the moment arrived…it was my lucky day. I noticed that the mysterious, treasured book was left by itself on the kidney-shaped table Mrs. Roth used for small group instruction. I spontaneously grabbed my notebook and pencil, briskly walked up to the table, and furiously scribbled down the title and author of the book. This was all while Mrs. Roth wrote the schedule for the day on the chalkboard in different colored chalk (remember chalkboards?). I hurried back to my desk and immediately opened my notebook to read the title…In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents by Nancie Atwell. So, this was the book that Mrs. Roth kept close to her teaching heart. I had to have it. I had to because I felt compelled to emulate the qualities I saw in Mrs. Roth, someone who valued their students, someone who created exciting learning experiences, someone who made you feel like your contributions mattered and kept you running back to school every day. And, if I was going to be a teacher one day, I wanted to be the teacher that felt empowered to create innovative experiences for students and colleagues. I wanted to be the teacher who was collegial, but also not afraid of success or the idea of positively impacting others in dynamic, influential ways. I wanted to be that teacher who embraced every student and tapped into their passions and interests. I wanted to be the teacher who was aware of the learning goals, but did not necessarily get there by using the same pathways as everyone else. I wanted to value people, creativity, and motivate others to share their gifts. So, at the age of 9 years old, I asked my parents if they would purchase the book for me, and they did.

Moving Beyond the Status Quo

Do you ever find yourself continuously reflecting on the impact your mentors have had on your growth and development both personally and professionally? I believe it’s a wonderful way to reconnect with your “why”. Just imagine if every child had their very own Mrs. Roth from a young age to touch their hearts and minds? How would having these positive role models impact their personal journeys, encourage them to create their own opportunities, and then share those gifts with the world? Recently, I listened to a new #InnovatorsMindset podcast by George Couros titled “Hopes for School”. He asked the questions, “Who has empowered you to create and be a leader?” and “Are we empowering people to create their own opportunities?” Later, he went onto share that his best mentors have pushed and challenged him to grow. These are also the same people who have his back and truly value him as a person and an educator. These ideas resonated with me because the trusted people I would consider to be my mentors have pushed me to grow in ways I never could have expected; they never held me back from success and perpetually pushed me to move beyond the status quo. Perhaps these were the people who saw qualities in me that I wasn’t able to name or see in myself because I was so consumed with employing daily practices and routines naturally. Don’t we have the same hopes for our own children, and for that matter, every student who enters our classroom door? All learners deserve to meet trusted people who will be their champion. All learners deserve to be welcomed into an environment that values their stories. All learners deserve to have a voice and choice in how they learn. All learners could use an invitation to share their thinking in safe spaces. Throughout my educational journey, I have crossed paths with a multitude of people who have modeled practices that were destined to become a part of who I am as a person and educator. I consider myself a very observant person. Studying people, their actions, and reactions to various events are important when intentionally exploring the ins and outs of life. Why is that? Every time I get the opportunity to observe the habits of others…styles of communication, teaching and learning practices, approaches to management, and the types of leadership qualities they embody, I am more inclined to open doors to new experiences with an empathetic heart and open mind. It is difficult to navigate the world without having the ability to understand others. There are things I observe that I hold onto so tightly because I look at those ideas as vital to my present and future successes. 

George Couros Image

Image from the #InnovatorsMindset podcast by George Couros titled “Hopes for School”

When the Past Meets the Present

About 10 years ago, my supervisor had sent an email inviting a group of literacy teachers to attend a Nancie Atwell conference. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to meet the literacy guru who had a profound impact on my favorite teacher, and me. Before leaving for the early morning New York City conference, I tucked my “lived-in”, worn at the edges, highlighted, underlined, tab filled 21-year-old In the Middle: A Lifetime of Learning About Writing, Reading, and Adolescents book in my bag. As I listened to Atwell speak about her passion for literacy and what it means to her to empower learners to have meaningful literacy lives, I couldn’t help but think about what got me to that moment. If it wasn’t for Mrs. Roth, her love for learning, and empowering her learners to grow…would I be sitting at the table with other educators who traveled near and far for a Saturday morning of professional learning? During the lunch break, I patiently waited for my turn to speak with Nancie Atwell holding my adored book in hand. I got to share the story about why and how I have a 21-year-old copy of the book. She smiled, laughed and appeared to have connected with my experience. Then, she graciously and willingly signed my precious copy of the book, a cherished book that symbolized eternal memories of hope for the future.

nancie atwell