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Teacher Wellness As It’s “Meant” To Be: The Mentor/Mentee Relationships

Nov 17, 2020

I'm so excited to welcome Danielle Johnson of EDverything Education to the Teach On A Mission Blog this week to chat with us about the mento/mentee relationship amongst teachers.  She takes us through 5 myths about that important dynamic and ways that we can redefine it so that the relationship truly serves those involved.

During a time when teacher self-care is a hot button topic in the education realm, because people say we need it and yet there's simply no time, this teacher-care topic could very much be crucial support system for teachers in our toughest times.

Here's Danielle.

Typically the conversation around teacher health and wellness is focused on you.  What you can do to set better boundaries.  How you can build and finally implement a daily routine that works.  What mindset shifts you should make to increase confidence.  These are all areas we can and should explore, which is why they’ve been featured here in the Teacher Health Series, show up regularly on the Edverything Podcast, and took center stage at our Total Teacher Summit.  We should absolutely take the time to make ourselves the priority and put in place these healthy habits as far too many of us educators are guilty of putting everyone else’s needs ahead of our own.  You deserve that time, attention, and space for personal growth.

But when the discussion is only about you, you may be overlooking one of the most valuable resources at your disposal: your mentor.

The Why, Where, and How of Meaningful Mentorship

When you arrive at a new school, especially if it is your first teaching position, common practice is to assign you a mentor. But you want to be cautious and conscientious about using this person as your only mentor. For one, this match making process was likely done before you ever met, meaning that it may not be a good fit in terms of personality or values. Second, this school assigned mentor may have no training, may not have been given a choice in terms of participation, or may not have been given instruction about what is expected of them from the school in terms of filling this role. SREB points out the many common pitfalls with the mentor/mentee status quo and makes suggestions for how schools can begin to address these shortcomings.  On the level of the individual, we recorded Episode 33: A How To Guide for Being a Good Mentor/Mentee because mentor teachers frequently have an impeccable record when it comes to their classroom and students, but so often they themselves haven’t been given any support or preparation for this new responsibility. Last, this mentor may have input regarding your future employment at the school, making you as the mentee hesitant to open up about certain struggles.

But if your school assigned mentor isn’t your ideal mentor or you’ve been in the field for so long that you no longer have a formal mentorship relationship in place, don’t give up on the concept. Education is an isolating field, one of a myriad of reasons contributing to startling teacher attrition rates. But research suggests that mentorship is a powerful tool beneficial to everyone involved.

In order to make the most out of these relationships we need to take more ownership of the entire process, and that starts with combatting some common misconceptions about teacher mentorship so we can see the full scope of possibilities

Myths about Mentorship

1 l  Only new teachers need mentors

Mentorship is typically associated with those who are just starting out but that doesn’t have to be the case. Our requirements around professional development don’t end after our first year or two in the classroom. We should start viewing mentorship as a process to constantly be involved in and see it as an on-going professional development opportunity. A side benefit of this mindset shift is that it takes professional development out of the limiting context of sitting in a conference room or auditorium with someone standing in the front giving a presentation.

2 l Mentors must be in your discipline 

It seems natural to gravitate towards someone who teaches within your discipline, especially when you’re first starting out. This person may even be kind enough to share the resources they’ve made over the years with you so that way you can more easily prepare for each day’s lessons. But for those at smaller schools, there may not be anyone else who is teaching the same grade level or subject material if you are a department of one. Even at larger institutions, the person who teaches the same subject or in the same discipline may have a very different approach or may simply not be interested in serving as that mentor.

There is so much we can learn from others outside of our subject specific field. Topics like classroom management and using technology in the classroom often transcend subject specific parameters. Building rapport with students, organizing your classroom, and engaging activities can all be modified to fit your specific grade and subject area. If there is someone you identify with, there is plenty to learn and make your own even if it is unlikely that there will ever be a time in which you collaborate on a project with your class and theirs.

3 l Mentors need to be someone you know IRL

Technology has changed the way we run our classrooms—why wouldn’t it change the way we view mentorship?

With more and more teachers turning to social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to share their resources and what is working in their classroom, the opportunity to find your virtual mentor means you are no longer limited to someone you know in person. 

While you may not have a formal mentorship with this person, one that a district will give you credit for being part of, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t look in this space. Is there someone who’s IG stories you always check out because they share the best ideas that you then go on to use in your classroom?  Sounds like you may already have a virtual mentor, you just never thought about it him/her using that language before!

4 l Mentors don’t get anything out of the relationship and they therefore feel inconvenienced by their mentees

You know how busy teachers always are.  There are truly tons of tasks that need to get done at any time.  As a result, you try not to seek out your mentor because you don’t want to bother them or take them away from the things that they need to be doing during that valuable prep period or after school.  You don’t want to be one more thing to add to the list.

Sure, there are probably certain topics that you could troubleshoot all on your own and you should.  Being a good mentee is knowing when to ask questions and what to ask questions about.  But don’t let the idea that you are bothering your mentor actually serve as a convenient excuse for you not to seek the help or guidance that you know that you need.

Need more reassurance?  Studies show that mentor teachers actually find the relationship rewarding.  Some have cited that they have learned from the fresh perspective of their mentees while others enjoy the role of mentor as, after all, it is really just another avenue to what we are already doing: teaching.

5 l Mentors always know what their mentee needs

Because the mentor teacher is typically more seasoned, we may assume that that means they know exactly what we as mentees need, but for a variety of reasons, this may not be the case.  This may be the first time that they are serving in this capacity.  They may not have training on being a mentor.  They might have been teaching for such a long time that they don’t recall the exact issues that someone who is new to the field or the district might find stressful or difficult.  Alternatively, they may be nervous about coming off condescending and as a result they don’t opt to explain things that their mentee wishes they would mention off hand (how to deal with jams of that finicky copy machine on the second floor, for example).

No matter how long your mentor has been a mentor for, mentees should feel comfortable asking questions and for advice because your mentor is likely full of great information and insights-- but they might not realize that that is what you most need.

How To Be an Exceptional Mentee-- No Matter Where You Both Are Located

How to Be a Stellar Mentee In Person

  • Decide who is actually the best fit at your school-- even if it's not the first person you would have thought of.  Use the steps above to do a little mentor/mentee pairing of your very own.
  • Determine what you can figure out on your own and what you actually need their input on.  You know the student who asks you every question before they’ve made an attempt at solving the problem on their own.  Even though you always resolve their issue quickly, the fact that they asked that doesn’t reflect well on their work ethic and their own determination.  Don’t be that person for someone else.
  • Find out how that person is best contacted/asked for advice.  Do they prefer to talk to you in person after school so that way they aren’t writing an email for an hour back to answer your question because they are incredibly thorough and will feel compelled to list every single step?  Are they such an introvert that the extra encounters in the faculty room feel draining and they’d rather respond via email?  
  • Batch your questions-- and be ready to take note of what they’ve said.  Don’t pop in every time a question occurs to you.  That can really take your mentor out of their flow.  Instead, keep a running list on your desk so you know exactly what you want to ask them and you can get everything answered all at once, saving you both time.  If asking in person, be ready to take notes.  You don’t want to come back with the same question again.
  • Make sure they know you appreciate them.  Gratitude and kindness go a long way.  You are always telling your students that.  Live it yourself.

How to Be a Great Mentee Online

Did you suddenly realize that you already had a mentor when you read #3-- it just had never dawned on you before?  Whether it’s an education influencer on Instagram, Facebook, or anywhere online, you have found your person and you are already learning from them on a regular basis.  But if they don’t even know that you are their mentee, how can you reciprocate so that way both parties truly benefit as happens in in person mentor/mentee relationships?

  • Let them know that you love their content with more than a passive “like.”  You do not need to tell them that you view them as a mentor, but do more than passively double tap on their latest post.  That comment/engagement is great for a number of reasons.  First, it is directly beneficial in terms of the way the social media algorithms work.  Second, if you leave a rave review or talk about how you have used this in your classroom based on their recommendation, they may be able to use it as a testimonial, again, helping their cause.  Third, actually share their content with those who would also find it beneficial-- again, great for algorithms, helping them expand their audience, and helping out fellow teachers in the same boat as you are!
  • Ask them actual questions you have that you’d love their take on.  Remember of course to be extra cautious with how you are phrasing your question as you certainly don’t want it inadvertently misconstrued as criticism.  Do you need to use emojis to clarify your tone like you sometimes need via text (after all, that is why they were invented)?  Do you need to start with a compliment so they understand your position before the question (For example: I really enjoyed your blog post on _____, and I’d love to implement it in my classroom!  I know it was really successful in your class, but do you have any advice on how to adapt it for high school instead? Any insight would be so appreciated!)
  • Let them know that you are their biggest cheerleader.  Reply to their email, send a DM-- whatever is the appropriate platform for how you and this person would correspond.  Compose a short message that explains how long you’ve been a loyal listener/reader/etc.   In this private message, you don’t even need to include something that requires a response.  That surprise message saying you’ve listened to their content since day one and thanking them for what they are doing might help them get through a tough day, just like they have helped you get through some of yours.  

Whether your ideal mentor is two classrooms down from you or on the other side of the country, taking part in the mentor/mentee relationship is mutually beneficial and should always be a part of the larger teacher wellness conversation.

At Teach On A Mission, we are officially here to start changing the narrative on how teachers are supported, and we couldn't agree more with Danielle that whether your mentor is next door or across the globe, they can still have great impact on your wellness, and therefore how you show up in the classroom.

Thank you so much to Danielle for her insightful words, and I hope you can head over and check her out at EDverything.com.

Don't forget about my all new free, online masterclass, "How to Structure Your Blended Classroom," for a quick way to get support in the crazy schedules we currently find ourselves in.

Until next time,

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