The Mentor’s Role: Fostering a First-Year Teacher’s Confidence and Leadership
by Lauren Heimlich Foley
It is hard to believe that I started teaching 11 years ago because it only feels like yesterday that I graduated from The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) and started teaching in Bergenfield, New Jersey. During this transformative time, my mentor, Pat, guided me through those first few months and supported my new ideas. As the year progressed, we collaborated on a variety of assignments, and I taught her about Self-Selected Writing and the electronic portfolio project. Both Pat and my methods teacher, Dr. Emily Meixner, supported my teaching philosophy and classroom practices. Both encouraged me to share my success.
A defining moment occurred during my second year of teaching: I started to view myself as a teacher of teachers. Dr. Meixner invited me to talk at a “How to Teach. . .” session. After attending many of these professional development opportunities as a pre-service teacher, I felt honored to return as a presenter, sharing my electronic portfolio assignment. Dr. Meixner’s encouragement kindled my confidence to share best practices at local, regional, and national conferences and take on additional leadership roles within my district.
Presentations laid the foundation for my first journal publication and spurred my desire to continue completing informal, action research within my classroom and sharing my practices with colleagues. For me, the goal of presenting and writing is, and was, to “[develop] deep knowledge of content and pedagogy. . .improve [my] teaching practice,” (Hunzicker, 2017, p. 2), and teach both middle schoolers and teachers.
In the years since, I have not reflected too much on this journey from teacher to teacher leader. It was intrinsically motivated and natural. However, in thinking about this process, I have realized that the early support from my mentor and professor have had lasting effects on the way I perceive myself. I am not sure if I would have had the confidence to share my ideas with other teachers if they had not believed in me and my teaching.
I have been thinking more about my experience because I was asked to be a mentor this school year. As Anna’s mentor, I want to support her continual growth and encourage her to share her best practices the way my mentor and Dr. Meixner supported and encouraged me.
To prepare Anna for her first few months of teaching, we focused on her teaching philosophy, classroom practices, a year-long unit of studies calendar, district policies, induction requirements, classroom management, etc. Then, January presented more opportunities for us to work together on new assignments and lessons. The roles of mentor/mentee started to shift to collaborators.
Although I did not realize it at the time, there have been a few key moments that have supported Anna to take on leadership opportunities.
When our school’s English coordinator asked for exemplar narratives to send to the feeder elementary schools, I suggested that Anna should share a few of her students’ writing pieces. I had read three of the narratives and knew Anna’s students deserved to be highlighted in the booklet. In the end, their narratives where included, and perhaps for the first time, Anna helped students outside of her classroom and teachers within our district.
The first time I broached the subject about presenting we were walking outside around our school. Oftentimes in the nice weather, we would take a stroll and discuss teaching. Anna mentioned that the year-long unit of studies had been extremely helpful to her as a first-year teacher and I thought, we should share this method with other first-year teachers!
During an early mentoring session, we discussed the balance between reading and writing genre studies and choice. We considered the amount of time she would need to complete each unit. I asked Anna questions, guided her direction, and helped her design her own units of study. Our district’s curriculum offers a lot of freedom, which can be daunting for a new teacher. Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s 180 Days helped me refine my own units of study, so I knew this organization would help Anna succeed. I bought her a copy of their book that day.
Remembering this important turning point, I asked Anna if she might be interested in talking with me to other first-year teachers. This informal presentation would enable us to work together and for Anna to share her experience and success with other teachers. It would also encourage reflection, which she had already started to do, thinking about what she would like to refine for next year and what units she would like to revise. She was enthusiastic about this prospect.
I continued to be impressed with Anna’s pedagogy and professionalism. With distance learning, her ideas were innovative, and I wanted her to help other teachers. With the start of the distance learning column on the PAWLP blog, I thought this would be a great way to encourage professional writing. She had adapted the one-on-one Canvas discussion boards that I taught her and was using them for one-on-one reading conferences. To prepare her to write the blog and guide her through the process, she reviewed exemplar blog posts, I asked her questions about her practice, and we rehearsed what she might include in her own blog. I am so proud of her for sharing her best practices in “Distance Learning: Creating Digital Reading Conferences in Canvas.” I commend her on her passion for the profession and dedication to improving her own practice and other teachers’ practices. She reflected, “my mentor suggested that I write the blog post to share my unique take on the discussion boards” since “I am having success sustaining my students’ love of reading at home, I thought the blog post could be beneficial to teachers looking to do the same. Also, I decided to write the blog post because I thought it would be a fun way to enter the field of professional writing.”
The most recent opportunity for Anna to help other teachers occurred when we collaborated on the final assignment for distancing learning: an adapted electronic portfolio project. I had shared the initial project concept back in the fall, but we needed to make changes in order for it to work with distance learning. Together we determined that students would select and revise 2 to 3 writing pieces for Week 8. Week 9 will ask students to create the portfolio and write their dear reader letter. Week 10 will allow students time to celebrate their writing by sharing their portfolios with peers, friends, and family members.
When we finished developing the directions, I asked Anna if she would be comfortable sharing the directions with our English supervisor because our unit might help other teachers in our district. She agreed and our supervisor emailed them out to the English department.
I have learned a lot about being a mentor these past months. At the heart is guiding a first-year teacher to be successful and confident. Because Pat and Dr. Meixner believed in me and affirmed my ideas, I too believed in my teaching practices and wanted to share them with other teachers. 11 years later, I want to help Anna believe in herself as a teacher and share her positive experiences with others.
By collaborating with Anna and inviting her to become a teacher of teachers with me, I essentially sponsored her and enabled her to gain credibility within the profession. Hunzicker (2017) posits:
Younger, less experienced teachers . . .are more likely to be motivated toward teacher leadership; but older, more experienced teachers are more likely to be recognized as teacher leaders by their colleagues. This dichotomy presents one obstacle emerging teacher leaders might face during the progression from teacher to teacher leader. (p. 6)
To escape this binary, mentors can act as a liaison, transitioning their mentee from beginner teacher to respected colleague. The transformative first year of teaching enables pre-service teachers to wrestle with their professional identity, find success in their teaching practices, and join the academic conversation. Although mentees will continue to fluctuate between novice teachers and teacher leaders, this back-and-forth movement, with the support of their mentors, will aid in building the confidence necessary to lead. Anna shared:
Writing the blog post has made me more prepared and willing to take advantage of leadership opportunities. Before this, I was worried about being taken seriously as a new teacher; however, writing this blog post has shown me that I, like all teachers, have an individualized skill set that other teachers are interested in learning about. After reading my post, a veteran teacher actually asked me to help them set up their own individual discussion boards, and this reminded me that we do our best work by collaborating with one another. Writing this blog post has given me confidence in my status as a new teacher, and it has encouraged me to continue seeking out opportunities to share my knowledge.
First- and second-year teachers: what did you learn during your first years of teaching? What would you like to contribute to the profession? What successes did you have? What struggles did you overcome? Are there innovations that you would like to share? Mentors and professors: are there first- and second-year teachers you would like to recognize or invite to post? I would love to hear from you! LF879590@wcupa.edu.
Gallagher, K., & Kittle, P. (2018). 180 days: Two teachers and the quest to engage and empower adolescents. Heinemann.
Hunzicker, Jana. (2017). From teacher to teacher leader: A conceptual model. International Journal of Teacher Leadership, 8(2), 1-27. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1169800.pdf
Meixner, Emily. (2014). Nurturing teacher leadership through homegrown professional development. English Leadership Quarterly, 37(2), 6-9. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from https://www.academia.edu/38988630/Nurturing_Teacher_Leadership_Through_Homegrown_Professional_Development