Go Mentor or Go Mental: Top Ten Ways to Acquire and Nuture a Mentor Relationship

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, classdojo.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” – Rachel Carson

Besides the optional therapist and the mandatory confidant, the mentor plays a major role in helping new educators survive, and intermediate educators thrive. And survive.

  • A complaint I often hear is: I don’t get mentorship.
  • And when I hear this complaint, I know I’m hearing it from a professional.

Only a professional is willing to enter into and foster a relationship that explicitly recognizes that someone knows more than him or her, has more experience than him or her.

Only a professional is willing to trust that the differential in experience and wisdom between him or her and the mentor will contribute not to continued insecurity, but rather, to a space for growth.

Only a professional is willing to come to terms with his or her vulnerability in the plain sight of another person.

But all growth is about coming to terms with vulnerability. As the amazing Rachel Carson quote above suggests (for children as well as adult learners), for a teacher to maintain a sense of wonder in the face of anxiety and vulnerability, he or she needs someone to share the excitement, joy, and mystery. And, I would add, someone to be a port in the storm of fear, anxiety, and unavoidable occasional failure.

My advice for finding and fostering a relationship with a Mentor:

  • If you are assigned a mentor, that’s great. And you may luck out. But if the chemistry isn’t there, or the availability is not sufficient, be okay with looking elsewhere. You can have more than one mentor.
  • Communicate with your mentor about what s/he expects from your meetings. Suggest what you, too, hope to get.
  • Treat mentoring sessions like an expensive session with a trainer or therapist. Come to sessions prepared. Set an agenda. Keep an eye on the time. And put the trickiest, most difficult stuff first.
  • Build in time, also, for shmoozing, and celebrating victories.


And some more subtle does and dont’s about working with your mentor:

  • Don’t be defensive. If you trust your mentor and you’re getting difficult feedback, explanation or apologies should be the last thing on your mind. Instead, demonstrate your understanding of the feedback by putting the feedback into your own words. Then, adopt a posture of, “That’s challenging to hear, obviously. But I will think about it and work on it.” – That evening, be sure to vent with your confidant. (See blog post 8).
  • Do accept compliments fully. It’s not flattery: your mentor is training you to notice what the areas for growth are. Adopt a posture of, “I’m glad to hear the work I put into that is paying off.”
  • Do bring specific concerns to your mentor. Just as a class session with unclear goals can be interesting but won’t lead to measurable growth, sharing general gripes with your mentor are less productive than specific questions or case studies. Bring students’ work to help focus your session.
  • Don’t allow the year to slip by. Your mentor may become busy and cancel sessions. For that matter,you may become busy and cancel sessions. In the same conversation where you cancel a session,reschedule your session.

Lastly, the classic Jewish Text, Pirkei Avot, says, “…Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: ‘From all those who taught me I gained understanding’ (Psalms 119:99).”

In this spirit, I invite all readers to share: what advice do you have for effectively working with a mentor?

The Therapist and the Confidant: Optional / Required for Teachers

therapist cat

This post was originally featured on Thought Partners, a blog for educators, hosted by the excellent classroom behavior management app, classdojo

For teachers, therapy isn’t a terrible idea.

Let me back up. Many psychoanalysis programs require new practitioners-in-training to undergo a course of analysis of their own.

The rationale makes sense: journeying with the patient through the muck and mire, the fear and anger and pain, can cause memories to bubble up, complicated feelings, in the analyst. The analyst’s needs and emotions, however, are not relevant in the therapeutic encounter —  they can undermine the therapeutic relationship.

The analyst needs to learn how to keep memory and emotion in check – to deal with them appropriately.

True, also, for parents.

A friend recently confided that when he sees his young children struggle, it brings up memories and feelings from some long-forgotten places.

“Some of the feelings,” he admitted, “are ugly. I need to keep them in check. Process them elsewhere. Shield my children from them.”

So there we are, teachers, in front of a class, day after day. No one can see our flaws better than a room full of adolescents. They see, inevitably, setback, frustration and failure – even in the best of us. They see us wince when someone says that one thing we can’t stand. (Commedian John Mulaney has a hilarious sketch on the uncanny ability of middle school students to zero in on the one thing that we don’t like about us. Check it out).

When the students complete a project and demonstrate that they’ve learned something valuable, we fly.

When the computer network shuts down and erases an entire period worth of work, we fall. We can fall, hard.

And that’s just in the classroom. There are deadlines. Budgets. Parents. Testing. That one colleague we can’t stand. Performance reviews.

There is wiping up glue and glitter and cottage cheese from a desk.

Like many high-stress professions, burn-out is an issue. Compared to doctors’ attrition rate which has hovered around 6.5%, around 50% of teachers quit in their first five years, bringing the overall attrition rate to 17% (and as high as 20% in some areas).

Some research shows that improved induction programs can mitigate some of this attrition rate (mentoring, reduced course loads, etc), but there isn’t much we, the teachers, can do about that. good times

What we can do, however, is powerful.


  • Consider therapy. Consider starting a few weeks before you begin teaching. Consider staying in therapy for the year. Work through the baggage, the emotions, the setback. If you feel any sort of stigma about it, take comfort in this: according to a Harris poll in 2004, 27 percent of Americans were in therapy within the last two years of the poll.
  • Consider meditation.
  • Consider listening to a guided imagery tape like one, by Dr. Belleruth Naparstek, at least once a day for the first several weeks of teaching (Her voice is sort of weird, but it works).


Find a Confidant

You need to find someone who is unequivocally on your side. Someone who you can complain to without fear of judgment. Someone who will learn the names of the thorns in your side, and reflect your best self back to you when you’re done venting. Someone you can IM in the middle of the day: “Guess what (insert name) just did/said/threw at me.”

The effective confidant will help you to find your sense of humor and prop you up a little when you need it – and is ready to assess solutions and interventions. If your rapport is strong, s/he will know when you need a little “tough love,” and when it’s time for that, will offer it like a cool drink from a garden hose. Not a firehose.

The confidant can be a colleague, but does not have to be.

And honestly, the confidant is not optional.

Works Cited:




Top Ten Things to Do In Your First 3 Weeks of Class

Behold, the living embodiment of Teacher Anxiety.

Behold, the living embodiment of Teacher Anxiety.

Labor Day has come and gone.

Away go the white pants, seersucker, and mint-juleps of summer.

Back again comes “Sunday Night Tummy” – the ambiguous excitement/nervousness/dread that many teachers feel around 4pm on Sunday afternoons, even if we looooove children and teaching and whatever our subject is. (My mother, a veteran kindergarten teacher, reports that she got Sunday Tummy from the first week of her career until the final week before her retirement.) We get nervous. Overwhelmed. Except this is the beginning of the year, not just the week, so it’s less like a butterfly in there, and more like a pterodactyl.

How to tame the pterodactyl?

With a check-list!

Here are 10 things for you to do, tried-n’-tested components to launch in your class during the first three weeks.

May they tame your pterodactyls.


1. Decide what your policies are for every possible conundrum you’ve encountered, including a) late work, b) making up quizzes and papers, c) tardiness / acting out in class, and d) texting / facebook during work time, etc.

2. Put these policies into a “Class Norms” document (click here for a sample) that ALSO includes positive messages about: a) how much you respect your students, b) how much you love your subject, c) how you are constantly improving your practice and d) how you want this to be a great year. Design an in-class activity where you ask students what they need from 1) each other, and b) you, to make this a great year.

When they say, “No homework!” tell them you sympathize, but that you wouldn’t get paid the big bucks if you didn’t give homework. The rest of your job you’d do for free.

Lesson planning on the bus is exciting and fun! #stayeduptoolate

Lesson planning on the bus is exciting and fun! #stayeduptoolate

3. Pick a way to communicate to students the first thing for them to do when they get to class and the homework. This frees your attention at the beginning of class to handle things like attendance, getting set up, and brush-fires. I use a shared Google Calendar so it’s editable from my phone. Lesson planning on the bus!

4. If you do partner work (which you should), you need an easy way to assign students. I recommend Mr. Matera’s excellent Super-Grouper. It’s a Google Doc script (don’t worry about what that means) so you can put the link into your daily calendar and students can a) check their partners / groups, and b) go to their preassigned work areas without you verbally instructing them. That saves your voice for witty one-liners.

5.  Get a plastic box with a lid and a pile of popsicle sticks to make “homework passes.” Students get two per quarter (their names written on them). If they come to class, check the calendar, and realize that they haven’t done their homework, they grab a pass from the box and set it on their desk. If they don’t use a pass when they should (or miss more than two homeworks), they get an email or call home to “check in.” My students found this to be incredibly generous. I think it just makes sense.

6. Pick a few weekly rituals to make class special. On mondays, for example, 1-5 students can dedicate their learning to someone who has made a difference in his / her life, or even in someone’s memory (or to someone ill, who they’d like to “send strength to.”) On Friday, each week, a student gets 3 minutes of “This I believe,” to speak about his / her own thoughts on life, relationships, reality – anything. Set up the roster in advance, and remind the next person at the end of the previous class.

7. Design your entire first unit right away – even if you spend all day saturday and sunday doing it. Texts, supplementary videos, games, assessments, everything. Wait to design your second unit until you can catch your breath – (and catch up on laundry, dishes, etc.) towards the end of September.

8. Have a meeting with every student who misses / forgets some low-stakes assignment (or shows signs of acting out), early on.  At the meeting, give the clear message that you are never here to judge, you are only here to support. Express how eager you are to clarify and help. Be positive and enthusiastic.

For a demonstration on how to set make this happen:

9. Send a “contact survey” to your students, asking for their preferred email, cell phone, name of faculty advisor, parent(s) contact, what to call their parents, which parent to reach, facebook (if they are willing), etc. Explain that you will use whatever means of communication they prefer to communicate with them in the case of something urgent (a major paper is overdue and you want to make sure they know). For facebook, create a teacher account with no personal information. For texting, use Remind, a program that allows you to text the call with urgent updates. They will not be able to respond. You might also create a Google Voice account for urgent messages from and to students. That number can be cancelled if it becomes a problem.

10. Introduce Poll Everywhere and Socrative in class. Poll Everywhere allows students to respond to a question via their laptops, tablets, or cell phones, and the results of class polls are great introductions to the topic of the day. Socrative allows you to set up fast, easy “dipsticking” questions – to check for understanding about the homework, the lecture, or the previous class objectives.

I’d love to hear from my readers! What’s in your first three weeks “top ten?” tame ptero