Mentors: The Key to Surviving in the Classroom

A veteran teacher saves a young educator's career.

As a teacher consultant, I visit a lot of schools and build relationships with some extraordinary educators... 

One such educator, Denise, who is in her fifth year as a fourth-grade teacher, recently shared with me an insightful story about her journey as an educator. As we spoke that day at the end of a professional development seminar, I was shocked to hear that halfway through her first year of teaching, she was ready to resign. When I asked what stopped her, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “My mentor teacher helped to pull me through those tough times. I don’t know where I would be today without her.” 

Later, as we walked to the teacher’s lounge for lunch, she told me more about her story.

I remember how excited I was about my first teaching position. I had grand thoughts of molding and shaping the future leaders of tomorrow in my fourth-grade classroom. I was ready to put into practice all of the things I had learned through college and student teaching. Those first few weeks of school that year were exciting and exhausting at the same time. I remember staying at school until six or seven o’clock most nights to grade papers and figure out what I was going to do the next day.

But, about three weeks into the school year, the honeymoon period ended. Students became disruptive and disrespectful to me and their peers. They stopped doing their work in class, and altercations were breaking out on the playground daily. I went home every night completely exhausted. I was overwhelmed with fear and doubt. I felt like a failure, wondering if teaching was really for me. By the end of that first semester, I was ready to give up altogether. 

I vividly remember the day just before Christmas break when I sat down to write my resignation letter. Tears ran down my face and onto the notebook paper as I drafted it. When I looked up from my completed resignation letter, I saw Mary, a well-respected third-grade teacher, and 25-year veteran, leaning against my doorway. She asked me what was wrong. For the next fifteen minutes, I proceeded to describe the past few months with my students. I told her about the shame I felt for not being able to handle my classroom. And, I showed her my newly drafted resignation letter.

She asked, “Why didn’t you let anyone know earlier in the year?”

“I did not want to be seen as an incompetent teacher,” I sheepishly responded.

 She smiled and said, “I was in your shoes 24 years ago. I was about to quit myself.” 

“Really?” I asked.

“Really!” Mary replied. 

She then went on to tell me about her first year of teaching. She said she was also ready to give up until one of her colleagues stepped in to help. Mary and I talked for the next hour. She convinced me to keep my resignation letter in my desk for a while. Mary then offered to be my mentor for the remainder of the school year. We didn’t have a formal mentor program in our school at the time, so I was grateful for her support. We created a plan to meet twice a week for the first few weeks and then once a week after spring break.

Our weekly meetings were not formal. They simply gave me time and space to ask questions, vent about my students, learn some teaching and behavior management strategies, and master some effective strategies for communicating with parents. Mary was a great listener. With each passing week, I got to know more about her as well. Learning that she was also a Christian made our relationship even stronger. We even began our weekly meetings with prayer.

After spring break, I could feel my confidence increasing. I knew that if I had questions about a student, curriculum, or other matters, Mary was there to support me. As the year ended, I met with Mary one last time to conclude my first year of teaching.

I gave her a big hug and said, “I honestly could not have gotten through this year without you. I was ready to leave teaching, but you helped me in so many ways. I don’t know how to repay you!” 

She smiled and said, “No, you do not owe me anything at all. If anything, I have learned so much from you this year!”

As we finished our lunch in the teacher’s lounge, Denise shared one final sentiment, “Mary saved my career. Without her as a mentor, I would not be where I am today.”

Teachers, can you relate to this story? 

Maybe you have been in Denise’s shoes? Or Mary’s? Or perhaps both at different points in your career? Regardless of where you fit, both mentees and mentors can benefit from the following helpful tips.

  • Approach each other with humility and compassion. Share your struggles, offer to pray for each other, and meet regularly.
  • Realize that meetings at the beginning of the year may focus on the nuts and bolts of curriculum, grading, attendance, classroom setup, and encouragement. As you move farther into the school year, the conversation and topics may include finalizing report cards, conducting parent-teacher conferences, working with challenging students and parents, and more.
  • Allow time for candid discussions about what is going well and what has been challenging. These conversations are often the most fruitful and can lead to the most impactful changes. 
  • Be a good listener and be open to learning from each other. Over the course of the school year, a healthy mentee/mentor relationship will form a strong bond, allowing both parties to learn from each other along the way.

Are you a brand new teacher? Or, are you mentoring a new teacher? If so, we have the perfect resource for you! 

Teaching For God's Glory: Daily Wisdom and Inspiration for New Teachers by Tyler Harms is a practical and inspirational daily guide full of wisdom from veteran teachers at all grade levels. It includes practical advice on ways to set up a classroom, tips for communicating with students and parents, and a place at the end of each chapter to reflect on what worked well, areas that need growth, and prayer requests.

Tyler Harms, a teacher consultant at All Belong Center for Inclusive Education, has taught special education in public school classrooms for over 12 years. He is a dedicated advocate for teachers, students, and their families.


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