How I Learned to Mentor Teachers Without the Bull

This was published in Education Week Teacher on March 8, 2016.

We southerners often drag out a word and add syllables in order to stress its importance. A simple “yes” can turn into “yayus.” As an indignant child, instead of saying “no,” my daughter said, “no-uh,” which sounded like Noah. My marvelous parenting skills were evident in her ability to cite biblical characters with regularity.

So when I introduced myself to a teacher one day as a new-teacher mentor, I shouldn’t have been surprised when she heard me say “Minotaur.” For those of you who don’t remember 9th grade mythology, the Minotaur is a creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man. Clearly, my pronunciation of “mentor” needed some work, but the incident also made me think about how sometimes we mentors have a tendency to act more like a Minotaur.

Mentors, that is, can be bull-headed. We believe we know what is best for our teachers, and often we really do. But like a bull, we may want to snort our dismay at what we observe in the classroom and charge in to fix it.

An example comes to mind. As a beginning mentor, I observed a hectic high school English classroom during the second week of school. The assignment the teacher had written on the board was for the students to write a paragraph, with supporting evidence, defining the word “honesty.” But the students were ignoring the teacher, talking on their phones, and napping. In my haste to fix the management problems, I took control of the room and got everyone on task. Then, as soon as I sat down, the students went back to their inattentive ways as though I had never been there.

Removing the Horns

It didn’t take me long to see my mistake. Not only had my intervention been ineffective, but my actions had magnified the teacher’s weaknesses. Rather than gathering evidence of student engagement to analyze with the teacher, I opted to model without permission. Unintentionally, I had disrespected the teacher. I overtook rather than oversaw the teacher’s ownership of her classroom management.

I realized I would have to subdue the bull-headed part of myself in order to rebuild trust with the teacher. I started by admitting my mistake. Happily, this led to an insightful conversation about what creates an engaging lesson. The teacher and I looked at her lesson plan for the day. Our discussion revealed a surprising issue.

Stephen Covey, of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People fame, said that in order to be effective, we should “Begin with the end in mind.” We can translate this to lesson planning by asking, “What do you want your students to learn?” and “How will you know they have learned?” In the above example, this teacher’s goal was for her students to write a well-organized and supported paragraph. She said she thought the topic alone would motivate her students to write. Our conversation further revealed that she believed many of her African-American students had low reading levels, which might explain why they didn’t want to do the assignment. The student mix was 80 percent African-American and 20 percent other.

Asking Questions

Mentors learn that it is vital to ask questions in a non-pejorative way. I knew I had to get her past assumptions that were borderline discriminatory or just naive without ruining our relationship. Her school’s data system allowed us to print a bar graph of that class’s reading levels without student names, and in fact the breakdown did not match what she had expected. The average reading level for the entire class ranged from above average to far above average. She had apparently not been told that her class was a pre-AP class. The data gave her the evidence she needed to change the way she approached that class.

But she was still puzzled as to why her students did not follow her directions. We went back to the basics. Did her students understand the expectations of the assignment? She realized that her students needed clearer directions, as well as a class discussion about the nebulous nature of the word “honesty.” They simply needed quick remediation or more direction. In the absence of either, they had chosen to ignore the teacher rather than feel the discomfort of not being successful.

So mentoring this teacher forced me to get beyond my impulse to fix everything myself and find a way help her work beyond assumptions. I relied on the evidence we had before us in the students’ data and their behavior during the assignment. After the students turned in their paragraphs, we revisited the goal for the lesson. Within the month, the teacher had developed rubrics for each assignment that removed any opportunity for presumptions on her part. The students understood the goals of her assignments.

I had to set aside my Minotaur-like tendencies and lead the teacher rather than head-butting her with my solutions. I learned to let the facts—instead of myself—do the talking. She learned to use the supporting evidence to get an honest reflection of her students.

Most importantly, the students learned.