* Mentoring 101

Mentoring takes courage.  For the teacher being mentored, it means collaborating openly, sharing your strengths and weaknesses, and being teachable.  For the mentor, It means exactly the same.  I’ve mentored many teachers over the years, with mostly positive results.  As a special educator, it’s been a stretch for me to mentor regular classroom teachers, as well as those teaching foreign language and PE.  But the basic parameters are always the same.  Just like teaching kids, your mentoring relationship can be a natural fit or you’ll discover that you must work hard to develop an effective connection.

Given my background in teaching kids with behavior problems, I have often been assigned (or offered to help) teachers whose classroom management skills are sketchy.  At first, I found it hard to predict the outcome in this type of situation.  One teacher (let’s call her Jan), had a spotless room, incredible organizational skills, and a permanent smile.  Unfortunately, she seemed to be missing her radar.  That’s a serious issue.  How can you navigate the deep seas without radar?  Jan never spotted those blips moving closer and closer to a point of impact.  I would be cringing, waiting for the collision, while she remained smiling and oblivious.  I wanted to scream out, “Dive! Dive!”  or “All hands on board!” but just clenched my teeth and tried not to intervene.  We met over 70 times in one year, with almost that many observations. By the end of the year, she transferred to another school.  Was that because of me, I wondered?  Was she sick of hearing me talk about tuning in to all the kids?  I was never sure, but she has since become a successful and admired teacher.  And she gave me a great big hug when I last saw her (perhaps thinking, “Thank goodness I don’t have to see her face in my room any more!”).

Right after my year with Jan, I was assigned to Margaret’s room.  It was hard for me to find Margaret in the jumble of flying bodies, drifting furniture, and jet engine-level noise.  Eventually, I could hear Margaret’s laughter rising above the rest of the tumult, which was both a good sign and a bad one.  It was good that she could laugh while buried alive in chaos, but it was bad that she thought the situation was just fine.  (The principal didn’t think the situation was fine at all, which was why I had arrived.)  Margaret was an easier fit for me personally than Jan, especially in the clutter department.  Also, it turned out that Margaret had a great radar but just never used it.  She alternated between a kindly babysitter role and a birthday party clown, neither of which works for more than 5 minutes in a classroom.  Margaret also went on to become a successful teacher.

I became better at predicting mentoring success because it seemed to be correlated with the amount of hours I spent with a teacher.  I guess I either wore them down or they ran away.

That leads me to Thomas, who taught a self-contained classroom like mine but with older kids. The first major problem was that he taught in a different school, so our face-to-face encounters were limited in number.  I couldn’t just drop by and observe or chat.  We talked on the phone but that wasn’t very helpful.  We obviously had a lot in common, but I still found it hard to connect with him.  You know the disclosure model where you tell someone your own miserable failures and they will be more inclined to tell you theirs?  That was a foreign concept to Thomas, who wanted to appear perfectly perfect.  Well, so did I, but my debacles have been so notorious that I couldn’t get away with perfect.  I heard from another teacher that Thomas was dying on the vine.  His kids were tossing furniture at him, he was losing his temper, and he had no desire to disclose anything at all to me.  I had just arranged a time to observe when I got the news.  Thomas had last been seen running away from the school at a brisk pace, never to return again.

That left me with a really sad feeling, along with some chuckles on those days when I felt like running away, too. I have continued to mentor to this day and no one else has ever taken off running.  Whew!

* Peer pressure

The ways kids influence one another are probably second only to teacher-student relationships in impacting the classroom community.  For better or worse.

Get your act together first.  You must set a positive tone for relationships in the class.   One common question in a teacher interview is:  “How would your students describe you?”  That is an important question to consider daily.  The best way I can discover how I’m REALLY doing is to videotape myself.  Even knowing I’m being filmed changes my behavior for the better.  It engages the self-monitoring part of my brain, something we hope to elicit in our students as well.  Give that a try if you are feeling perpetually grumpy or if you are always “putting out fires” in your class.  It is helpful to establish videotaping as a routine part of your class from the beginning, or you will have kids endlessly posturing for the camera.  You don’t actually have to be filming at first; just keep the camera and tripod visible.  Use a dark pen or tape to blot out the red recording light.  When the kids ask why you’re filming, tell them it’s so you can be a better teacher.  They won’t believe you for a moment but eventually the novelty will wear off.  And then you can use videotaping to change their behavior as well as yours.

Let’s take a look at ways to enhance peer relationships in the context of difficult students.  We’ll assume you have a fairly active class but one kid rises well above the rest.  We’ll call him Damon.  Damon is a pinball, ricocheting around the room unless you pin him to your side.  He has the attention span of an 18 month old.  You can count on him to both create and broadcast the news about any bodily functions, especially passing gas.  Although he can be quite funny, he also has a short fuse.  Even so, Damon is a leader of sorts.  He goes where no student has gone before, which attracts followers and admirers.  But many kids are wary of him because he’s so mercurial.  He doesn’t share materials, interrupts when others are speaking, and gets in trouble a lot.

Tip #1: Learn to love Damon. ( He would likely improve with a behavior contract but that’s another post.  On the assumption that he has just started his new contract, you can rightly assume that he wants to do well.)  Be deliberate in your interactions with him.  Ask yourself how many times you smile at him (not counting baring your teeth).  Monitor yourself  to improve your ratio of praise to correction.  Think of how he looked as a baby.  Cute, huh?  Focus on some traits you enjoy about him and share those with him:  You are such a fast runner at recess!  You always have something to contribute in group.  You really want to do well in 2nd grade.  You have a super smile.  You draw interesting pictures.  I like having you in my class.  You make me smile.

Tip #2: Don’t always pick Damon to be the class “whatever” in order to give him attention and supposedly build his self-esteem.  I know we were all taught that giving kids special jobs makes them feel special, but if that strategy were effective, you wouldn’t be struggling with him.  I would assume he knows why you always call on him first or ask him to distribute materials:  You are trying to get a step ahead of him; you are trying to change his behavior and he knows he’s falling short.   Use your regular class helper routines and don’t favor him.

Tip #3: Help Damon’s peers love him.  DON’T demonize him.  Ask the guidance counselor or family specialist (who probably both know him and his family by now) to take Damon out of the room for about 15 minutes.  Use that time to talk to the class about the “new” Damon.  Talk to them about his lovable traits.  Tell them some things you appreciate about him.  Tell them that he really, really, really, really wants to do well in school and that they can help him!  Yippee!

Sample script:  “You guys already help each other in so many ways.  Raise your hand if someone has helped you in this class.  Great!”  Damon’s classmates already know he needs some help, so you don’t emphasize his weaknesses.  Just list the goals he is trying to achieve: staying in his space, raising his hand, and saying appropriate things.

Sample script: “It’s so easy to laugh at some of the things he says and does, but that makes him do them again.  And then he’s in trouble because those aren’t appropriate for school.  Real friends help each other.  Real friends might give him a signal to raise his hand (demonstrate), even if he has blurted out.  Real friends might say,  Stay here with us, Damon.  Who can be a real friend to Damon?  In fact, you can all be great friends to each other.  I’ve already seen you do that.  Let’s practice helping someone stay in their seat.  Remember that you can say it one time, but after that, it’s the teacher’s job.  Otherwise, kids will feel that they are being bossed around.”  (You probably need to reemphasize the bossiness issue.)  Now you have set the stage for all the kids to help Damon AND each other.

Tip #4: Conduct regular class meetings.  You might want to read about how these meetings can be handled effectively if they’re not already a part of your repertoire.  Class meetings are a way for kids to develop a sense of community and create opportunities to discuss behaviors in a matter-of-fact way.  Establish your class meeting rules from the start, such as ‘say kind things about others’ and ‘listen to others.’  Common topics include what they’d like to learn in some subject area, what they thought about an assembly, how to help one another, or what’s hard about a subject at school.   You can keep some meetings short with simple thumbs up-thumbs down responses.   Class meetings are invaluable for making it OK to discuss behavior problems (and responses to passing gas.)  Don’t start with the latter topic, but you can take away the novelty and startle effect of misbehavior if it’s routinely reviewed.  These discussions shouldn’t be a guise for writing prompts or letters home.

It will be rewarding to watch Damon flourish with peer support.  And with that behavior contract in place.

* Next Encounters of the Best Kind

Forming relationships with your students is a factor in starting off the school year right, as well as staying on course. Even if you have had a bumpy start, it is possible to repair and build.  I think it’s important to be yourself, to be proactive in relationship building, and to be observant.

Be yourself.

You are unique and that’s a gift.  Maybe you value your unique self or maybe you are trying to squish yourself into some Super Teacher mold.  Beginning teachers can have the most difficulty in this area, but it’s a challenge for us all.  We see the “best” teachers and want to be like them. Comparison is SO painful because we usually don’t measure up in our own minds.  It’s a super idea to borrow some things from other teachers, but you can’t paste their personality and style over yours.  A friend recently shared some Pinterest classroom decorations with me and I was blown away.  I have no eye for that (and in special education, try to lessen distractions anyway) but my hallway bulletin boards always look “off.”  And I don’t have what I call a “recess voice,” the ability to boom over any sounds in the classroom.  When I have tried out my “recess voice,” I end up coughing and croaking.  I am not young, fashionable, and likely to be adored for my beauty.  I have watched sassy young teachers show up and all eyes are watching.  Enjoy who you are and be willing to disclose some personal traits with your students.

Be proactive in relationship building.

Get to know your students before school starts.  You can jump-start relationships with kids by meeting their parents.  OK, this is a tricky one, although many districts now expect teachers to connect with families informally before an official event.  Your initial contact may be that Back to School night.  But if you have a class list before then, begin calling, emailing, and/or visiting.  Seriously, this is a big deal.  Not every parent may welcome you, and not every phone may be connected, but the kids will be thrilled that you took the time to find them.  You will better understand your students when you see their home environment.  Do watch yourself for assumptions and prejudices as you travel through a variety of neighborhoods.  Make yourself accessible.  Speaking from personal experience, it’s a lot of work.  But those extra afternoon and evening meetings will pay off.

Be observant.

Simply put, keep your eyes peeled.  You know by now that I cannot write anything too simply, though, so here’s the elaboration.  Watch student behavior.  Focus carefully so you can detect triggers in their environment.  What catches their interest?  What makes them laugh?  What makes them frustrated?  How do they react to interruptions, assignments, free choice, lining up, the racket of the cafeteria?  Once you know their strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to shape that environment and guide them into more responsible choices.  And I have saved the most important observation for last:  watch yourself.  Your behavior impacts that of your students.  I usually keep a clipboard in my hand or nearby so I can record my behavior.  What is my ratio of positive to corrective statements?  How often do I smile?  Do I speak to all the kids or only those with their hands waving like flags?  Keep track of yourself, especially after a rough day.  A delightful benefit of this practice is that it causes students to become more watchful of you and themselves.  “What you are writing about?” becomes a prompt for all of you to take a closer look at how you are behaving.  And that’s a good thing.

Footnote: I consider myself to have shaky social skills, but my relationships with students and parents have been exceptionally positive.  So how has that happened?  God’s grace, first and foremost.  And he provided that grace long before I even believed in him, so I trust that his love for us all provides grace, no matter what we believe.