Mentoring: Helping New Teachers Begin Their Climb to the Summit - Lynne Jackson

With 46 years of service as a music educator, I have spent the last 13 years with young, inexperienced junior high and high school instrumental music teachers as a mentor/teacher.  My charge has been to help them become stronger teachers and to assist them in building a band curriculum vertically aligned from grades six through twelve.  Mentoring most of these teachers from their very first year has given me the opportunity to learn several memorable lessons.  One is that mentoring an individual is far different from being a classroom teacher.  It would seem that one could just tell a young teacher what to do, but it doesn’t quite work that way.  Another lesson I have experienced with my young protégés is that teaching is a personal endeavor that can break your heart one day and lift you above the clouds the next.  Most important, perhaps, is that all teachers have their own journeys to follow and their own mountains to climb.

An Uphill Climb

There is no doubt that a teacher who is new to the profession must be prepared for a variety of challenges. A new teacher is much like the climber who dreams of conquering Mt. Everest. Both teacher and climber have studied the basics, learned the potential pitfalls, and gained the essential knowledge and skills for a steady and successful journey. Graduation day, filled with anticipation, expectations, hopes, and dreams, marks the time for the new climbers to meet their respective mountains!

A new teacher begins the actual climb only after completing college or university level training courses and one semester of student teaching experience in the classroom. Unfortunately, the content and rigor of university coursework and the quality of student teaching opportunities experienced by new teacher candidates varies widely. Consequently, new teachers may arrive at their metaphorical base camps unknowingly ill-prepared for their new responsibilities.

However, in most school districts, programs are in place to pair each new teacher with a mentor teacher. Much like a Sherpa, the mentor helps guide the teacher through the harrowing climb of the first year. Notably, mentors have an extraordinary opportunity to play a pivotal role in the lives of their mentees, ultimately influencing the future of many students. At the same time, although the mentor’s role is critical, the new teacher’s personal strength and skill ultimately factor into the ease or difficulty and eventual success or failure of the journey. Just as the Sherpa can only assist the climber, the new teacher must take each step on his or her own toward the summit.


Building Trust

New teachers come with a distinctly personal set of skills, strengths, and, perspectives toward teaching Typically, these skills, strengths, and perspectives do not match those of the mentor; therefore most mentoring relationships begin with corresponding gaps that must be addressed.  Hubert E. Nutt, former president of VanderCook College of Music and renowned music educator, once said, “No man can be rightly taught unless he is aware of a real need in his life and in his work” (Nutt, 2012).  Accordingly, the first and foremost role of the mentor is to foster a relationship of trust that will empower the mentee to recognize the urgent need to learn and grow. 

In fact, the most essential component of an effective mentorship is trust. Trust building takes time, and learning to listen to one another is essential.  The mentor’s ability to listen closely to the mentee is particularly important because young teachers’ words and actions will reveal their perceptions about themselves as well as their classroom, students, parents, administrators and colleagues. The mentor must strive to identify and understand exactly where the mentee is on the path to becoming an effective teacher.  Then will the mentor begin to become effective in a Sherpa-like fashion.  A strong mentor/mentee relationship only develops over time based upon trust and meaningful communication.

Asking Questions

One excellent way to establish a free and abundant dialogue with a new teacher is by asking good questions.  For example, rather than pointing out how poorly the students are entering the classroom, a better approach would be to ask, “How would you like your students to look as they enter the classroom? “  This strategy places responsibility in the hands of the mentee and eliminates the potential for creating an environment of harsh criticism. Receptivity to mentoring can easily disappear if a new teacher feels like the victim of an attack.

Carefully constructed questions also have a residual effect by creating opportunities for reflection and thoughtful behavior:  “How would you like this musical phrase to sound?”  “Can you sing it for me?” “How would you play this on your own instrument?”  When the mentee begins to articulate reflective questions for the mentor, an important benchmark of success has been reached.  However, once the new teacher is able to ask carefully constructed questions to his or her students, an even more critical benchmark has been reached in the climb to the summit.  A questioning strategy may become one of the most valuable tools a mentor can pass on to novice teachers.

Creating a Culture of Learning

One common perception among new teachers is that their students must be able to “behave” before they can be properly taught.  Through time, teachers may learn on their own that the “discipline” in the classroom is the subject matter and the excitement about that subject generated by the teacher.  Nevertheless, mentors can play a significant role in helping mentees experience this revelation early in their careers. Teaching should and must be approached and experienced as a joyful endeavor.  Unfortunately, too many teachers never realize that their own passion for the subject is the most powerful force in the room. These unempowered individuals, unsuccessful and unhappy in the profession, often ultimately feel driven away from the classroom.  However, for creating a learning environment that is irresistible to students, there is no substitute for a teacher’s unbridled enthusiasm and love for the subject!

Minding the Gaps

Claire Johnson, who is friend, colleague, and distinguished flute teacher, often tells her fellow teachers and her mentees that there is no such thing as teaching, only learning, and that if something has not been learned, then it has not been taught. Teachers may hear themselves saying, “I taught you that” or “We talked about that!” These comments reveal an assumption that students have learned the information or skill being “taught,” while in reality, nothing was learned.   Great teachers have learned to act as detectives, looking for gaps in student learning in order to fill in the missing pieces as quickly and creatively as possible. Great teachers always ask questions of themselves, too: “Have my students truly learned this?” “Are my students ready for the next step?”   A classroom climate that enables all students to thrive becomes a truly exhilarating experience for teacher and students.

Effective Mentoring

Just as the Everest Sherpa cannot take each step for the climber he guides, mentors cannot do the teaching for their mentees. The mentoring process can be tedious or perhaps even frustrating at times, often feeling like a one step forward, two steps back scenario. Mentors must be patient because all young teachers develop differently.  Some may take longer than others to arrive at various points on the journey.

Throughout the mentor/mentee relationship, an effective mentor must also remain encouraging but truthful. Although defeats experienced by the mentee can be painfully obvious, an effective mentor will point out small victories that continue to keep spirits lifted. Understanding that too much information can be overwhelming to the mentee, a good mentor will search for the key elements of change needed to make a profound difference for the long term, Finally, an effective mentor teaches the novice teacher to think independently, to use information appropriately, and to learn how to think about teaching. Great teachers tend to think about teaching most of the time. For them, teaching has become a passion rather than a pastime.

Learning to teach would be much easier if there were a script or a formula, but there is none. The climb for each teacher is different.  Yet, one day, the new teacher is able to climb solo, or even better, may become a Sherpa for the next set of new climbers!

Lynne Jackson is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music Education at Southern Methodist University and a mentor teacher for the Berkner area in Richardson, TX.

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Nutt, H. A. (2012). About Vandercook college of music, Retrieved from