What Questions Should New Teachers Ask Their Mentors?

So you’ve got a mentor teacher who is ready to answer your questions. Great! Unfortunately, you’re not quite sure what those questions are yet.

Even if people have told you over and over that there are no stupid questions, it can be scary to ask a more experienced colleague something that reveals what you don’t know.

On the other hand, you don’t want to waste precious mentoring time nodding along politely as someone repeats everything you just learned in training. As a general rule, the best mentor questions pertain to things that are specific to your school and/or can keep you from reinventing the wheel.

Below, you’ll find a list of no-shame-in-asking questions to help start productive conversations with your mentor(s).

Before we start, here are three ways you can use this list to find mentors before the school year starts.

1. If you’re already working with a specific mentor teacher

Make an appointment to sit together for a 30- or 60-minute brain-picking session. Copy and paste all of these questions into a Word document and make any modifications that apply to your situation. Then, take notes on the answers and ask follow-up questions as needed.

2. If you’re looking to build a board of teaching advisors

Share the questions in this post with a few different people and ask if they can spend five minutes answering the question of their choice. Or, if you have a sense of who you’d like certain answers from, send different questions to different people. As you receive answers, you’ll also start to get a sense of who to approach for advice in the future and what types of questions to ask each advisor.

3. If you’re meeting all the experienced teachers in your school in the same week

Keep this list in mind. Many experienced teachers will say something along the lines of, “Feel free to ask me if you need anything!” Usually, beginning teachers nod enthusiastically and say they sure will, but they think they’ve got everything covered for now! Then they slink off to their own classroom, where they can have a panic attack in private. A more productive way to handle these offers for help, which are almost always genuine, is to say, “Actually, I do have one question…” Then, ask one of these.

Questions to Ask Your Mentor Teacher(s) Before the First Day of School.

  • Will our department or grade level have a collaborative planning meeting? If so, should I start planning now on my own, or wait until the meeting?
  • Is there a specific discipline system that everyone on our grade level (or in our school) uses?
  • Do you have procedures you’d recommend for any of these classroom routines?
  • Do you have a version of any of these first-day forms? Could I get them as a computer file that I can customize?
  • How many grades do we need to have in our grade book by report card day, which probably falls in October? Do you have any advice for staying caught up on grading?
  • What school supplies should I expect students to bring on the first day?
  • What school supplies can I ask families to send in while still being respectful of everyone’s budget?
  • What subject matter should I teach on the first day?
  • Can I see your first-day lesson plans? Could I get them as a computer file that I can customize?
  • What is the school’s policy on cell phones or other devices in class? How do you enforce this policy in your classroom?
  • What is the school’s dress code? How strictly is it enforced at a school level? How do you enforce the dress code within your classroom? What issues do you run into and how do you deal with them?
  • Do you let parents come into your classroom on the first day of school? If so, what are your guidelines for managing this? If not, how do you politely keep them from walking in?
  • ______________________?

Even if you know some of the answers or have ideas of your own, having a few questions like these in your pocket to ask of anyone who offers will signal to your new colleagues that you’re engaged and open to feedback and collaboration. Over time, you’ll find that there may be some colleagues whom you’d really prefer to avoid collaborating or even engaging with—but that’s a subject for another post.

How to work with mentor teacher(s) in the first months of school

Once the year is underway, the type of conversations you’ll have with your mentor may change. For one thing, your mentors may have full-time class schedules of their own. Even if they told you to feel free to ask them anything at the beginning of the year, you may sense that they’re tired and busy.

On top of this, your own questions about teaching are no longer hypothetical.

You’re learning through trial and error in front of a class full of students. Asking how you can get your students to turn in homework, or be quiet when you’re talking, or stop loudly cursing at one another can feel pretty revealing. You may also have had your first unfortunate situation in which you opened up to a colleague about a problem you were having, only to have them say something along the lines of, “Well, that would never happen in my classroom.” (Ugh.)

Here are a few ways to get concrete answers without making yourself overly vulnerable.

  • I know everyone’s busy right now, including you. Are there some better or worse times of the week for me to be asking you questions?
  • Can you share your best tips for X?
  • I noticed that you seem to be very good at X. Can you share your system?
  • I’m trying to add to my bag of teaching tricks. Do you mind if I come to your classroom during my planning period and watch you teach?
  • This is so helpful! Do you mind if I ask a followup question?
  • This is so helpful! Do you mind if I ask a followup question?
  • This is so helpful! Do you mind if . . . (you get the point.)

Undoubtedly you’ve heard the classic teacher advice, “Beg, borrow, and steal.” A better phrase would be, “Beg, borrow, steal…and then adapt.” If another teacher’s routines fall flat the first time you try them, don’t get discouraged. Tricks from other teachers will often need adjustments before they work in your classroom.

How to work with your mentor teacher(s) in October and November

October and November can be exhausting even for experienced teachers. But there’s an extra layer for new teachers: they have to lay the tracks as they drive the train. And they may spend much of the year feeling like they’re about to crash.

New teachers’ treadmills have been on the highest possible setting for months and they haven’t had a chance to catch their breath. They may even be wondering whether they should have chosen this career in the first place—whether their students would better off with another adult in front of the classroom.

New teachers often keeping the shame of all these worries to themselves. Which is too bad, because it sure would be a great time to know you’re not alone in all this. It would be a great time for someone to tell you that this time frame of the school year is called The Disillusionment Phase. It’s a rite of passage in the teaching profession. And it often hits around this time of year.

What type of questions should you ask your mentor teacher(s) during The Disillusionment Phase?

This is a tough one. During this part of the year, you have so many questions. But on some level, they’re all versions of a single question you’re afraid to put into words: Am I a terrible teacher who is doing a disservice to my students by being in front of their classroom?

If you do ask this question, no matter what answer you get, you’re likely to interpret that answer in the worst possible way. You also may open yourself to some awful, discouraging cliche like, “Well, you know the first year of teaching makes you or breaks you! Heh.” (Spoiler alert. This is not true. It just rhymes.)

If you’ve found a mentor you really trust to give you the right kind of advice and share the right kind of stories, you can ask them to give you some reassurance, or tell you about a particularly hard part of their own first year that made them question whether they were cut out for teaching.

Anything that can put this time in perspective as a rite of passage in the teaching profession rather than a sign you’re not cut out for teaching is helpful.

This may also be a good time to check out The Disillusionment Power Pack, a 30-day series of emails meant to help teachers through the toughest month their first year. These emails are the types of stories I wish I’d been able to get from a mentor during my own first year of teaching. You may find them helpful as well.

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