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The Importance of Mentors, or What I Learned from Harold

Voice of ExperienceMax Fischer remembers Harold, the teacher next door when Max was a first-year teacher. That was long before formalized mentor programs were the norm. Fischer shares what he learned from Harold and from his own experiences mentoring new teachers.

Max W. Fischer

When I think back to my first year teaching, my memories are a fusion of feelings of blissful ignorance and sheer panic.

I tried to appear and sound authoritative to parents but, in reality, I was terrified of saying too much and allowing my inexperience to show.

I wanted to impress my principal with sophisticated lessons -- but I was coaching football and baseball that first year, so I rarely got home before 7:00 in the evening. When I got home from coaching, I collapsed in bed. That didn't leave a lot of time to plan elaborate lessons.

I wanted to control my class, secretly hoping my students wouldn't see me nod off as they did their seatwork, because my physiology wasn't prepared for the rigors of that year.


My first classroom was a cleaned-out art supply room, about 15 fifteen feet square. Three long tables in a "U" shape formed the working area for my 16 fourth graders. Their books were stored in a sturdy closet that also held art supplies left over from the previous five decades. Besides the entrance door, the classroom had one other door. That door connected to the adjacent fifth-grade classroom -- Harold's room.

More Voices of Experience

Have you seen these Voice of Experience essays by Max Fischer?
* Alleviating Appraisal Anxiety: Lessons Learned From 29 Years of Evaluations
* Of "No Child Left Behind" and Blueberries
* How to Keep the Fire Burning (Or Lessons Learned from Edith, the Kids, and "the Fear")
* Finding "New Cheese" Requires Adjustment To Change
* Handling Parent Complaints -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
* Written Communication: An Educator's Calling Card
* Middle Schools Are Getting a Bum Rap
* The Power of Written Praise
* In Search of National Board Certification: One Teacher's Perspective
Long before the term mentor teacher came into vogue, Harold was my mentor. He didn't get a supplemental contract for it. He didn't get a coffee mug inscribed with "Mentor Teacher." He wasn't even referred to as a mentor. But I am under no illusions. Harold was my mentor. He nurtured me professionally and in many other ways during that first year.

Harold helped me establish learning stations in my room. Together, we set up a collaborative series of stations in both rooms, so we could simultaneously teach science and social studies to both grades.

Harold taught me how to use the mimeograph machine and how to remove its fluid stains from my hands.

He introduced me to the nuances of the daily routine.

He didn't have to do it, but Harold ate lunch with his students as a way to get more involved with them. So I added my own spin on that practice. I played ball with the kids during recess.

It was Harold who introduced me to combining art with my spelling words as another means of getting my students actively involved in their linguistic exercises. That was almost a decade before Howard Gardner published his initial work about multiple intelligences.

Harold was the epitome of a caring, skillful teacher who gave his all to his students -- and to me. I was fortunate that he taught in the classroom next door.


Recently, I wrote a Voice of Experience essay bemoaning the fact that more than 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession before they have taught five years. Part of the reason for that, I suspect, is because so many of those teachers don't have a Harold in their lives. Whether through a structured mentor program or through the care and concern of a veteran colleague like Harold, rookie teachers need compassionate guidance during their first year or two.

Throughout my career, I have been lucky to be able to "be a Harold" -- to serve as a formal or informal mentor -- to many young teachers. Through those mentoring experiences, I have found a handful of strategies that I consider most useful in assisting new teachers:

  • Perhaps the most important quality a mentor can have is to be a good listener. I remember starting out in a new district after earning my masters degree, believing I was on top of the education world. As it turned out, adapting to the expectations of my third district in eight years was quite a challenge. I was fortunate; several faculty members consistently listened to my frustrations and concerns and gave me reassurance when I needed it most. Being able to listen to a new teacher's fears or frustrations is an art.

  • As a mentor, I am always careful to not present myself as an evaluator. That is the job of the building administrator. My presence in a beginning teacher's classroom should never cause the rookie's blood pressure to rise! As a mentor, I am an encourager, a coach whose job it is to uplift. I try to emphasize all the positive things a novice instructor undertakes and to gently point out areas that could be improved. I offer options to help the new teacher progress.

  • Most teachers directly out of college need frequent assistance. Any experienced teacher can recall his or her lost feelings during that first year. Beyond acquainting novice teachers with the routines of the building and district, extending instructional guidance is paramount. As a mentor, my role is to help new teachers organize academic content, create a classroom atmosphere conducive to instruction, and develop positive relationships with students' parents. Those are just a few of the areas in which I can offer critical assistance.

  • Some mentor programs include assistance for veteran teachers who are new to the district. Those veteran instructors might not need the hand holding that many first-year teachers need, but they do require assistance in getting up to speed with district/building policies and procedures. As a mentor, I can touch base with them often in the initial weeks of school to share information on a range of topics -- from copier room procedures to questions about professional and personal leave.

  • If you have an opportunity to become a mentor, don't be surprised to learn some new things yourself. Mentoring new teachers helps veterans like me stay sharp and hone previously learned skills. Students fresh from college often bring with them an exhilarating vigor and worthy new ideas that can excite even us grizzled veterans if we are open to them. I've also had the opportunity to work with new teachers who teach different subjects than I do. That can be an eye-opener as well. So can being a mentor to a teacher of multiple-handicapped students; doing that taught me a tremendous amount of respect for those special students and their equally special instructors.

A mentor/first year teacher relationship, when properly executed pays big dividends for both educators. The new teacher grows in confidence as he or she finds those all-important "teaching legs;" the mentor finds satisfaction in passing on his or her experience and skills.


Creating a Teacher Mentoring Program. This site from the National Education Association (NEA) Foundation for Improving Education offers advice about developing mentoring programs that work.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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