Mentors in Teaching Are Like Bench Coaches in Baseball

The 1996 New York Yankees were a powerhouse baseball team. Dominating both at home and on the road, they are now considered, even two decades later, one of the best Yankee teams ever. While they had tremendous talent and excellent team chemistry, their success has been widely credited to manager Joe Torre and his coaching staff.

And, as with many things, there’s a connection to teaching.

Torre’s second-in-command — known as the bench coach — was veteran player and coach Don Zimmer. “Zim,” as he was known, would take care of many of the little details for the team, but more importantly he would act as counsel and advisor for many of the players. Just as the players knew that every problem couldn’t go to Torre, they also knew Zimmer would be there for the more mundane and less-important topics.

The players knew they had multiple places to turn in times of need. You should have the same options as a teacher. To get there, you need good mentors.

A mentor is the bench coach of your professional life

Mentorship should be part of your practice, and it should not end after your first few years of teaching. Having a go-to person to ask for help and advice is a key component to your success and professional growth.

You don’t want to bring every minor question to your principal, as even the most caring and dedicated principal will grow frustrated answering query after query. You’re better off relying upon a broad swath of advisors and mentors — your professional bench coaches — to help navigate your teaching career.

You’ll find that people will jump at the chance to work with you, as most veteran teachers view assistance as payback for the help they got when they were young. And, yes, you’ll be expected to do the same for other people eventually.

Being a good friend to a potential mentor

As the old adage goes, the best way to get a friend is to be a friend. When you identify a veteran colleague whose work you admire and you want to learn more from them, spend time getting to know them and their practice. Help them when necessary and spend time picking their brain.

Building on that relationship will take place over time and should be reciprocal in nature. Just as you receive assistance, you should be quick to help when able. Often I find that newer teachers have stronger educational technology skills and can help fill in some learning gaps for colleagues.

Watching other teachers in action

Mentorship isn’t just talking about teaching. It’s also about watching others practice their craft. Spend time in your colleagues’ classrooms, take notes and pay close attention to how they manage the class and make instructional decisions.

Because teaching is as much an art as it is a science, you have to see people doing it before you can improve your practice. Don’t just watch the same grade level or subject: Go into multiple classrooms to see what good teaching looks like across a wide spectrum of teachers.

Work with your administration to find nearby successful schools and try to organize a trip to see their entire structure at work. See if you can bring a team from your school and spend time looking at all parts of the school day — arrival, physical plant, instruction — and try to sit with teachers to gather feedback. Mentorship isn’t always about person-to-person, but can also be from building-to-building. Develop those relationships and invite people to your school to repay the favor.

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Brian P. Gatens is the superintendent of schools for the Emerson Public School District in Emerson, New Jersey. He has been an educator for more than two decades, working at the K-12 level in public and private school settings in urban and suburban districts. In “From the Principal’s Office,” Gatens shares advice, provides insights, and gives guidance on everything from what principals look for when interviewing teaching candidates to how to work with overly protective parents. His front-line assessments supply candid perspectives on school life.

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