October 15th, 2010

When Mentoring New Faculty, Don’t Ignore These Issues


Beginning college teachers benefit when they have an instructional mentor. That fact is well established; as is the fact that mentoring benefits those who mentor. The influx of new faculty over the past few years has caused mentoring programs to flourish. All kinds of activities have been proposed so that mentors and mentees can spend their time together profitably. Addressed less often are those instructional topics particularly beneficial for the experienced and less-experienced teachers to address. Here’s a list of possibilities.

Talk about teaching that gets past the pleasantries and basic techniques. Most new teachers do need help with the mechanics. But details about how many points for extra credit, what prevents late papers, and whether students should eat in class should be part of a first conversation. They should not dominate subsequent exchanges. Early on, new teachers need to realize that real instructional issues are much more complex and much more intellectually intriguing. Mentors can help new faculty talk about teaching on a different level—the level of questions without easy answers and the level that reveals how much more there is to learn about teaching and learning.

How to put student ratings in perspective. Most college teachers don’t get their best student ratings in the first courses they teach. But most new college teachers do take early ratings more seriously than those received subsequently. Much like beginning (and sometimes not-so-beginning) writers, new teachers have trouble separating themselves from the performance. So it’s beneficial to have a colleague who’s been around for a while, who can look objectively at a set of ratings and say something like, “Well, if these were my ratings, here are the three things I’d conclude.”

Help seeing syllabus construction as the design of learning environments and the construction of learning experiences. For beginning teachers, there’s the mechanical question of what goes on a syllabus—it’s a pragmatic question and often needs to be answered in a hurry. But syllabus construction is not just about what happens in the course and when. It’s really about course design. The policies placed on a syllabus convey what the teacher believes contributes to learning. Assignments dictate the terms and conditions under which students will have their most in-depth encounter with the content. A mentor can help a new college teacher see beyond the details and look for the assumptions on which a policy or practice rests.

Reminders that exams not only assess learning, they promote it. Too often faculty (not just new teachers, although new teachers are particular susceptible) see exams as the means that allows them to gauge and then grade student mastery of material. Faculty forget that exams promote learning. They “force” an up-close and personal encounter with the content of the course.

Wise advice on classroom management. Not being seasoned, confident pedagogues, new teachers can be suckers for rules, especially those that make clear the teacher’s authority over life in the classroom. New teachers need to learn that the attraction to rules grows out of an interesting conundrum. Despite having lots of power over students, teachers are not in control of the classroom. It takes time and encouragement from a mentor to learn that students can be trusted—not believed in blindly, but trusted enough for teachers to show them respect and believe that it will be returned.

Excerpted from Talk about Teaching That Benefits Beginners and Those Who Mentor Them, The Teaching Professor, volume 22, number 3, pg 6.