Whether for a newly minted PhD or a subject-matter expert plucked from outside academia, starting a college teaching career can be daunting. A new faculty member needs a guide, a role model, and a trusted friend to jump-start their success in the classroom. A mentor can fulfill these roles by sharing expertise and camaraderie, but where should a mentor begin if assigned to a new hire or a newbie seeks them out for assistance? When a faculty mentoring program exists, a veteran instructor will be paired with a “mentee,” and institutional guidelines will facilitate the work. Without an established program, new hires may seek help informally. In either case, the following five strategies can facilitate mentoring.
Welcoming the new hire is a starting point. Provide introductions to colleagues, administrative assistants, and human resources personnel. Let the new hire know where to go for specifics—keys, computer support, supplies, and a good lunch.
Share information about the institution’s resources for professional development. Introduce the new colleague to your favorite professional articles and conferences. Share newsletters and blogs about teaching. Recommend a timely book about college teaching (and yes, they do exist!).
In the introductory phase of mentoring, relationship development is important. Building trust is integral part of the process. A mentor shouldn’t have an evaluative role, as that may narrow the parameters of discussions. Who would want to go an evaluator and report a disastrous afternoon class session? Going to a trusted mentor to have that conversation could be very helpful.
Many new hires have never had formal training in how to teach. Initiate discussions about how to start the first class, how to write a lesson plan, what constitutes a usable syllabus, and how to engage students in active learning. Offer your recent syllabi as templates and discuss the department’s goals and objectives for each course. Understanding assessment and grading issues is critical for any new instructor.
Offer a simple lesson-planning model, such as the following:
With regard to grading, many new hires need examples of grading scales that fit campus and departmental guidelines. (For instance, does the campus grade-reporting system include plusses and minuses?) The best way to fend off student complaints about grading is to be proactive. Encourage new professors to provide clear criteria for each assignment and to use rubrics when possible. Explain that students really do need to know where they stand regarding their progress toward their final grades.
Invite the new faculty member to observe one of your classes, perhaps the first class, so they can observe introductory activities (or the first lab or first whole-class discussion). Then, as the semester progresses, offer to observe their classroom. When you do, don’t merely observe; meet the instructor for pre- and post-observation conferences as well. In the first meeting, ask them what will be taught and what specifically they want you to observe during the visit. Is it wait time with questioning? Is it time management with a discussion? Should you observe for clarity of speech, visuals, and content?
During the observation, take detailed notes, such as marking how many questions were asked of students, without judging what they witness during the visit. Finally, after the class ends, sit down with the instructor to discuss the session. Asking a few key questions spurs self-reflection on the part of the instructor. Ask, “How do you think this class went?” and, “Was today’s class fairly typical, and if so, how?” By listening to the instructor’s comments, you can use your observation notes to direct the conversation to the instructor’s original concerns, offering insights for improved teaching. Of course, observing a colleague and being observed requires significant trust. While visiting others’ classrooms is a rarity on some campuses, it can be a useful strategy to support effective teaching.
Who among us hasn’t worried about our course evaluations and the overall decision process for our reemployment? Before the semester begins, all who teach should be aware of the content of final course evaluations and how students complete them. The mentor can suggest that the new instructor get informal feedback from students throughout the semester. An example is to have students write answers to key questions after the first few weeks of class or after the first exam. Sample questions include “Which class activities have helped you to learn the material?” and “Have the discussions been helpful for clarifying your knowledge?”
While most institutions provide orientations regarding earning promotion and tenure, a mentor can also provide insight about the process. Advising the new hire to keep good records of their campus committees and volunteer work is recommended. Some faculties have unwritten rules about the processes of rehiring and achieving tenure. A mentor can provide transparency.
Everyone needs more time and less stress. A mentor can suggest going for a walk or out for coffee to discuss teaching in a low-stress environment. Mentors should be cautious to not overwhelm a new hire with their own success stories. New hires are juggling first-time teaching with publication deadlines and service to the campus. Mentors who listen more than they share may find that to be a helpful strategy. Asking questions and promoting self-reflection on the part of mentees can be effective.
Do you remember your first college teaching year? What were your burning questions? As you reflect, what do wish someone had told you before you made a misstep? What resources and professional development have you found since that fateful first year? What has kept you centered and motivated? Answer these questions, and you will have a foundation for your work as a mentor.
Mary C. Clement, EdD, is a professor of teacher education at Berry College. She is the author of First Time in the College Classroom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).