What Tips for Mentors/Mentees Have Proven Useful
in Your Experience?
Six Music Educators Share Tips
This article first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Teaching Music.
John Combs, Montana Music Educators Association Mentor Coordinator; Retired Music Educator, Missoula, Montana
If you have been asked to be a mentor or need to find a mentor, there are certain characteristics you want to develop or see expressed. We are in a world where young teachers walk out of school knowing the basics but need to develop tools and techniques for a challenging environment. Being or having a mentor can make all the difference. Throughout my career, I’ve found having mentors and being a mentor to be essential in my development as a successful music educator. Often, I was being mentored and mentoring at the same time.
“Being or having a mentor can make all the difference.”
Mentors need to provide the following five As:
Availability. The mentor must have the time to offer experience, feedback, and advice. In-classroom visits, video chats, and other methods of communication are all part of making availability a foundation of the relationship. Time and distance can be challenging to manage. It’s best if a regular schedule of communication can be developed. Even if a regular meeting is only once a month, it’s good to have consistent communication. There also should be an opening for “the emergency.” When can a call come that is time-sensitive and perhaps laden with concern or emotion? Set up permissions and parameters early in the relationship.
Active listening. Mentors should be attentive when listening. Often, it’s difficult for young teachers to define the issue they are having in precise terms. A good mentor reads between the lines of a conversation to uncover the problem. Whether the conversation is happening over coffee or over the phone, a good mentor is able to put themselves into the situation and help a young teacher define their solutions. It is very tempting for mentors to talk about their experience and their “war stories.” This can be helpful on occasion, but it certainly should not be the general path of a good listener.
Analysis. Good mentors analyze what is being said and the situation being experienced by the mentees, then provide detailed feedback and solutions that allow for growth. Here, a sharing of experience can be most valuable. Analysis of what a mentor has done to solve a similar issue or how others have taken on a particular problem can give a young teacher a path forward. Proven advice comes with the responsibility of the listener to listen to what is being offered and make a good-faith attempt at using the suggestions.
Alert. Mentors have the experience of knowing what is coming around the next bend. Sharing calendar and scheduling concerns well ahead of time can provide solutions before any may be needed. Planning for the future can prevent worries and chaos, and reminders are helpful.
Applaud. As with any good coach, there is a time for encouraging and inspiring. Mentors should be aware of the results of their advice and provide the appropriate congratulations as mentees develop and improve. This means following up, especially with key issues and discussions. Praise can make a lot of difference to a new teacher.
Most important, step into the fray. What you have to offer may be just what that young teacher needs to take the next step successfully. If you are that young teacher, please reach out to your state or district music education association or affiliate and ask for help. It is humbling to think that we don’t know all the answers when we think we should. However, all of us need mentors throughout our lives. You are simply proving you are smart enough to acknowledge that fact and have the courage needed to improve.
Michael Gordon, Co-Music/Instructional Leader for Fine & Performing Arts; Music Educator, Band and General Music, Middlebrook School, Wilton, Connecticut; Teacher Leader, NAfME’s Connected Arts Network Grant
In my experience as a mentor, mentees become more comfortable soliciting student input, more accepting of critical feedback, more confident in their ability to deliver high-quality instruction, more proactive seeking guidance, and more willing to take risks in their approach to learning and teaching when my actions align with the characteristics of an ECHO mentor.
Enthusiastic. Good mentors exude a sense of joy that comes from appreciating the value students add to our lives as well as the value we add to theirs, recognizing how our work must be student-centered and focused on having an impact that extends beyond the classroom, beyond the rehearsal, beyond the performance, beyond the school day. Likewise, good mentors encourage and support mentees as they develop their own approach to teaching with joy and passion.
Competent. Good mentors are competent in their field, staying informed about best practices in education, current research, and systems impacting the success of music education programs at the local, regional, state, and national levels. High-quality mentors must be part of their state and national music educator/education associations as well as professional learning communities to improve their capacity to think critically, assess objectively, influence unselfishly, and guide widely. Good mentors help mentees think reflexively about their intentions and the impact they are having on students, families, and the community.
Humane. Good mentors use humane language and behaviors and consistently demonstrate authentic and sincere kindness, sympathy, care, and understanding. By helping mentees recall that point in their lives when they may have been made to feel inadequate or incapable, good mentors help mentees cultivate their sense of empathy for students and families.
“Good mentors cultivate relationships in which mentees are empowered to boldly infuse their cultural experiences and perspectives into their approaches to learning and teaching.”
Open-minded. Good mentors are open-minded—having a growth mindset, pursuing excellence, and demonstrating a willingness to treat every interaction with mentees, students, and families as personal learning opportunities. High-quality mentors understand that education is a journey, not a destination. Good mentors cultivate relationships in which mentees are empowered to boldly infuse their cultural experiences and perspectives into their approaches to learning and teaching.
Lauren Caldwell, General Music Teacher and All-Star Choir Director, Adams Elementary School, Boise, Idaho
A good mentor is someone who fosters a safe and supportive environment and takes the time to get to know their mentee. It’s someone who cares about the future of educators and students and wants to grow alongside them. They view the experience as an enriching opportunity for both partners. If you asked me what a good mentee was, I’d tell you the same thing: It means being part of a team. It means growing together. If that respect and care aren’t mutual, the experience and growth are significantly less for all involved.
My mentor, Joie Cariaga, welcomed me with open arms since day one. I never felt alone or unsupported in this process. She was always right there learning and growing with me. I felt that it was safe to make mistakes without fear of failure. If failure came, it wasn’t failure—it was the beginning of greater growth. Joie respected me like a real co-teacher and cared about what strengths I had to share with her and the class. She empowered me to believe in myself and saw the light and potential in me always.
Mentors and mentees need to take the time to get to know each other and understand where they can support each other in the classroom. A key part of that journey is establishing healthy communication. Joie and I stayed on the same page and talked through our thoughts constantly. We created a space where we could be transparent, honest, and thoughtful. It helped that we were very similar in personality and teaching ethics as well as able to set aside time to plan, coordinate, and collaborate together efficiently and thoroughly.
Joie is someone I look up to very highly and continue to keep in contact with. While student teaching with her choirs, I helped them prepare for, rehearse, and record their NAfME All-Northwest auditions. In fall 2022, I was thrilled to hear of their acceptance to the 2023 conference. Upon sharing the great news with her class, I learned Joie and her students collectively wanted me a part of this journey as their assistant conductor. To hear Joie and her students share the value they felt in our time together and to see that transpire into such a beautiful opportunity was very moving and validating of the teamwork Joie and I had together. As I write this, we just got back from the trip, and it was fantastic. It was an experience I will be forever grateful for and a testament to our compatibility as a team.
“I am thankful for all the ways the student-teaching mentor/mentee program shaped me to be an even better educator and learner.”
Joie took me as I was and helped me grow immensely. I didn’t feel afraid to try new things because I knew she cared about my success and development, and she believed in me all the way. From this student-teaching experience, I gained a lifelong supporter, mentor, and dear friend. I am thankful for all the ways the student-teaching mentor/mentee program shaped me to be an even better educator and learner.
Kathy Stefani, Immediate Past President, Idaho Music Educators Association (MEA); Mentor Chair, Idaho MEA; K–5 Music Teacher, McDonald Elementary School, Moscow, Idaho
Idaho’s Mentorship Program is in its fifth year, and with each year, we’re learning what to keep and what to throw away. April Peterson, our assistant mentorship chair (in charge of mentors), Meghan Faye Olswanger, our second- and third-year coach (who handles communication with these two cohorts), and I (who shepherds mentees) compiled a list of mentorship tips that return the most bang for our buck:
Listen more than you talk.
Get your mentee to conference.
Be consistent in reaching out. The plate is often too full for the new teacher to ask for help.
Being the cheerleader is equally as important as helping with pedagogy, classroom procedures, or discipline.
Plan routine times to meet. You can always cancel or change the schedule, but the hardest thing is getting something on the calendar before it’s too late.
Remember that you are building a relationship—it goes both ways.
Set up a camera or laptop and either record a lesson and send it to each other or watch it live remotely via Zoom or another app. You can also record the lesson and watch it together in real time to get into the nitty-gritty details of a lesson without having to remember what was happening.
Send a screenshot video showing things or answering questions. It’s so much easier than typing hundreds of words.
Let mentees know you’re thinking of them. I may just send a text that says, “Saying hi!” Sometimes I’ll just shoot them a $5 coffee card and say, “On me today—thinking of you.” We all need someone in our corner.
Questions I often ask myself are “What did I need?” and “What did I wish I’d had?” I find if I follow that, I can connect with my mentees better and understand their perspective.
“More than anything, we’ve learned to make sure our new instructors know that they’re not alone. That’s half the battle.”
Connect them with many people and resources.
Never underestimate the power of a handwritten note.
We continue to try out and cull all sorts of ideas to meet the needs of our new teachers. Providing free conference registration and free recertification credits to new teachers is popular with our administration. More than anything, we’ve learned to make sure our new instructors know that they’re not alone. That’s half the battle.
Charles Robinson, Professor, Choral Music and Music Education, UMKC Conservatory, Kansas City, Missouri
There’s a knock at your door. You answer, and the person standing there says, “I have some goals and dreams, and they’re a little ambiguous right now, but I’m excited (and a little nervous) to pursue them. Would you help me begin and guide me as I move forward?”
“Mentoring is a challenging and joyous process of relationship building and shared discovery.”
Mentoring is a challenging and joyous process of relationship building and shared discovery. The search for a simple how-to formula is misdirected because mentoring occurs in real time with one-of-a-kind individuals and ever-changing circumstances. It’s comprehensive and individualized teaching and learning over an extended period. Here are some guiding principles:
A spirit of generous advocacy with opportunities instead of assignments. This begins with the best possible understanding of the individual and everything that shapes them as the distinctive human they are—their life experience, training, struggles, and core values. This informs how we can help place them in the right situation for the right opportunity at the right time. It lets us tell them we believe in them and what they can contribute.
Shared curiosity about what is possible. Rather than trying to provide answers, I suggest helping the person develop their own questions and ways to explore in search of answers. Curiosities range from how to approach the next rehearsal to which job to pursue. Conversation prompts like “What are you wondering about?” can serve this process. Following with affirmation and encouragement such as “What a creative question … how could you try to answer that?” and then “How can I help?” can be the impetus to action to help the person take the next step forward.
Caring enough to be honest always with public praise and private critique. Those who care most about us won’t let us make a mistake where we lose credibility or the goodwill of others. Whether this is a subject matter-correction or something more consequential, good mentors pull the person aside for a specific, private critique and offer to help. Good mentors show lots of grace and emphasize growth and change over doomsday moments. They also find every opportunity to provide honest public praise and endorsement for admirable efforts.
Respectful partnering in multiple circumstances. One of the most enjoyable aspects of mentoring is genuine partnering in a wide variety of scenarios. More than the occasional coffee/chat or lunch, it’s hundreds of short, small interactions in real-world moments for planning and collaboration that result in the most exciting and meaningful outcomes. For me, these almost always involve a new teaching approach, a creative project, or a how-do-we-solve-this-problem brainstorming session. In every case, alternating mentor-mentee roles are power-balanced in directing the shared endeavor.
I have applied these principles successfully while working with middle school students, graduate students, and new faculty colleagues. The authentic mentor is not an overseer of another, but a partner guide who explores together along a professional life journey of growth and discovery. The true mentor freely and spontaneously shares professional and life insights. These shared mentor-mentee relationships are based on multiple, brief interactions that are routine and longstanding—interactions that are challenging, joyous, and transformative.
Joie Cariaga, Choir Director, Capital High School, Boise, Idaho; Chair, Idaho All-State Mixed Honor Choir
A good mentor is on the side of their student teacher, rooting for their success. This means holding them accountable to the work to be done, working with them to reflect on their teaching, and being honest with them about their progress. Part of this is reminding them to give themselves grace as they navigate the new and tricky waters presented by real, live students. Providing structured, consistent time for your mentee to ask questions and get feedback is key.
As a mentor, you can be most successful if you look at your relationship with your mentee as a reciprocal one. You are there to help and support them on their journey to becoming a teacher, but they, in turn, have a lot to offer you. Be open to that. What skills does your mentee bring to the table? In what areas are they more adept than you? What fresh ideas and creativity can they bring to your classroom? What old, tired systems can they help you shake up or even do away with to improve the way your classroom functions? It means a lot to me that one student noticed that Lauren Caldwell, one of my student teachers, and I “were both willing to give and take suggestions from each other, even though Ms. Caldwell was technically supposed to learn from Ms. Cariaga.”
“As a mentor, … You are there to help and support them on their journey to becoming a teacher, but they, in turn, have a lot to offer you.”
I’ve been privileged to work with several future teachers over the years, and each has left a mark on my own teaching. I hear one voice asking me “Why?” when I look at the way I operate in my classroom. If I can’t answer with something other than “because that’s the way I’ve always done it,” I take a fresh look at the system. Another voice encourages me to “just do it now and stop overthinking it” when I have an inspired idea.
Lauren reflected what was really going on in my classroom to me. For example, she noticed that my students were so eager to help and lead that they often jumped right into questions instead of letting me follow my rehearsal plan. I allowed this, which didn’t serve the lesson, the music, or their sense of appropriate rehearsal etiquette. She shared this with me bravely, and I was able to course-correct quickly, improving rehearsal effectiveness and student mastery immediately. If I had not been open to her feedback on my teaching and had instead been stuck in the idea that I was meant to help her—not the other way around—I would have missed the chance to improve my practice.
Finally, a strong mentor provides their mentee with opportunities to grow and flourish. Share the podium. Give your mentee time in front of your students. Allow them to conduct at big events such as festivals. They need to have these experiences with you before they go it alone. A few tips:
Be clear about your expectations from the beginning of your time together and when starting a project. It’s easy to have an idea about how something should be done, but have you communicated that to your teaching partner? It’s not fair to them to keep your expectations unspoken. If you assign them a certain lesson, be sure they know how to submit their plan to you, when it is due, and what the student outcomes need to be. Vague deadlines don’t help anyone. This is also true for things like schedule, attire, attendance, and communication.
See your mentee as another expert who can be leveraged for student success. This is such an exciting opportunity to divide and conquer. Can they run sectionals for you? Coach soloists? Think about ways you can use their talents and skills as a second professional in the room, rather than following the old model that has them observing you, followed by teaching with you observing them, and then teaching while you disappear. Instead, plug them in and use them from day one: I absolutely loved having a codirector in my classroom!
When conflicts or disagreements arise, present a united front to students so that you don’t undermine the other teacher’s authority. Show the students that you value each other’s opinions and ideas, and you both maintain your professionalism.
Be open to making a friend in the process. Our students remember us getting coffee for each other, and that we were often laughing together at lunch and at events. This profession can be very isolating, so when there is an opportunity to let someone in, take it. Don’t be afraid to share your joys and frustrations and the highs and lows of teaching. Creating this trust leads to a strong partnership.
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May 18, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)