Role of the Mentor: Helping New Teachers Improve Their Interpersonal Relationships

(March, 2000)

From: "Jacqueline Epstein" <>

Subject: Role of the Mentor- Helping a Teacher Improve Their Interpersonal Relationships

Date: Wed, 1 Mar 2000

Hello, I have been mentoring a few teachers since last Feb. and feel that I have been helpful in the teaching/planning/classroom/administrative areas. However, one teacher I am mentoring has enormous difficulty:

being flexible with situations that require her to do things she does not want to do, such as accompanying her students on overnight trips

working cooperatively with peers when she needs to "give" a little.

Instead, she is quite vociferous in expressing her unhappiness with these kinds of situations, blaming others, and complaining constantly to her supervisor and anyone else who will listen.

I have discussed strategies with her and reasons for them, but she says, "You know how I am. I don't see why I am being asked to do that." She does not seem to realize how she is antagonizing others. Her supervisor has said that she is "fragile" and needs extra support, but I cannot see how that attitude is helping her.
Also, she goes to others for support when I am not there, and they seem to buy into the "fragile" picture, which makes my attempts less effective. I might add that she has developed into one of the most effective teachers I know. When she is with the children she is fantastic.
Anyway, I am stuck. Is there anything I can do, or do I just stay focused on the planning and such? I see her a half a day every week. I would appreciate any advice MLRN members can give me. Maybe someone else has had a similar experience.

Thanks you so much.
Jackie Epstein

Member Responses:

This I find hard to believe. There is more to teaching than being "effective" with children. In addition, research is showing that the definition of an "effective" teacher is nebulous.
I think we need a little more information here. How old is she? Is she tenured? What are the terms of her contract? Is she required to accompany students on overnight trips?
From what you have written, this is the only area where I MIGHT side with the teacher. She may be uncomfortable in that situation and I'm sure there might be others who would be delighted to take her place.
I would refer you to three issues of Educational Leadership, the ASCD journal. All three address the issues that concern you.
They are:

March, 1996 Volume 53 No. 6, Improving Professional Performance

February, 1998, Vol. 55, No. 5, Strengthening the Teaching Profession; and

May, 1999, Vol. 56, No. 8, Supporting New Teachers. An article in the 1999 issue, Mentoring with a Mission is especially appropriate.

Believe it or not, we have a similar situation at our High School. I coordinate the mentor program and together with "Heather's" mentor and the dept chair we spent over 150 hours on her attitude last sememster. Finally, I decided to have a very direct conversation with her. I think it set our relationship back for a while but it has made a difference.

Also, we try to model the behaviors we expect from her whenever we are with other adults. We have asked her to sit in on conferences and meetings to watch how her colleagues interact professionally. We still have a long way to go, but I feel we are making headway. Best wishes.


I am a first year mentor. I have been teaching in the inner-city for 14 years. You have a hard problem to address. I think that some people are just not flexible. If that is the case, it is hard to change. Maybe this is just something that will have to improve with time. If she is thriving in the classroom perhaps the outside responsibilities will have to come in time. If I find any information I will forward it to you. Hang in there. Lori Clark


I am sympathetic to your situation. Two scenarios come to mind, both of which I'm sure you have tried. If so, please disregard.

1. With her strength of teaching the children and gettting results - Reflect on what makes her effective with the students to get the results.
Let her know ahead of time that she is advanced in this area and that her success should be shared with others. Hopefully within her reflection, she will share a belief in not letting the students be negative. This could create a road for discussion into professional expectations with collegues. If a more direct approach is needed, give her a scenario describing a student that is negative and then dialogue about what that does to the climate of the classroom and its effect on student success.

2. Assign three colleagues for her to observe and/or talk to about what strategies they use to be productive with students. Based on my own conversations with mentors and new teachers, my assumption is that some believe the expectation of collaboration is to get out all of the uglies with your peers but not to focus too much on the positives, because that might be perceived as too egocentric in the educational field. Your new teacher should be prompted to learn from her colleagues about BOTH positive ideas and negative experiences. Either way, she can benefit from others experiences and avoid her own trial and error learning which takes so long. The intention is to form a model for professional dialogue based on student success.

Cathi Rust, Missouri State Teachers Assn.

I'm a mentor with Youngstown City Schools (Ohio). Here is my advice.
Try as you might, you aren't going to change a behavior that has and is obviously working for this colleague. Until she has either been blasted or burned by this attitude, or suffers a negative consequence for her inability to go the extra mile, she won't change!
Most of us know that teaching is not a 9-5 five day a week job. But for some, they feel that as long as they are effective within the boundaries of the classroom, all is well with the world and they are great teachers. "So what if everybody else does the volunteering?" They feel they weren't hired for anything but their classroom and building responsibilities. That is not the world of education any longer!
You need first to let the teacher know that you are her mentor and she should come to you first with any new situations, as you are the one best prepared to help her to meet them.

Second get her supervisor, and her enabling friends to not give her such support when she feels fragile! We would not tolerate this behavior from a student, why should we from a partner in our building, a fellow colleague!
But you might even have another solution, trade this person to another mentor in your district and if that mentor see things the same way, then maybe this teacher would listen if everyone has the same complaints about her and the same or similar solutions
The fable, "The Emperor's New Clothes" show us that this kind of behavior has been around for ages!
Have as many people as possible give her feedback that shows her that her behavior is not being taken as friendly or cooperative. I know even that may fail, and so you should be prepared for that eventuality also!
Good luck in your quest and keep your perspective. Just as we never reach all of our students as well as we hope we can, it is even harder to change behaviors that have persisted for even longer periods of time. Also remember that this might be a personality problem and not an educational one!

Well, I hoped I've helped some and if you care to write back feel free to do so.

Kurt S. Neifer


I am the Union President and co-director of our mentor program which is a joint Union-Management effort. This is our first year, but I have several mentors who have come to me with concerns that are similar to yours. For what it's worth, this is where we are on these issues.

First, all good mentors have the habit of accepting too much responsibility for "their" new teachers. We all need someone who is not a supervisor with whom to discuss our concerns. It's very hard to establish a trusting relationship with a new teacher and then draw the line between their responsibilities and yours. Your new teacher is a responsible adult and you cannot be expected to affect a significant change in his/her personality.

On the other hand, accompanying students on overnight trips is an entirely voluntary activity where I teach. New teachers who have family obligations are not expected to "volunteer" for such activities, nor should they. My favorite aphorism on the subject is that teaching is the only profession that eats its own young. We take brand new teachers who are completely overwhelmed with just getting through the regular school day and "suggest" that they assume responsibility for the student council, the multicultural committee, and recreation night.

Our program is leaning toward providing first year teachers with a flat stipend and not allowing them to accept any paid extracurricular activities. Obviously, there has to be room for exceptions, but most of our new teachers are thrilled with concept.

The other question is whether you can really be a fantastic teacher if you can't get along with your colleagues. My guess is that you really cannot. The really great teachers I am lucky enough to work with are uniformly outgoing and get along very well with their colleagues. They always have time to share with other teachers. Good teaching is really a collegial activity and prima donnas at the K-12 level are uniformly "legends in their own minds."
I hope the above may be of some use to you. Feel free to contact me if you want.



Hello, I am one of the MLRN Executive Board members. I would like to reply by stating that you do not indicate whether this is a new teacher to the profession or a new hire with previous experience. That makes a difference! If she is fresh out of college and young you would take a different approach as a mentor.

There is a framework called the level of concerns which might be helpful in understanding this new teacher's issues. It is similar to Maslow's theories. Her concerns appear to be different than yours. All new teachers are overwhelmed with the demands on them, however, there appears to be more serious issues for this particular teacher.It is important to determine the level of trust that you built in this relationship as her mentor. If you feel she can talk with you - talk to her directly about your concerns regarding her unwillingness to go on overnight trips and blaming others for her difficulties. Assure her that what she says to you remains with you and that it will stay confidential. Then, you must make sure that is the case.

What is going on for her personally may be interferring with her work life also. She may be doing the best she can, given what life is doing to her.

It is important to realize that it is OK for your protege go to others when you are not around. She needs an answer. Just provide her the extra support when you are there and phone numbers and email when you cannot be there. Have you taken her out for coffee and dessert? Talk outside of the workplace.

Have you done peer coaching with her? Then move into those other areas of self-professional growth called teamwork and working for the cause.

Ami Hicks