Lessons From Mentors in Cross-Grade & Cross-Subject Settings

by Barry Sweeny

The Ideal Match:
One of the most used criteria for matching a mentor and a protege is that a mentor should be from the same school and same grade or should be a teacher in the same subject area as the protege. This matching is considered important because a key task of the mentor is to help the protege learn the curriculum which they must teach. For several practical reasons, this criteria is not always used or even possible in matching some mentoring pairs. Consider, for instance, who should mentor a new school psychologist when the protege is the only psychologist in the building.
 
The following article is written to three audiences and includes some of the mentoring insights I have gained as a result of personal interaction with some cross-grade and cross-subject mentors and proteges. If you are a mentor or a protege working across a grade or subject area, you can learn from these mentors' experiences. If you have a friend who is mentoring in a cross-subject or cross-grade setting, you may learn what you can do to support them in this tough situation. Finally, the insights we have gained from this situation are lessons which all mentors must learn because all mentor pairs will someday reach a point where the curriculum has been covered and other topics must become more important.

A Difficult Mentoring Assignment:
Cross-grade or cross-subject mentoring is inherently difficult, but may be especially challenging if the mentor is a teacher who takes pride in a knowledge of curriculum. How frustrating it is to be a mentor whose strengths are inappropriate to help someone else. Listen to what these cross-grade mentors have said.
 
"It's very hard to be a mentor when your area of specialty is not the same as your protege's. Do other mentors have this same problem too?"
"I have had trouble being as good a mentor as I wanted. I feel that I could help a lot more if I was at the same grade as my protege."
"My situation is some what unique since I'm not at his grade level. It makes it hard to know how to help when lots of his questions are about curriculum at a grade other than my own."

Two Views Of Mentoring
Beginning teachers need a lot of help with curriculum but what's a mentor to do if one can't supply the needed curriculum assistance? The answer to this question depends a great deal on one's view of the mentor's role. Is a mentor supposed to be a know-it-all who models perfection as a teacher?
 
If that is the case, the mentor may find it hard to admit an inadequate knowledge of curriculum and to ask for the help of the other staff at the protege's grade who do know the content areas. If a mentor is struggling with such a problem and does not seek the help of others, the mentor's colleagues may guess the problem exists, receive an implicit message and may decide not to "intrude" on the mentoring. When this occurs, the mentoring pair may just end up
doing the best they can to get along.

Another view of mentoring is that the mentor's job is to show the protege that professionals are always learning, always seeking solutions to new problems, and always struggling to be their best. Such a mentor can realize that his strengths are not matched to the situation and may find it easier to state a need for assistance and seek out colleagues
who can help. If the goal of peer assistance is to support learning and to find more effective ways to solve problems then it makes perfect sense for a mentor to introduce the protege to more people, each with different strengths to offer the protege. Together this "team of mentors" can provide the support for a protege which is required by the situation.

This approach to mentoring has other benefits as well, for it models the importance of collaboration and the synergy that is possible when a team works together. What I am suggesting is that in addition to developing a new teacher, another outcome of mentoring can be schools where collaboration, collegial support, and openness to learning from
each other are the norm. Mentors can help to create these types of schools by serving as brokers of the resources of the school, helping the protege to connect with others, and find the best ways to meet the needs of the protege.

Creating A Mentor Team
Given this concept of mentoring we can see that a cross-grade or cross-subject mentor has a responsibility to ensure that the curriculum information the protege needs is supplied by other staff. Helping to arrange for this kind of support does more than assist the protege because the mentor has an opportunity while asking for help to model important values for our profession. Even more positive outcomes can be created by a mentor who could talk to another colleague and say such things as:
"You know, I have always admired the way you (highlight the strength). I wonder if you would be willing to help me support (the protege) by sharing what you do and why you do it that way? I think that both of us could learn a lot from you in this area."
or
"I am concerned that all of my friends in this school may feel that I have agreed to be a mentor because I somehow think I am better than others. Actually, I feel quite the opposite. I realize that my strengths are not sufficient to help (the protege) in all the necessary areas. In fact, I was thinking of asking you if you could help (the protege) with (topic) because that is such a strength of yours and not a strength of mine."

A Message For All Mentors
Early in a mentoring relationship the mentor must ensure, one way or another, that the protege gets the necessary help in curriculum. Effective mentors are also important for much more than showing a curriculum to a new teacher because becoming an excellent educator is much more than learning a curriculum. Whether you are a cross-grade mentor or a mentor who has finished going through the curriculum with the protege, eventually you will need to address other topics and to draw upon the other elements of your experience as an educator. All mentors have many other strengths besides content knowledge and these other areas will become the focus of your mentoring efforts.

Here are some options for your on-going work as a mentor which have little to do with curriculum and a lot to do with success. Share what you know about:
1. kids needs and how to help each one succeed
2. planning well-sequenced learning experiences
3. building student self-esteem and self-control
4. working effectively with the others in the school, the parents, and the community
5. meeting the expectations of the principal
6. available resources in the school, the district, and the community
7. trying to live up to the demands placed on us and the school
8. routines and time-saving hints which help a teacher to keep from becoming buried in paper
9. discipline, classroom management, and grading strategies
10. teaching kids to be responsible and organized

A Resource For Mentors
Whatever the challenges you face and master as mentor, new opportunities to learn and grow will keep popping up because your protege will continue to develop along with you. An important lesson we have learned is that you will find greater success as a mentor if you perceive mentoring as a team activity, not as a job for one person.
Sure, you have much to do that only YOU CAN do, but you can also reach out to other mentors who are your colleagues and to your mentor program coordinator as well and you can benefit from their experience. The
support of these colleagues is essential for your development because they are all sharing similar experiences to yours. If you can use each other as a support group and as an inquiry group then you might find yourself writing such journal entries as those that follow. Good luck!
"The support group meeting was very stimulating. First, I realized that I am not the only mentor struggling with these problems. I also agree with your comment that what mentors are really doing is creating a new role for teachers. No wonder it's so challenging!"
"I'm so relieved that we met last week. I was really beginning to feel that I was inadequate as a mentor. Now I see what others have done in this situation and I feel I have the ideas I need to go on. Thanks."
"I guard my after school time jealously but I am glad I came to the meeting last week. I remembered again why I wanted to be a mentor and I decided to try even harder. It's not easy but it is important."
"Thanks for inviting me to share my mentoring experience with the new mentors yesterday. I was glad to help them think about how important their modeling is as mentors. In preparing to meet with the new mentors I realized again how much I have grown as a professional since I became a mentor!"