Last year I had the opportunity to have an intern spend two semesters with me. Although I had always been interested in being a mentor teacher, I had never actively pursued it. However, one day in the spring of 2014, my Assistant Principal stopped by my class and asked if I would be interested in mentoring a graduate student for the 2014-2015 school year.

When I talked to the student, Kelly, who was looking for an internship, I could sense her enthusiasm for teaching and her knowledge of chemistry — so I accepted the invitation to be her mentor. The first semester, she observed my classes and helped out in my labs. When second semester started, she took over my classes. The time I spent with this young teacher-to-be was an incredible experience.

A new way to view teaching

Prior to the mentoring experience, I had taught for 20 years, and everything about teaching seemed almost “automatic.” I had tweaked and refined my lessons, labs, and other class activities to fit my style of teaching. I could usually tell in advance how long a unit would take, what topics might need reinforcement, and most importantly, how to adjust “on the fly” when something wasn’t going according to my lesson plans.

But now, I had this new teacher asking me how I did everything — and all of a sudden, I became very self-conscious about everything I did as a teacher.

During free periods and lunch, I was constantly answering questions on how I led the class. How do I open and close my lesson? How do I know how long a unit will take to teach? How do I set up and run a lab? I now had to explain to a novice the countless things that just “come naturally” to a veteran teacher. To me, this seemed to be the hardest part of being a mentor teacher.

The first (and actually easiest) guidance I provided was around the topic of content planning. Kelly and I looked over the first unit and I asked her, “What do you want the kids to learn?” We put together a basic outline of concepts for the unit. As we did this, I had her elaborate on each concept. Could she think of examples? Some real-life applications? What would be some good practice problems to work on in class? Finally, what were some practice problems the students could do at home?

Finding the right tempo

The next phase was the pacing of lessons. This was tough to explain, because it takes a long time for any teacher to master. We all remember our first lessons: we planned them for hours and they lasted all of 15 minutes! Even so, my intern and I decided that “over-planning” — preparing 3-4 days’ worth of lessons at a time — was a good idea for starting out in the classroom.

Kelly had some great ideas for the lesson plans. She was more knowledgeable in the creation of infographics, so she introduced that to the class for a lesson, where the students had to design their own infographic of a scientist (Figure 1). The results were amazing, and the kids really learned a lot from the project! There were many other instances when the new teacher used technology for the classes, and I’ve referenced a few of my favorites below.

Figure 1. Samples of student work from Scientist Infographic activity.

Some new favorite resources

My intern introduced me to several Internet resources I hadn’t seen before. If you haven’t seen these, I recommend checking them out!

YouTube instructional videos— Of course there are countless videos on the site, but two of my favorites are:

PhET simulations—A series of fun, free, interactive, research-based science and mathematics simulations:

She also taught me something called “jigsaw learning.” This is where kids are divided in groups to read and discuss a specific science concept. After a few minutes, one person from each group moves to the next to teach that group their mastered concept. This continues until all groups have covered each concept. This seemed like a great learning process, and it may be something I’ll try in the future. Talk about teacher learning from student!

Teaching safety

The biggest concern for me as a mentor was conveying the hands-on aspect of teaching chemistry. The teaching of our subject is unique, because of all the lab activities and chemical demonstrations we do as part of our curriculum. In my opinion, knowing how to run a classroom lab is the most vital topic a new chemistry teacher can master. Unfortunately, most general education programs do not have any courses on chemical prep/handling or on lab safety.

Kelly had learned many of the basic safety concepts in her undergraduate chemistry courses. However, we still had a lot to cover. It started in the chemical storeroom, where we went over how and why the chemicals were organized on the various shelves. We had to review how each chemical reacts, and any potential safety hazards. This is where I felt that my experience really helped out.

It is not difficult for a chemistry teacher to know the basic outcomes expected when students perform lab activities. However, it typically takes a veteran teacher to know what else could happen in a lab — whether good or, more importantly, bad. It also takes experience to know how to prevent potentially dangerous situations from happening, or to react to them when they do occur. Bad outcomes potentially involve not just chemicals, but also Bunsen burners, hot plates, broken glassware, and any other safety issues that could pop up. I encouraged her to sign up for the Flinn new teacher resources, and of course to become a member of AACT (which she has!). These are great resources for any new chemistry teacher.

Well worth the effort

I had a wonderful time being a mentor teacher last year. I believe I was able to really help my intern learn how to be an effective chemistry teacher. I was also lucky — because she definitely had all the talents and abilities needed to be a great teacher. I could see the desire and energy in her, and it made this mentorship a great experience for me. Now she is nearing the end of her first year as a full-time teacher, and from what I have heard, she is doing an excellent job.

Being a mentor teacher was beneficial for me as well. For the first time in years, I had to really reflect on my teaching style, and think about how and why I go about teaching a class or running a lab the way I do. Working with my intern also made me re-think some of the ways my teaching has evolved during the last 20 years. Over the following summer, I reviewed all my lessons, lab activities, and follow-up lab questions, constantly asking myself questions like, “Why am I teaching this?” and “What will the students learn?” I have tweaked some of my lectures and developed some new labs and activities to use in the future. I have also used technology more by incorporating online chemistry videos and PhET activities. This was something that I might never have done if I not had the opportunity to be a mentor.

Being a mentor is a lot of extra work, and in some cases, little compensation. However, it is a great experience for any veteran teacher to do at least once in his or her career. We all know the feeling of satisfaction when we see our students succeed in our classes. The feeling is the same with our interns. I am proud of how my intern has become a successful first-year teacher. I am also thankful for the opportunity I had to reflect on my own career and to find ways to improve for the future.

If you are interested in becoming a mentor, ask your administrator. Many districts work with their local colleges and universities, who are always looking for someone with whom to pair their young future teachers. I encourage any veteran teacher to take on an intern for a school year. It will be an excellent decision, one that will benefit both the veteran and our future chemistry teachers!

Stockroom photo credit: ©depositphotos/wavebreakmedia