An Article From MLRN's "Mentor" Journal
Is a Good Teacher Always A Good Mentor?

By Gay Fawcett, in Issue #1 published in winter, 1997.

Mentors should be the best classroom teachers we have. New teachers need models of good instruction. But being a good teacher does not automatically mean one will be a good mentor; working with adults is not the same as working with children. It is imperative that those responsible for working with adults be aware of the special characteristics of adult learners.

Adult Learning Theory

The best known theory of adult learning was developed by Malcolm Knowles in the 1960's (see Knowles, 1980, 1934; Knowles & Associates, 1984). He called the theory andragogy, the teaching of adults, to be distinguished from pedagogy, the teaching of children. Knowles proposed that adult learning is based upon folder assumptions: (1) Adults need to be self-directed learners; (2) Adults' experiential base is a rich resource for learning; (3) Adult learning is linked to what they need to know or do in order to fulfill their roles and responsibilities; (4) Adult learners are problem-centered rather than subject-centered.

Recently, the theory has come under attack by pedagogists who claim that these are characteristics of child learners as well. In fact, Knowles himself no longer refers to his theory as one of adult learning, but now calls it a theory of human learning. However, even though the principles of learning are the same, mentors must deal with their entry year teachers very differently than they deal with children.

Children are used to being told what to do. They are directed daily by parents, siblings, teachers, and baby-sitters. Entry year teachers are accustomed to making their own decisions. Most have been living on their own, either in a college dormitory or in an apartment. Even those who lived at home while they were in college usually experienced a great deal of freedom in making decisions. Mentors who are chosen because of their success with children are cognizant of children's needs and intervene with direct instruction when necessary. They may be surprised when this direct approach (Here's what you need to do) is not well received by entry year teachers.

Children are used to not being right or not knowing the answer. They are accustomed to one of two typical responses when they do not know something. Either someone tells them or, in school, the teacher says, "Who can help Billy out?" Entry year teachers desperately want to prove that they "know the answers". This is their first real job, and they want to appear capable. They just finished college, after all, so thus should know! Again, the direct approach of telling children they are incorrect or of supplying the answers for them may not be well received by entry year teachers.

How, then, can good teachers adjust what they know about teaching and learning to help them become good mentors? An examination of Knowles' principles in light of the specific needs of new teachers, can provide guidelines.

Implications of the Principles for Mentoring

Adults need to be self-directed learners. Recently I attended a training session for mentors. Under the trainers direction, the mentors generated lists of information they needed to share with their entry year teachers. The lists were quite long and included things like fire drill procedures, lesson planning, setting up a grade book, requisitioning supplies, playground duties, discipline, classroom management, field trip requests, dealing with the cranky custodian, courses of study, etc. Everything on the lists was something the entry year teachers would eventually need to know. Furthermore, some items were things that the new teachers would need to know just to survive their first few days (Where is the teachers' restroom? How do I fill out the first day attendance report?). However, as I listened I began to wonder how new teachers can be self-directed if mentors preplan the agenda for assistance.

Beyond basic survival advice, the appropriate starting point for helping entry year teachers should come from them. There is no need to inform them of the cranky custodian; when they have a run-in with her, they will come with it on their agenda. There is no need to inform them of the field trip policy; when they are ready to take field trips, they will ask how to fill out the forms. There is no need to orchestrate a lengthy discussion about classroom management; when they are having trouble getting organized, the mentors will know it. Of course not all entry year teachers will seek help. Some will always be afraid of appearing inadequate. A good mentor, like a good teacher, however, will know what the learner needs--what is on the agenda.

Adults' experiential base is a rich resource for learning. It is tempting for mentors to focus on their own experiences. After all, they have been there. They have learned what works and does not work, and the urge is powerful to share their hard-earned wisdom. Why not? Because entry year teachers learn just as all humans learn--by integrating their life experiences with new information to construct meaning. Mentors can find out what the entry year teachers' educational experiences have been and help them to build on that. Who were their favorite teachers and why? What courses were especially meaningful in college? What were some of the successes of their student teaching experiences? They need to experiment. Sometimes they will make mistakes, but mistakes are an opportunity for learning.

Adult learning is linked to what they need to know or do in order to fulfill their roles and responsibilities. Mentors must be careful not to project what they need to know and do onto new teachers who are at a different stage in the career cycle. Mentors are usually at the competency building or enthusiastic and growing stages of their careers (Burke, Christensen, & Fessler, 1984). They are receptive to new ideas, attend workshops and graduate programs through their own initiative, and seek new ideas and methods. Their learning may seem esoteric to entry year teachers. Teachers at the induction stage strive for acceptance by students, peers, and supervisors and attempt to achieve a comfort and security level in dealing with everyday problems and issues. Mentors must be sensitive to these needs and assist the entry year teachers in dealing with them. The fact that entry year teachers are not concerned with higher level issues of education does not imply that they are any less intellectual or competent. Their needs at this stage in their career are legitimate and must be dealt with before they can move on.

Adult learners are problem-centered rather than subject-centered. There will be a period of subject-centered advice (survival skills for the first few days of school). However, this period should be brief and limited only to required policies and procedures. While there may be a few questions, about the content of their instruction, entry year teachers will be most concerned with the process of their instruction. The best way to help them become problem solvers in through questioning. When entry year teachers ask for advice, mentors should ask for their opinions before responding. Rather than suggesting the way that has worked for them, mentors can help entry year teachers generate lists of possible options and then encourage them to experiment to find what works best. One of the best mentors I know answers every question with a question. When her proteges make statements that reflect what she calls fuzzy thinking, she simply says, "You need to think more about that," thus leading them to reflect.

Is a Good Teacher Always a Good Mentor?

Good teachers have an intuitive grasp of teaching and learning. They know how to observe learners, diagnose their needs, and intervene when necessary. These same skills can be applied to the mentoring process as well. However, mentors need to apply these skills differently with entry year teachers, keeping in mind that new teachers need to feel competent and need to set their own agendas. The direct approach often used in dealing with children does not work well with adults. Entry year teachers need to be actively involved in discovering their own answers. When good teachers consider the special characteristics of adult learners and adjust their interaction styles according}y, they will also be good mentors.


Burke, P. J., Christensen, J. C., & Fessler. P. (1984). Teacher career stages: Implications for staff development. Bloomington, ID: Phi Delta Kappa.

Knowles, M.S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (2nd ed. ). New York: Cambridge Books.

Knowles, .M.S. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species (3rd ed. ). Houston, TX: Gulf.

Knowles, M.S., & Associates (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The article above was originally published in "Mentor", the Journal of the Mentoring Leadership and Resource Network.

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