That Thin Chalk Line:
Mentor Boundaries In Balance

by Dale E. Pforr

As a full time mentor working with new teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools, I have seen teachers succeed and I have seen teachers fail. We all like to think we contribute to the successes of our mentees. We offer support and advice, bring materials, help with planning, model lessons, assist in presentations and provide a myriad of other activities. If support for a strong teacher makes that teacher better, why then doesn't extra support always keep the weak teacher from failing? As a mentor to these people I am concerned with my possible role in their success and also with my possible role in their failure! My role with the successful teacher becomes one of feeding that success. My role with the struggling teacher is much more complex and involves a "Thin Chalk Line" that may not be crossed.

Early in my three year stint as a mentor I encountered a situation that taught me what I consider to be a most valuable lesson, one that has guided my mentoring ever since. One of my mentees was assigned a middle school classroom several weeks into the school year. The original teacher left after a short time and a series of substitutes "ran the class" until the day she arrived on the scene. It was not a pleasant scene! The class was totally out of control and seemed proud that they had "gotten three teachers fired". She had tried to establish room rules and had good lesson plans written. Nothing worked. She just could not get them to settle down and be quiet enough to start the lesson.

The day I met her I arrived at her classroom door in the middle of the class period. I thought I was in the wrong room because I could hear a male voice firmly and loudly chewing out the class for its poor behavior. When I realized it was the Assistant Principal I thought "Well, I'm glad she's getting some support from the office". As the Assistant principal left I could see my new teacher, shoulders drooped, and looking rather pale, standing before the class with her class roster in hand. I didn't enter the room but chose to wait for a better time to introduce myself. Almost immediately after the Assistant Principal left, the noise level in the room began to build again. If the kids were quiet for him, why not for her? Why didn't his settling down of the kids help her? In the following days I observed a number of teachers and administrators enter her classroom and settle the kids down. Even an aide assigned to the hallway came in and read the riot act to the kids and they got quiet. As soon as these people, including myself left, the kids reverted to form. Why?

In mulling over what I had observed, I came to the conclusion that how help is given is at least as important as the help itself! And most importantly, how help is given while students are present is critical to the success of the teacher being helped. When anyone offers help to another, several things occur that may or may not make the help effective.

The students that witness the help being given must view the teacher as the person initiating the act of helping. Any students present, when help is being given, must view the teacher as the person in charge, not as the "helper". The teacher must always be viewed by the students as the person in control of the classroom, even if it is "out of control". When anyone enters a room and takes over the discipline or lesson, that room becomes theirs. When that person leaves, the room returns to the original teacher and nothing will have changed.

Suggestions for improvement must be couched in language that supports without criticism. If not, the self esteem of failing teachers dwindles, sometimes very rapidly, as their struggle goes on. Showing a teacher that you can control students that he or she can not control only reduces the self esteem of that teacher.

The recipient of advice must request it or at least realize that help is needed.

Does this mean that mentors should not model lessons or take over the classroom? To the contrary, these activities are important and often needed. However, the class must know that their teacher is the one that is in charge of the activity.

Before teaching a lesson, make sure the students understand that you have been invited to do so by the teacher.

Before disciplining a student the mentor should ask permission to do so from the teacher. A "Would you like me to take Johnny to the office?" keeps the teacher in charge of the decision.

Before offering advice the mentor must wait until it is asked for by the teacher. This last one may become a problem for the mentor when the teacher doesn't realize that help is needed. The mentor through skillful conferring must find a way to make the teacher desire the help. Unsolicited advice and help is most often ignored.

Mentors must keep these things in mind in order to truly help. Not doing so may cause you to cross that "Thin Chalk Line" and actually contribute to the mentee failing!