I still cringe when I remember my first year as a special education teacher at a suburban high school. I met my assigned mentor during the whirlwind week of meetings leading up to the start of school and learned that she was also mentoring two other teachers in addition to having a full teaching schedule of her own. In those early weeks, her time was stretched thin, and I was lucky to get a five-minute conversation with her during hall breaks. As fall wore on, I saw even less of her, and by Halloween, my mentoring was effectively over.
On my own, without guidance, I struggled just to get through each day. That was not a recipe for successful instruction, and it left no opportunity to learn by reflecting on my occasional successes. The year was less a learning experience than a sheer test of perseverance.
I wish I could say my story is unique, but over years of facilitating Learning Forward’s Mentor Academy, I’ve heard countless stories that are similar to mine. Even stories of more involved and interactive mentoring rarely include the kind of collaborative partnerships that Standards for Professional Learning describe as integral to continuous improvement (Learning Forward, 2022).
Learning Forward is committed to changing that pattern by working with states, districts, and schools to develop strong, instructionally focused mentoring initiatives that result in better teaching and learning for everyone involved. Through our customized Mentor Academy, we help systems shift away from traditional “buddy” type mentoring to a program designed to foster instructional growth from the first weeks of school. With teacher growth as the expectation from Day One, everything improves, from training and support for mentors to the learning culture of the school to the outcomes for new teachers and their students.
Learning Forward’s approach
Our Mentor Academy is grounded in an instructionally focused approach to mentoring. This approach is designed to support mentors in coaching novice teachers through their first cycles of continuous improvement based on a reiterative cycle that includes:
- Data-informed goal-setting for both student learning and mentee learning;
- Learning new teaching behaviors through observation, practice, and refinement; and
- Gathering and assessing evidence of impact that is most indicative and proximal to the change expected (Manning, 2018).
Through the school year, this cycle is repeated with a gradual release approach that instills the cycle at the heart of the mentee’s teaching practice while also fostering the skills needed to sustain collaborative relationships with colleagues, first with their mentor and later with their professional learning communities (PLCs), instructional coaches, and peers.
Within this cycle, mentors guide mentees to develop key teaching behaviors that include instructional design that considers the needs and strengths of all learners; attentive and responsive classroom interactions with students; and consistent engagement in reflection, using relevant data to assess the impact of their teaching behavior and adapt practices accordingly (Killion & Harrison, 2017).
Key elements for success
A mentor training program like Learning Forward’s Mentor Academy is a key piece of a larger mentoring and induction system. Such a system requires intentional planning and structures at the district and campus levels. Most importantly, it requires a state-, district-, and campus-level commitment to shift away from traditional mentoring to a program that leads to instructional growth and fits within a comprehensive induction approach.
Next, it requires planning for ongoing professional learning for mentors that provides support throughout the school year and just-in-time learning as they meet the challenges of guiding a novice teacher to instructional improvement. As all educators know, starting a cycle of improvement is the easy part; learning our way to new, sustainable practices that improve student learning is the difficult part. Mentors need support and additional resources when both mentors and mentees begin to feel the stress of sustained effort toward change.
An equally important consideration is identifying relevant criteria for choosing effective mentor teachers. As both a district mentor program coordinator and a Mentor Academy facilitator, I’ve learned that it’s important to seek out those individuals who know how to inspire others through example, whose manner fosters trust and communicates acceptance, and whose commitment to lifelong learning makes them unashamed to admit they don’t yet have all the answers to the teaching puzzle (Killion & Harrison, 2017). Of course, they must be passionately committed to teaching, mentoring, and the success of all students (Oregon Department of Education, n.d.).
These are the individuals who can best create collegial, guiding partnerships with mentees, inspire the trust necessary for adults to admit to not knowing, and are willing to let others find their own teaching style rather than trying to impose their own preferences and teaching style on the mentee. In one of the final sessions with last year’s New York mentors cadre, I asked the mentors what they would look for in colleagues they would encourage to pursue mentoring. Nonjudgmental attitude, patience, and dedication to being there when needed were some of the most common responses.
The work of ensuring that novice teachers develop habits that support teacher and student growth shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of mentors, however. Wise leaders build a web of support so novice teachers can always find someone available to talk, listen, or support their learning. Mentors are certainly central to this web, but instructional coaches should be there as well, as should department chairs, team or grade-level leads, evaluators, and even school psychologists.
In his description of four types of teachers, educator and author Anthony Muhammad (2009) calls novice teachers “tweeners” — they are as yet undecided about whether to settle comfortably into the status quo or commit to changing their own practice for the benefit of all students. By building a web of available support for mentors, you can increase the odds of the latter happening and ensure that novice teachers will find counsel with someone who supports their growth and fosters a growth mindset.Wise leaders build a web of support so novice teachers can always find someone available to talk, listen, or support their learning. Click To Tweet
Plan now for next year
No matter where you are in your mentoring efforts for the current school year, it is vital to begin now to consider your induction and mentoring structure, processes, and schedules for 2024-25’s cadre of new teachers.
Planning and implementing a strong, instructionally focused mentoring program takes time and collaborative effort. For example, you want to make sure you have time to tackle action items like rewriting (or creating) an appropriate job description and application process for mentor teachers; deciding on content-based vs. general mentoring; gathering data about the number of expected vacancies and the number of mentors needed; and identifying funding sources to cover released time for mentors and mentees to engage in observation, co-planning, and co-teaching.
I recommend starting now with these steps:
- Consider the role of mentoring and mentor training within your larger induction program and professional learning structure. Be intentional about connecting this plan with your school improvement plan.
- Investigate providers of instructionally focused mentor learning and support like Learning Forward. Seek their advice for reframing your existing structures of induction and mentoring.
- Survey current mentees about where the current support system met their needs and where it fell short. Explore the gap they might have experienced between their preservice preparation and the realities of a classroom full of diverse learners.
- Survey current mentors about the challenges they are facing and support or changes they would recommend. Probe for systemic barriers at the district and campus levels.
- Survey administrators and teacher evaluators about the progress they observed (or didn’t observe) in novice teachers and their perceptions of why.
- Develop a plan to collect baseline data on mentors’ and mentees’ practices so you’ll know if the changes you initiate are having the desired impact.
- Advocate for changes in state, union, or district guidelines that create barriers to effective mentoring. Speak from experience and with the needs of students centered. For more information on how to be an effective advocate, visit Learning Forward’s advocacy site.
Editor’s note: This article was condensed from “To make a difference for every student, give every new teacher a mentor” that was published in The Learning Professional’s August 2022 issue.