May 2001 | Volume 4 | Number 8
Who is Teaching Our Children?
The Best Practices of Mentors
My first days in the classroom were horrible. I didn't know how to get the students' attention, much less keep it. They passed notes to each other all day and dropped pencils on the floor so they could crawl around and disturb each other. I had handed out worksheets, but I knew my students were bored. Then my mentor began giving me feedback. Time and again she would say, "You are the one who creates the magic in the classroom. Think about what you want your students to understand." And I began to see that instruction isn't merely planning for what you're going to do tomorrow. I've learned the difference between teaching and assigning. I can now look at these papers in front of me and see that the assessments reflect really meaningful learning. I couldn't have done that without my mentor, who was there for me.
This observation was made by teachers who participated in a study that examined the relationship between teacher mentors and first-, second-, and third-year teachers. What we found builds on previous research suggesting that mentors can make a powerful, positive impact on teacher effectiveness and help develop successful schools.
In 1995, Baltimore County Public Schools established a Teacher Mentor Program to:
Baltimore County's program is unique in that it supports teachers with five or fewer years of experience who are assigned to schools suffering from low student achievement and high teacher turnover rates. Most mentoring programs do not assign full-time teacher mentors to individual schools. Other programs also limit mentoring opportunities to first-year teachers, and many other school systems have adopted "peer evaluation" approaches in which a lead teacher assists new teachers during the first year, and is responsible for recommending continuing the teacher's employment, termination, or continued probationary status.
The Baltimore County program does not expect its teacher mentors to evaluate their mentees, nor does it limit mentors' efforts to preparing teachers for state certification requirements. Instead, the program places importance on support, long-term observation, and expert feedback to help teachers become more effective in the classroom. However, Baltimore County does share the objectives of other states' mentoring efforts in its use of intensive on-site assistance in the areas of instruction, assessment, management, and interpersonal communications with students.
The 23 teacher mentors I interviewed worked with first-, second-, and third-year teachers in elementary schools, middle schools and high schools. Each had served as a mentor for two to four years. My interview included 21 questions that generally took one hour to complete. Many of the mentors prolonged the formal question-and-answer time with enthusiastic stories of classroom triumphs. Five key findings emerged from the surveys and conversations:
Effective mentoring focuses on teacher development. Effective mentors guide new teachers in sharpening their skills, honing their instructional approaches, and helping shape their attitudes toward teaching and their students.
The first-year teacher's look of glassy-eyed exhaustion and disbelief that teaching can be so difficult is instantly recognizable to experienced teachers. Unchecked, that feeling of being overwhelmed can doom the new teacher. When mentors take time to share their knowledge and offer feedback to new teachers, they help teachers realize success earlier, which benefits both students and new teachers.
Through daily contact, a mentor can alleviate the isolation that many new teachers feel and help to minimize feelings of uncertainty. Sometimes, simply helping new teachers deal with the minutia of personal management, such as organizing a file cabinet or outlining a lesson plan book, is enough to calm and focus them. Other times, the new teacher needs the "how-to" of teaching a lesson. "I modeled a lesson for her," said one elementary school mentor. "That's the experience that she didn't have. My job is to expand her repertoire."
Another mentor talked about the underlying pressure of knowing what to teach. "We teach the new teachers the difference between assigning and teaching. We really look at what we want the children to learn. We're the connection, because we know what's expected." One mentor explained that new teachers need guidance in making sure their assessments match the objective of the lesson and that "kids understand why they are learning what they are."
Mentors agreed that quick fixes and constant communication help first-year teachers who are overwhelmed and just trying to survive day-to-day. Second-year teachers are more reflective and "process" what occurs in the classroom—they make sense of situations and initiate corrective behavior. Third-year teachers are refining their skills, asking students higher-level questions, and learning the subtleties of instruction by taking risks.
Regular interaction with a teacher enables the mentor to adapt his mentoring approach to the strengths and needs of individual teachers. Effective mentoring of teachers focuses on "guiding" rather than "managing" teachers.
All 23 mentors emphasized the importance of customizing the relationships they developed with individual teachers. The mentors recognized that each teacher, like each student, has a unique learning style. Mentors said they learned to listen and adapt in order to establish trust with their teachers. They emphasized the need to let teachers know that mistakes aren't fatal—that they could continually experiment and refine what they do "to create the magic that happens in a classroom."
Teachers sometimes look for a "sophisticated" reason for a student's lack of achievement, when the answer is actually "right there in front of you," said one elementary school teacher. She recalled an incident in which a student was well aware that his acting-out was driving the teacher crazy. Looking into the child's background, the mentor discovered that he was an only child who was accustomed to getting a lot of attention. Unless the teacher provided considerable positive feedback to him, he would continue to struggle to get her attention. The solution was simple: The teacher needed to make a personal connection with the boy and to spend some time alone with him each day.
Teachers exercise tremendous authority within their classrooms. They make countless decisions about curriculum, instructional techniques, classroom management, and standards of discipline. Regular interaction with a mentor can help new teachers become more confident about their management roles, which leads to more growth. As one mentor observed, "I love it when a plan comes together. First, I [as the mentor] see the improvements. Then the teacher sees her, and the practice becomes an integral part of their instruction. Then, in our conference she wants to address another part of her instruction."
Teachers need continual training and support from mentors to improve their instructional capacity. Teachers are likely to be motivated by their students' achievements and discouraged if their students fail to achieve. Seeing academic results is a significant motivator.
Discussing the new teacher's grasp of teaching, respondents emphasized the critical link between a teacher's recognition that a lesson came together—that it worked—with their self-confidence. In seeing his students learn, a teacher develops a sense of effectiveness. Teachers then gain a deeper insight into their craft during the interviews that follow a classroom observation. Because mentors can empower teachers to freely examine their own instructional practice, teachers tend to take full advantage of the post-observation interview to discuss problems. The problems are often resolved through this dialogue. This mentoring-coaching model with feedback "is one of the most powerful tools to change behavior," stated Mary Jacqe Marchione, director of professional development for the Baltimore County Public Schools, "because a fundamental question we ask in life is 'How am I doing?'"
Knowing what they did to create effective instruction is a fundamental benefit for teachers who are mentored. "Success breeds success," said an elementary school mentor, adding that teachers who realize success are "more willing to spend the time to plan those interactive, student-centered lessons that we know work so well with children."
Positive interactions with a new teacher can speed development of effective instructional techniques by grounding the teacher in realistic expectations of the classroom environment. Effective mentors serve as basic connections to the school curriculum for incoming teachers--they are the "docents of instruction."
Many first-year teachers arrive in the classroom with idealistic notions of what their students can achieve. Other teachers may suffer agonizing self-doubt about their capacity to teach. Without practical intervention by supportive teacher mentors, both extremes can lead to disillusionment and abandonment of teaching careers. The respondents emphasized the importance of their conversations with and feedback to their mentees. They observed that most teachers were naturally self-reflective and open to discussions about teaching strategies. The mentoring process helped new teachers to look at "the big picture" and then craft their lessons.
Mentoring offers personal and often professional rewards to the teacher mentors. Mentoring enhances opportunities within the teaching profession, allowing for leadership development and increased job satisfaction.
All the respondents stated that the mentoring program came at the right time for them. After lengthy teaching careers, they needed a new challenge. Mentoring allowed them to continue working with children, while having the enhanced satisfaction of working with adults. "It's an ideal situation. As a person who is about change, I'm promoting change and having the opportunity of working with children. I never want to lose that; it's the best of both worlds." The respondents also acknowledged that mentoring is a two-way process: "I have learned how to listen and have learned from the teachers' responses."
Mentoring often rejuvenates the careers of participating teachers, noted Arlene Fleischmann, coordinator of Baltimore County's mentoring program. Mentoring, she stated, "increases the meaningfulness of their position. [These teachers] contribute more to ensuring that the next generation of new teachers has the skills and understanding they need.
The interviews I conducted revealed that as teachers became mentors they began to see "the big picture." These teachers became active participants in shaping the reality in each school and became "one" with the new teachers. At the same time, the mentors became a group of needed professional resources upon which principals could rely.
Baltimore County's mentoring program focuses on individual professional growth. That focus benefits both mentors and former mentees—many of whom have moved to leadership positions within the school system. Given the current national shortage of talented teachers to fill vacancies, and the need for huge numbers of new teachers in the near future, the success of mentoring in training and maintaining excellent teaching professionals is no small accomplishment.
How Mentor Got Her Name
The derivation of the word "mentor" comes from Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. When the hero, Odysseus, sets out for the siege of Troy, he expects a long absence from home and asks his trusted friend Mentor to care for his household. During the time he is away, however, his house is overrun by his wife's unwanted suitors, and the goddess Athena asks Zeus if she can intervene. With Zeus's approval, Athena assumes the shape of Mentor and whispers sound advice to young Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. Mentor has since been known as a wise counselor.
Editor's Note: An extended copy of the research report is available. Contact Clark for more information.
Franklin T. Clark is a teacher mentor for the Baltimore County (Md.) Public Schools. He has experience in both teaching and administration. He can be reached, via e-mail, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2001 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development