Between class time, lesson prep, grading, and extracurricular activities like coaching, teachers just don’t have a lot of time on their hands.
As recently as 2014, the number of pupils for every teacher in public schools reached 16.1, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). And as of 2012, the average class size in public elementary schools was 21.2 pupils and was even higher in secondary schools, at 26.8.
From 2012–2013, among teachers with 1–3 years of experience, almost 20 percent changed schools or left teaching altogether. And just over half of the public school teachers who left teaching that year found that their workload in their current position was better, with 53 percent citing better working conditions after leaving the profession.
More mentorship might be one way to help retain teachers, improve working conditions, and enhance their ability to effectively educate.
According to the New Teacher Center’s (NTC) report on new teacher mentoring, “research demonstrates that comprehensive, multi-year induction programs accelerate the professional growth of new teachers, reduce the rate of new teacher attrition, provide a stronger return on states’ and school districts’ investment, and improve student learning.”
People-driven approaches to mentorship
Not all mentorship programs are created equally, however. The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) argues that mentorship programs typically fall under a continuum.
1. No support: New teachers navigate the waters of teaching with no formalized support from peers.
2. Compliance-driven: New teachers consult with mentors to complete projects like portfolios, and personal and professional growth plans as part of a required induction program.
3. Problem-driven: Mentoring activities and programs are linked to specific challenges that new teachers are likely to encounter in their early years of teaching.
4. People-driven: Mentors help support new teachers’ entrance into professional communities, with an emphasis on reciprocal teacher and mentor professional development and growth.
Unsurprisingly, the “people-driven” approach to mentoring produces the best results for both new teachers and their mentors.
People-driven programs zero in on three critical areas:
– Rethinking program elements affecting mentors.
– Addressing specific challenges that new teachers actually face.
– Implementation of a tiered process to respond to needs.
For example, the Japanese education system uses a people-driven approach in their “lesson studies,” which are collaborative teacher-led sessions aimed at collectively improving the quality of instruction using research, application, and analysis. You can see our previous blog post about lesson study here.
How mentors are selected in people-driven programs
It sounds obvious that mentor quality serves as the foundation for developing effective induction programs for new teachers. But it remains a challenge for school districts to measure mentorship quality because teaching and mentorship require distinct skill sets.
In many states, there are laws or administrative rules that provide criteria for selecting mentors. Some factors for mentorship suitability include a minimum number of years teaching and a track record of excellence in instruction, which is typically measured by previous teacher evaluations.
However, only twenty-four states require new teachers to participate in such formal induction mentoring programs, and only fifteen require the kind of research-based, multi-year support regimen recommended by the NTC.
Mentors must demonstrate good problem-solving and communication skills. Receiving direct coaching in professional learning communities will help them learn how best to serve as mentors to new teachers.
Mentors should focus on three areas:
– Interpersonal relations and communication skills to foster connection with mentees;
– Coaching strategies to “diagnose” new teacher struggles and know what to suggest to help them improve;
– Growth for both the mentors and mentees by deconstructing instructional practices.
In most cases, mentors and mentees teach at the same school. While there are plenty of advantages to both parties sharing the same instructional context, it’s important to note that working in close proximity can lead to challenges.
First, it can be difficult to navigate professional roles. Mentors to new teachers are teachers themselves, and sometimes confusion about school-based roles can crop up. Second, simply tacking on mentor duties can lead to a shift from “people-driven support” to “compliance-driven support.”
Mentors can help meet the needs of new teachers by encouraging them to be proactive instead of simply reactive. A proactive approach involves anticipating new teacher needs and guiding them toward developing their own strategies for addressing difficulties, which tend to fall into one of three tiers, or levels. Accordingly, mentorship should be modified to adjust to those needs.
1. Low-level needs
Mentors act as information providers for new teachers on the lowest tier. These needs can include adjusting to classroom software, knowing the procedure for requesting a substitute, and navigating the logistics of a particular school or learning context.
Note that while mentors are typically knowledgeable resources for new teachers, focusing on this level isn’t the most efficient use of time or human capital.
2. Mid-level needs
Mentors who focus on mid-level needs act as “thought partners” for new teachers. For example, mentors can help new teachers sort through mid-level needs by talking through the physical layout of the classroom, relaying best practices for collecting, grading, and entering assignments, and helping to establish a foundational script to prepare for student-teacher conferences.
Mid-level support is vital because it facilitates management of daily tasks and best practices that affect all areas of a teacher’s work life. Moreover, mentors who act as thought partners can offer empathy along with expertise.
3. High-level needs
High-level needs feature mentors as skilled developers: facilitating critical thinking to gauge student learning, helping to differentiate assignments according to student need, and establishing student accountability protocols.
If it sounds like high-level needs focus on maximizing a teacher’s overall effectiveness as an educator, that’s because they do. Unfortunately, most new teachers need to feel comfortable and confident in their roles and teaching environment before they can focus on higher-level needs.
Stages of new teacherdom (and how mentors can help)
First-year teachers tend to follow a series of steps, or stages: excitement, survival, disenchantment, introspection, and revitalization.
Fresh on the job, new teachers are excited to finally get a chance to teach a class of their own. Mentorship opportunities here should focus on establishing regular meeting times and helping the mentee become familiar with the school building and related logistics.
New teachers are fatigued, beset by obstacles they hadn’t anticipated, and exhausted from the avalanche of work. Mentors should help new teachers focus on one thing at a time. Encouraging notes and care packages can also help raise teacher spirits.
One tell-tale sign of a disenchanted rookie is disengagement from day-to-day practices. Mentors can provide time for venting at this stage and flex their coaching muscles with some formal instruction on dealing with specific problems. Celebrating classroom successes at this stage can make a world of difference, too.
Once new teachers transition out of the disenchantment stage, they often feel relief at having stuck it out. Now is the time to recommend new techniques to continue to improve skills.
With several battles won, new teachers can reflect and plan for next year. Mentors can share development opportunities and help new teachers use their reflections to establish even better practices for the future.
Being a new teacher is tough, and mentoring new teachers can sometimes seem even tougher. But by following a people-driven approach and being mindful of teacher needs, mentors can go a long way toward improving both the quality of education teachers can offer, and their longevity in the field.