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May 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 8

What Mentors Learn About Teaching

When an experienced teacher mentors a new one, how does the veteran's teaching life change?

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Mentoring programs to support new teachers have proliferated in U.S. school districts, giving experienced classroom teachers the opportunity to serve as mentors for novices. Although analyses of mentoring programs have primarily focused on how they benefit new teachers, good programs also support the growth of those who do the mentoring.
Few empirical studies have focused on how new teacher programs influence mentors themselves (Hanson, in press; Hobson, Ashby, Malderez, & Tomlinson, 2009). Mentoring is a professional role that requires knowledge and skills beyond those needed to be an exemplary teacher. Professional renewal, enhanced self-esteem, more reflective practices, and leadership skills are among the benefits that come to those who mentor. The knowledge and skills that experienced teachers acquire as part of mentor training and practice can be viewed as part of the continual professional growth good teachers seek throughout their careers.

How Full-Time Mentors View Their Experience

In the past four years, I have interviewed 21 full-release mentors, each several times. All were teachers who had been released from the classroom to mentor new teachers full-time in the urban school districts of Boston or Durham, North Carolina. All the mentors were participating in the training and support program of the New Teacher Center (NTC), which was established to help novices survive their early years in teaching and emerge as skilled professionals. The center provided comprehensive professional development to more than 5,000 mentors during the 2008–09 school year (See www.newteachercenter.org.)
My goal in examining the journeys of these 21 mentors was to learn how mentoring programs help experienced teachers grow in their careers. These teachers had taught between 5 and 30 years before being selected to work as full-time mentors for their districts; each supported about 15 new teachers throughout the school year.
Being a full-release mentor profoundly affected the development and practice of these experienced teachers. Teacher mentors explained how mentorship helped them grow in three main areas.

Gaining a Broader Perspective

Consider what it's like for an experienced teacher to begin a new job as a full-time mentor. For example, Toby, a classroom teacher with 20 years of experience, was selected by a panel of educators and administrators from her school district to become a full-release mentor. The new job required Toby to move from her comfortable role as a successful classroom teacher in a school where she was respected to a new role supporting beginning teachers across the district. She was excited about this new opportunity to support novice teachers full-time, despite feeling melancholy about leaving students and colleagues at her old school.
In her first two years as mentor, Toby attended four three-day training sessions for new mentors provided by the New Teacher Center. In her third mentoring year, she attended two training sessions and consulted with other mentors several times a month. In these sessions, trained facilitators taught Toby and other mentors skills they would need to guide inexperienced teachers. The training content included using professional teaching standards and assessing a teacher's practice through formative assessment, meeting teachers' needs as adult learners, building trust, communicating effectively, addressing inequity related to student learning, and using data to inform teacher practice.
As she began this training, Toby was not aware that the experience would transform the way she viewed herself, teacher development in general, and the schools in which she worked. She later reflected,
My learning curve has been in upward mode the whole year. There isn't a day I haven't learned something about myself, about my beginning teachers, about my school, or about the school system. … Being in the classroom, you have a job to do, and your focus is really on the teaching and learning in the classroom. This year, my focus was different, insofar as I was looking at the relationship of the teacher and the students, and then the relationship of the school to the teacher.
Mentors unanimously reported that their new role led them to develop a new awareness, particularly through observing many classrooms in schools in which they had not previously taught. They sometimes saw significant differences in working conditions and administrators' approaches. As outsiders building relationships with teachers and administrators, first-year mentors learned to see issues from both the teachers' and administrators' perspectives. This broadening of perspective and the personal insights that came with it were transformational for many mentors. Several mentors said they gained a "global" view that affected their vision of good schools, good teaching, and how to help teachers improve their practice.
Before becoming a mentor, Janet taught high school science for 10 years in a large, racially mixed high school with a wide range of student abilities and an excellent reputation. Although Janet loved her advanced placement classes, her favorite students were those who faced many challenges. Janet requested to be a mentor in a local low-performing high school whose population was 90 percent minority students. She realized that for many of these kids, the school experience was quite different from what it had been for students in her former school, partly due to school culture. Jane observed,
I think creating a culture where academics are the most important thing in school should be number one. And I assumed that in every school in the country, that was what was happening; but that's not what's happening in the school where I am now. … As a mentor, I see 18 different classrooms, and I see how the entire school functions. The students who attend the school have very little respect for education and the adults in the building. … I've learned the importance of a competent administration, the frustration that many teachers feel, and how poorly a school functions if there is no consistency.
Cathy, a former high school history teacher, noted,
As a teacher, I was quite happy to just close my door and be in my room because I was good at it and my kids were good at it and so it was easy to just think, "All you other people [need to] figure out how to get it good in your room." That's different for me now.
Cathy had her first experience with a highly segregated school when she began mentoring; she saw up close the disadvantages for students of such isolation:
The kids have no concept of reality. … They live in a segregated neighborhood, they go to a segregated school. … I have a real issue with segregated schools now.
When she finished her mentoring stretch, Cathy committed herself to teaching in an integrated school.

Deepening Understanding of Professional Development

A comprehensive professional development program for mentors helps teachers gain needed knowledge and skills. It also shows them how high-quality professional development operates. The New Teacher Center model includes weekly three-hour meetings, called Mentor Forums, in which mentors are encouraged to become agents of their own growth, working within a community of other professional educators. This collaborative community helps mentors apply their learning, problem solve together on dilemmas encountered while mentoring, share evidence of their work, analyze data on beginning teacher practice, and develop leadership. They support one another and engage in dialogue with colleagues. Forums are led by the mentors themselves, who plan and facilitate activities for each gathering and teach one another new concepts and strategies.
Problem solving with fellow mentors helped Janet get through to a somewhat nonreceptive mentee. Janet mentored Barry for two years. Like other mathematics teachers at his school, Barry found that only about 20 percent of his students passed the state mathematics exams. He was continually frustrated; although he explained how to do problems, students didn't understand. Janet noticed during classroom observations that Barry would ignore questions from some students or get annoyed at them. During coaching sessions, she tried to make suggestions about responding to every question, but he didn't like to be criticized and responded defensively. Janet often left their meetings discouraged because Barry did not seem open to trying different strategies.
One day Janet overheard students saying that Barry was a scary teacher. One student—who often acted out—said he couldn't learn with this teacher because asking questions in his class was too frightening. Hearing this remark strengthened Janet's resolve to help Barry change his attitude about inattentive students—but she wasn't sure how.
Janet recalled that fellow mentors had talked a lot at one training about how to help teachers think about what is in their control. She also turned to her assigned mentor buddy to share her frustration and ask if he had any ideas. She and her buddy did an activity called problem pose/problem solve centered on Janet's frustration, without using the teacher's name. Janet's buddy encouraged her to have what mentors call a "fierce conversation."
Weeks later, when the topic of what students thought of his class came up, Janet got up the courage to tell Barry what she had overheard and ask whether he thought there was any truth to it. Barry seemed surprised, but admitted, "If I have a kid who is acting out or not listening, he is dead to me. I won't allow him to ask questions." Janet responded that there will always be students who check out for the day, but they still need to come back and learn the next day. She asked Barry to consider how he could make class better for such learners.
Not much changed that second year, but as a third-year teacher, Barry told Janet—now an academic coach in his school—that he was so bothered by his students' low scores that he was considering quitting teaching. Janet took the opportunity to suggest again that he reflect on his attitude toward inattentive students.
She later reflected, "Having the fierce conversation with Barry was one of the hardest decisions to make." The reward for taking that risk didn't come quickly, but eventually, Barry asked his students whether he was mean and scary. When they said, yes, Barry resolved to let students ask as many questions as they wanted, no matter how annoyed he felt. He also started doing backward planning and reflecting more on his lessons, areas Janet had worked with him on. His learners' standardized test scores soon showed enormous growth, and some students began saying how much they enjoyed his class. Janet believes her guidance played a role in pushing Barry's practice forward.
The culture of inquiry that is purposely created in mentor forums provides a model of collaborative learning that mentors can transfer to their experience nurturing new teachers. Rita noted that the weekly forums brought to new teachers "the feeling of being honored as a professional, the feeling of being able to study something, discuss it with your peers, and implement some tiny change in your practice from being nurtured in that environment." Many mentors described these forums as the best professional development they had ever had. Across districts, mentors emphasized the value of meeting with a group of educators who offered them valuable insight from years of experience.
Continued meaningful interactions with colleagues can significantly alter an experienced teacher's perspective. As Janet reflected,
When I first started as a mentor, I was coming from a teaching situation where I was pretty isolated. … I knew that I was getting the job done. I was just doing my own thing, and I was not a collaborator. I feel 100 percent different about that now. I am a total collaborator.
Such experiences build an understanding of meaningful professional development in an authentic learning community. Once mentors experience this, they thirst for similar experiences.

Developing Teacher Leadership

Despite being highly respected teachers, many mentors did not see themselves as teacher leaders. As mentors deepened their coaching skills and gained experience, they gained confidence in themselves as leaders.
Effective mentoring requires the ability to build adult relationships and collaborate. Mentors must be skilled at articulating teaching strategies, analyzing evidence, and supporting teacher growth every day. Mentors must learn to unravel the complexities of establishing relationships among all those who have a stake in beginning teachers' success. Working successfully with administrators who supervise new teachers, while maintaining the confidentiality needed to gain teachers' trust, is an important aspect of the work. Negotiating this complex arrangement helped mentors' leadership emerge, as comments from Karen, a third-year mentor, show:
I feel much more capable of speaking with principals in a firm, positive, professional way. I feel more able to carry myself professionally, with confidence. There's something about professional behavior, some boundaries or some assumptions of politeness and respect; I will respect you and you will respect me. … Just starting out meetings with principals by saying, "So, I know you don't have a lot of time. There are three things I would like to cover with you. I would like to cover this, that, and the other. How does that sound to you?"
By the second or third year of mentoring, most mentors have worked with a variety of administrators and teachers and have led workshops or teacher learning communities. Such experiences bring mentors enough confidence to broaden their vision of what they can do, personally, to help improve teaching and learning at their schools. As Sandy described,
I'll be working on something or observing somebody and I'll see a need for something. I'll think to myself, "Gosh, this school needs to have a workshop on [a particular topic] and then I'll think, "Oh wait, that's me! I've got to do that!" I didn't realize that last year. I guess it never dawned on me that I was a leader … that I was going to be taking the initiative to do things.
As mentors perceive the need for somebody to take on stronger leadership in support of teachers at their school sites, they develop leadership skills themselves. Many mentors assigned to work in challenging schools find themselves advocating for better working conditions for novice teachers.

The Promise of the Full-Release Model

Most full-time mentors greatly enjoy their work. After their term as a mentor is over, they often want to continue the growth and collaborative leadership that they had a taste of as full-time mentors. For example, when Janet thought about her professional life after mentoring, she realized that collaboration would be vital to her:
Having the opportunity to work with some of the best teachers in the district as a community [is] fun because people are inspired and inspiring and it's a collaborative effort. I like being in a group like that. So in my next job, that's definitely one of the things that I'm going to look for. If I have a choice of schools, I will look for a department that works together.
My interviews with full-time mentors suggest that experienced teachers are strongly influenced by their work guiding new teachers and working in a professional learning community. Introducing well-defined roles for experienced teachers and creating a clear pathway for classroom teachers to become school leaders offer promise for improving instruction in schools and for the teaching profession. By establishing such pathways—and providing teacher mentors with effective preparation and support—schools can encourage great teachers to use their potential to improve teaching and learning.

Hanson, S. (in press). The influence of induction on mentors. In J. Wang, S. J. Odell, & R. T. Clift (Eds.), Past, present, and future research on teacher induction: An anthology for researchers, policy makers, and practitioners. Manassas Park, VA: Commission on Teacher Induction and Mentoring and Association of Teacher Educators.

Hobson, A., Ashby, P., Malderez, A., & Tomlinson, P. (2009). Mentoring beginning teachers: What we know and what we don't. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(1), 207–216.

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