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Guidance from the Get-Go:
Mentoring New Teachers

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Large numbers of beginning teachers never make it to their second year in the classroom, but a solid mentoring program -- a well-planned and well-supported program staffed by quality mentors -- can help stem the tide of teacher attrition. Mentoring can benefit student achievement too! Included: Programs in Baltimore and other locales that are having positive results!

Like Mentor, who watched over Telemachus while his father, Odysseus, went off to war, teacher mentors support novice instructors during their early years, when the learning curve is sharp. Mentoring, a growing practice in the nation's schools, offsets first-year teaching challenges that often result in new instructors' early departure from the profession.

Baltimore County Public Schools has tackled new-teacher attrition with a unique, nationally recognized mentoring model that provides full-time mentors to novice instructors with five or fewer years of experience. The college training of new teachers does not always prepare them for the real-life classroom, leaving them lacking the "practical knowledge of teaching," Arlene Fleischmann, coordinator of BCPS's Teacher Mentor/Trainer Program, tells Education World.

A Mentoring Experience

Carolee Smith is a mentor at Baltimore's Milford Mill Academy. Before becoming a full-time mentor-trainer, Smith taught high school English for 15 years. "During the last five years or so of my classroom teaching experience, I worked with student teachers from local colleges and universities," she says. "I discovered I enjoyed sharing my knowledge of teaching with them. They and others I worked with encouraged me to become a mentor."

Smith finds mentoring a very rewarding job. "My teachers express their appreciation for the technical and emotional support," she explains. She also sees how students benefit from the mentoring of novice teachers. "As mentors, we analyze student data to see improvement. It is clear that students are better prepared and learn more as teachers become more skilled in their profession."

Smith says getting teachers to think critically about their roles is one of her primary responsibilities. "The process of observation and conversation provides a model of self-reflection and analysis," she says. That process also shows the new teacher that teaching is a lifelong learning process.

However, Fleischmann says, more significant than teacher dropout rates is the impact of poorly trained teachers on student performance: thus the primary goal of Baltimore's program -- improving student achievement. "We know that student achievement is connected to the quality of instruction," Fleischmann adds. "We need to improve instruction to improve performance."

The county's program, therefore, has focused its efforts on 63 K-12 schools at which students have consistently not met state performance standards.

Measuring the student benefit of mentoring can be tricky, but "presumably, if teachers do a better job, students learn more," says Sharon Nemser, a professor of education at Brandeis University and senior researcher behind Learning from Mentors, a study published by the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning.

"In urban schools, students experience a lot of teacher turnover, which is not very good for learning," Nemser adds.

"One of the greatest reasons new teachers leave the profession is lack of support and assistance in dealing with the many frustrations they face," John Holloway, director of the Educational Testing Service's (ETS) Teacher Quality Initiative, tells Education World. "Mentoring plays a nurturing role in guiding those new teachers through the first critical years and in providing them tools and skills needed in actual practice."

The key to mentoring success is "the ability to engage teachers in conversations about what effective instruction looks like," adds Fleischmann.

MEETING TEACHERS WHERE THEY'RE AT

"New teachers need people who are observing and giving them feedback," explains F. T. Clark, of Baltimore's Academic Intervention Team. They need support to help them refine what they do to overcome obstacles related to classroom management, lesson planning, grading, and contacting parents, adds Clark.

Baltimore County's mentoring program supports teachers as they develop skills in team teaching, interpersonal and written communications, and behavior management. The program also provides lesson and instruction modeling. Although those are among the most common needs, Fleischmann noted, it is first important to help teachers "where they are at."

Angela Wiseman, a teacher at Freedom Hill Elementary School in Fairfax, Virginia, recalls her days as a member of a mentoring team at the University of Pennsylvania, where she worked with elementary school teachers. She never had a pre-determined agenda with a mentee, Wiseman tells Education World. "You have to understand where beginning teachers are in their professional development and know how to support them," she says.

Wiseman used journals to gauge her mentees' concerns and interests. "I used the topics that student teachers wrote about as things we would discuss and work on. Doing that allowed them to set the agenda or goals, and I would support their direction."

Mentoring programs should also consider teachers' most basic needs. For example, Wiseman currently mentors a teacher whose school does not always provide necessary classroom materials. "She has had a rough year and doesn't even have access to a copier," says Wiseman. "She started out with very few resources and little support."

Along with phone conversations and class visits, Wiseman has made copies for her mentee and had teachers donate materials for her room.

Finally, Holloway notes, addressing new teachers' personal needs "that arise from adjusting to a new community as well as a new job," is as important as their management and pedagogical demands. "Simple needs -- things like where to find an apartment, directions to shopping areas, and names of doctors and dentists," he explains.

Don't miss the ongoing Education World series The First 180 Days: A First-Year Teacher and Her Mentor. Mentor Laurie Stenehjem and first-year teacher Kimberly Johnson share their thoughts with Education World readers in alternating weeks.
QUALITY RELATIONSHPS ARE A MUST

"The two most critical requirements for effective mentoring are mentor training and time for the mentor and protege to work together," Holloway says. "In most districts, the greatest barrier would probably be the inability for the mentor to have the time to observe the protege teaching and time to have follow-up conversations about the teaching sessions."

Baltimore County values ongoing, on-site mentoring relationships that are non-evaluative. Mentors nurture teachers through the "cycle of teaching," explains Fleischmann. "They don't just model and then leave teachers hanging."

In Baltimore, mentoring is full-time, not just an add-on job, adds Clark. Teacher mentors are completely committed to working with their proteges.

The program is building capacity, turning new teachers into potential mentors themselves, says Fleischmann.

"The critical component of a successful mentoring experience is the mutual commitment of the mentor and protege," explains Raymond Dagenais, chairperson of the National Staff Development Council's (NSDC) Mentoring Applications Network.

Clark agrees, noting that new teachers must demonstrate a willingness to learn and grow so they will be successful in the classroom. "In some cases, teachers are terribly surprised by how much effort it takes to be effective," adds Clark.

Of course, the mentor must be able to reduce resistance or misunderstanding, which requires a certain set of qualities. Nemser believes a mentor is "someone who has relevant knowledge to share, is open to listening, who can make [his or] her practice public, and who can demonstrate effective ways of working with students."

"The value of mentoring for individuals early in their careers lies in what they can learn from someone who is recognized for their experience and expertise and is willing to help the newcomer. The value for those teachers later in their careers is derived from the satisfaction of being able to help another grow in the profession," observes Dagenais.

ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL MENTORING PROGRAMS

There is no standard approach to mentoring implementation or structure. "Mentoring programs serving large numbers of mentor-protege pairs must be well thought out and purposefully implemented in order to be successful," adds Dagenais. "Unfortunately, a variety of related approaches have been termed 'mentoring' when they are actually training, peer-tutoring, or peer-coaching experiences."

Mentoring Advice

Carolee Smith, a Baltimore mentor, offers this advice for schools or school districts that are about to embark on mentoring programs:
Advice for mentors:
* Be prepared for resistant teachers, but be persistent in offering help.
* Be positive yet honest.
* Be flexible.
* Just as when teaching students, wait for those teachable moments."

Advice for mentoring programs:
* Start small with quality, trained mentors.
* Keep mentors in one building to enable them to establish relationships and trust with mentees.
* Have all those who work with teachers coordinate their roles.
* Keep mentors' schedules flexible.
* Monitor student achievement to track success.
* Monitor data on and from teachers to evaluate the program.
* Have on-going staff development for new and experienced teachers, training that builds on the initial mentoring experience.

Dagenais recommends five mentoring program standards. They are derived from a survey of mentoring program leaders and published in a report, Mentoring Program Standards.
  • Mentoring programs should be designed with a clear vision of program scope in mind.
  • Mentoring incentives appropriate to the circumstances should be used.
  • Mentors should be prepared for the mentoring experience.
  • Strategies for mentor selection should be designed and implemented.
  • Information regarding the effectiveness of the mentoring experiences should be collected, analyzed, and evaluated.

"Mentoring alone cannot stop teacher attrition," says Nemser. "It is part of a larger system. It needs to be reinforced by a professional culture that supports teacher learning, collaboration, and experimentation."

Wiseman argues that mentoring programs should not apply "a blanket program" for all schools, noting that she "would have the teachers and administrators look at the needs and plan to support teachers accordingly."

Most of the above-mentioned qualities are embedded in Baltimore County's six-year old mentoring program. According to Fleischmann, mentors are experienced, tenured teachers with a required set of professional credentials. They undergo a rigorous selection process, participate in regular training (including train-the-trainer sessions), engage in reflective assessment that includes journal keeping, and are evaluated by program administrators. Some mentors are members of a Mentor Management Team. Moreover, the overall program is assessed annually. Most significant is that the program is supported by a "generous state grant," demonstrating that its value is recognized and understood.

The mentoring program, acknowledges Fleischmann, "is a gift we give to a new teacher in Baltimore County." Fleischmann asserts that the program has encouraged new teachers to come to Baltimore County, where, she observes, student achievement has improved and teacher turnover decreased -- circumstances she directly attributes to the mentoring project.

RELATED LINKS

The following resources provide links to information about model mentoring programs (in addition to the Baltimore program described above):

The following resources provide valuable information on teacher mentoring:

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