If the development of strong teachers was a mechanical process, perhaps mentors would be project engineers. Engineers take an existing process or commodity and improve it, increasing quality and outcomes with more efficient, streamlined efforts. When this concept is applied to improving human educators, mentors fill that role, recognizing what good teaching looks like, helping to retool and redefine new teachers toward more rapid mastery of the art.
Tradesmen have tool belts; mentors carry a bag of tricks. Consumable notebooks and pens are used to capture pages full of observation data aimed at improving or validating classroom practice. Tissues, hard candies, office supplies, timers, healthy snacks are must-haves for mentors and their mentees. Lesson planners, calendars, building schedules, mileage logs and laptops accompany mentors for their daily work on-the-move covering K-12 teachers and administrators. Logistical needs aside, the most necessary tools take no physical space but must be in constant use – professional and interpersonal rapport, confidentiality, flexibility, creativity. Mentors search and research to connect mentees with people and resources to improve their craft and foster personal well-being on a daily basis.
For instance, it is week sixteen of the school year when the mentor walks into Jack’s classroom. As a secondary math teacher, Jack understands his content but he is learning the art of teaching. His mentor regularly sits with Jack, discussing classroom management strategies, creating lesson plans, analyzing student work, and finding resources to make the instruction more engaging. In the course of sixteen weeks, the mentor has observed and had conversations about instructional practice at least fourteen times. Each week, the careful engineer of educators tries a new tact to show Jack vital components to effective instruction: creating a thorough agenda, using “I can” statements and formative assessment, and positive classroom management based on healthy boundaries and relationships. And each week, Jack deftly maneuvers around the suggestions. It is as if he does not want to change his habits so newly adopted as a beginning teacher.
Week 16 is when the mentor begins to despair. At that moment, walking into the classroom, the mentor looks up and notices that there is an agenda on the board. The “I can” statement is written in student-friendly language. Jack is using a timer to keep transitions smooth and short and keep the pace of the lesson moving along briskly. In their conversation at the end of the lesson, Jack says “I really resisted these suggestions, but last weekend I started thinking that this might be the change I was looking for to help my students. We’ve been using ‘I can’ and assessments for the past three days and I already feel better about my instruction!” The patience and determination of the mentor made a difference in the lives of that teacher and students.
Ouside the school day, mentors provide hours of professional development training, and encourage participation in a range of formal and informal activities to weave new teachers into the fabric of the community. Such training can take place informally – trouble-shooting technical difficulties with a grading system might take place over tea, or problem-solving communication challenges in a PLC (professional learning community) might occur during a late afternoon walk. Mentors also offer formal professional development in the form of seminars that happen on a monthly or bi-weekly basis. The topics of all the trainings are fluid, determined only a week or two in advance. Like teachers, mentors constantly and consistently use formative assessment to determine the learning needs of their students (mentees) and adjust lesson plans to meet those needs.
Research shows that beginning teachers who have a mentor are more likely to believe their instructional practices have improved and they are more satisfied with their jobs, leading to higher teacher retention rates (New Teacher Center). If we wish to recruit, retain, and raise high-quality, effective beginning teachers, mentor programs are vital to the educational system.
Cindy Ziesemer is in her 27th year as an Oregon-licensed teacher. This is her tenth year employed in the Silver Falls School District and first year as a mentor with Dr. Marie Ballance in Mt. Angel and Silver Falls districts.
Dr. Marie Ballance has worked in education since 2000 in public and private schools and at the university level. She was hired by Silver Falls and Mount Angel School Districts in 2013 to mentor beginning teachers and administrators and describes mentoring as "the best job in the world.”
- Teacher Preparation
- Professional Learning
- Quality Educators