Teacher Preparation Opinion

Mentoring Can’t Do It All

By Harry K. Wong — August 08, 2001 9 min read
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Novice teachers need experienced teachers to help them. What they don’t need are platitudes.

Moving. After 26 years in one house, I allowed myself the luxury of having a moving company pack my office. So opening each box has been an exciting surprise. What a nice discovery, for example, to find an article written in 1980 that talked of “dissemination.” A smile crossed my face as the word brought back memories of so many other buzzwords and catchphrases. Quickly, “paradigm shift,” “locus of control,” “self-esteem,” and “prioritize” flashed through my mind. And “rubrics” came and went faster than a struggling dot.com company.

The buzzword of the moment seems to be “mentoring.” When it comes to the support we provide to new teachers entering the profession, everyone is usually referred to as a mentor, support person, or facilitator. No one is called simply a teacher. Yet, we dignify the teaching profession when teachers teach other teachers. Novice teachers want teachers—teachers they can watch teach in their rooms, teachers who will give them activities and lesson plans, teachers who will tell them what to do with those kids who challenge even the best in the field.

Simply assigning a mentor-teacher does little to remedy the situation of new teachers’ becoming discouraged and leaving the profession.

What they don’t want are platitudes such as “providing a struggling new teacher with a forum for reflection with a mentor.”

A new teacher writes this to me: “I have taught children with drug-related problems for the last three years. I am totally frustrated. It takes a minimum of 20 minutes to teach the children to line up correctly. So much instructional time is lost each day just going over the basics of behavior. A lesson that would take five to 10 minutes with a regular class takes me at least two days of hourlong lessons, and I am lucky if a third of the class has learned the lesson. And if my lessons are interesting, the children become overly excited and cannot control themselves.” Give this frightened new teacher, who goes home each night in utter frustration and turmoil, a mentor for reflection? Get real.

The North Carolina Teaching Fellows Commission says that “giving a teacher a mentor only is a convenient and unconsciously foolish way for an administrator to divorce himself or herself from the leadership required to bring a beginning teacher up to professional-maturity level.” The same commission also has found that principals and new teachers rate mentors the least effective way to help new teachers. One out of four new teachers surveyed claimed that they received either “poor” or “no support” from their mentors. Simply assigning a mentor- teacher does little to remedy the situation of new teachers’ becoming discouraged and leaving the profession.

What’s really scary about all this talk of “mentoring only” is that it has become institutionalized. The press and professional journals are prescribing it as the standard cure-all for new teachers. But we should ask ourselves: If all it takes for a new teacher to succeed is to be given a mentor, then why do we need staff developers and administrators, or their respective organizations for that matter?

Let’s cut right to the chase and look at the ample research many refuse to accept. In the July 1996 ERIC Digest, Sharon Feiman- Nemser compiles a critical review of teacher mentoring studies that highlights the following points:

  • Enthusiasm for mentoring has not been matched by the clarity or purposes of mentoring.
  • Claims about mentoring have not been subjected to rigorous empirical scrutiny.
  • Few comprehensive studies exist that have examined in depth the context, content, and consequences of mentoring.
  • More direct studies are needed about mentoring and its affect on teaching and teacher retention.
  • We cannot jeopardize an entire generation of new teachers with a 20-year- old process that has not produced any systematic results and still requires “more direct studies.”

Let me be clear: I take issue with the word “only” and not the word “mentor.” I fully believe in the efficacy of mentoring. But what a new teacher needs and deserves is a tutor, a master teacher, or, ultimately, a group of teachers, staff developers, and administrators who will teach that new teacher and get him or her up to speed quickly. New teachers want and need a tutor who will teach them how to teach and show them what to do. A mentor, on the other hand, is someone who can serve as an inspiration to an experienced teacher. Because of that person’s stature and success, it’s often years later that a mentor makes a difference in a person’s professional life.

What new teachers want is an induction program. Only in education do we talk about “mentoring alone.” Doctors, factory workers, secretaries, chefs, electricians, and dental hygienists don’t receive a “mentor.” They’re trained and guided. (Imagine an airline that, in lieu of training, provided its new pilots with mentors whom they could consult, when trouble strikes at 35,000 feet, for reflection.)

What new teachers want is an induction program. Only in education do we talk about “mentoring alone.”

As genuine induction programs have gained credibility in education, the people with vested interests in mentoring-only programs have begun to call their programs “mentoring/induction programs,” which is blatantly incorrect and confusing. You either have a mentoring program or an induction program.

Induction is the process of systematically training and supporting new teachers, beginning before the first day of school and continuing through the first two or three years of teaching. Its purposes include, but are not limited to, the following: (1) easing the transition into teaching, (2) improving teacher effectiveness through training in classroom management and effective teaching techniques, (3) promoting the district’s culture—its philosophies, missions, policies, procedures, and goals, and (4) increasing the retention rate for highly qualified teachers.

A district or school induction program always has a defined mission or set of goals. Without these, what procedures and strategies are the mentors to mentor to? And what will be assessed, if there are no goals or performance criteria to form the assessment?

During the induction process, administrators and staff developers provide ongoing training for the new teachers. Mentors then assist the new teachers in implementing what has been learned. Indeed, mentors are often an integral part of the training process, resulting in more consistent implementation of the district’s or school’s vision for effective teaching. As Joan Hearne, a staff developer in Wichita, Kan., says, “If you don’t transmit a district’s culture, mission, and beliefs as employees join the family, then when do you?”

Many established induction programs capitalize on the needs of the incoming teachers. The Clark County, Nev., program has a “welcome center” to help teachers get settled in the community. A district in Palatine, Ill., has a four- year induction program culminating with every teacher’s being qualified to apply for national board certification. The Mesa, Ariz., induction program has demonstration classes for new teachers to observe. Hopewell, Va., provides three teachers to help every new teacher: a mentor, a coach, and a lead teacher. And the school system uses those terms with precision when assigning responsibilities for working with new teachers.

The Flowing Wells schools of Tucson have a five-year induction program, with debriefing sessions following new teachers’ observations of veteran teachers. The model is so successful that the school system has an annual workshop to show other districts how to orchestrate an induction program.

The Lafourche Parish district in Thibodaux, La., has an induction program set up as a live classroom, complete with three staff developers and a principal, who teach new teachers how to teach. In 1996, the district’s annual attrition rate for teachers was 51 percent. The following year, after installing the induction program, the attrition rate dropped to 12 percent, and today it hovers around 4 percent. Of the hundreds of teachers trained, 99 percent are still in education, and 88 percent are still teaching in the Lafourche Parish schools. The Louisiana Department of Education is considering adopting the program as a statewide model.

Teaching is a highly skilled craft, one that requires a systematic, sustained, and relentless induction process with three major components: training, support, and retention.

The induction of new teachers in Miami-Dade County, Fla., is a cooperative effort between the administration and the teachers’ union, with five days of preschool workshops, other workshops throughout the school year, mentors at the building site as well as off-site, and computer-assisted support.

Many states have induction programs. A well-known example is the California Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program, initiated in 1992, and now a structured, two-year program. In Stanislaus County, Calif., the overall retention rate for new teachers who have participated in this program is 95 percent.

Recruiting New Teachers, an organization devoted to attracting candidates to the profession, published a national study in 1999 on urban teacher-induction programs and found that fully 94 percent were “formal, in-depth, and sustained.”

In my work, I communicate by e-mail with many new teachers. I hear about their support or lack of support in their first years in the profession. Occasionally, I may hear of an isolated mentor who has helped an individual teacher. But I’ve never heard of a truly successful mentoring program, one that has changed the culture of a school or district.

Over the next decade, we will have some 2 million new teachers who need our help. Teaching is a highly skilled craft, one that requires a systematic, sustained, and relentless induction process with three major components: training, support, and retention.

Done well, this kind of induction to the profession can strengthen schools as well as teachers. The program established by Michigan’s Port Huron Area Schools, for example, is a cooperative effort between the district’s staff-development department and the local teachers’ union. And its success over nearly 10 years has led early champion William Kimball, who is now the superintendent, to remark positively on “the change in our culture” brought about over the decade as induction-bred teachers have taken the place of retiring veterans.

Many districts, however, are either doing nothing to help novice teachers succeed, or are just throwing them a mentor to aid in “reflection.” So new initiates to the profession are turning increasingly to the Internet. There they can find chat rooms, bulletin boards, and a massive compilation of techniques, activities, materials, and articles on teaching that are free and readily accessible. Better still, they find that the Internet operates as a user-friendly, nonjudgmental colleague. It keeps on giving and giving until the recipient clicks on “close.”

So the article I encountered in my unpacking has acquired some contemporary meaning for the profession. Little may its author have realized it in 1980, but today, because their districts often fail to provide any organized means of support, many novice teachers are in fact using “dissemination” as a way to help themselves and one another survive the rigors of learning their craft.

These beginning teachers represent the future of education. Let’s hope that the nourishment they are receiving via the Internet and through enlightened induction programs will help them grow into fine, effective classroom veterans.

Harry K. Wong is a former high school science teacher. He and his wife, Rosemary, are the authors of The First Days of School and a monthly column, “The Effective Teacher,” on www.teachers.net.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Mentoring Can’t Do It All


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