The questions from the novice teacher flashed onto computer screens around Illinois.
“I have one student in mind who is just a few points away from passing a course that is required for graduation,” the anonymous high school instructor wrote in a message marked “urgent.”
“Is there ever a time when it is appropriate to bump a student up a small amount in order for them to pass a class? And if so, how large of a raise can I make while maintaining the integrity of my grading scale?”
The instructor was taking part in a new online mentoring program in Illinois, where beginning teachers can post queries on an Internet bulletin board and quickly get responses from their colleagues.
Within 24 hours of his posting, the novice got one reply from a fellow teacher, then three more from others the next day. Two more messages popped up in the next couple of days, then another, and yet another. Ultimately, he received a total of nine messages. One teacher responded:"I really understand your anguish.” The new teacher has yet to report back on what he decided to do.
In Illinois and elsewhere, novice teachers can turn to their computers to get advice and support from a much larger community of new and master teachers, as well as doctoral students and education professors.
“E-mentoring,” also called telementoring, is just starting to catch on in K-12 education. Today, only a few venues offer online teacher-mentoring, including the Web site teaching.com, but experts predict that in a few years, new teachers across the country will be able to access local or regional teacher databases.
In those “e-communities,” boosters of the idea say, teachers will get help quickly on issues such as disciplining the class troublemaker, or be able to take part in thoughtful long-term discussions.
“This is definitely an idea whose time has come, and something that’s going to go everywhere soon,” said Tom Carroll, the executive director of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, a nonprofit group based in New York City. “School districts across the country have tremendous attrition rates of entry-level teachers. ... And providing networked professional communities is one of the most powerful ways to sustain them.”
In Illinois, beginning teachers can turn for support to the Novice Teacher Support Project, run by the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. The university partners with 40-plus school districts on the initiative, as well as three regional offices of education.
Using a special password, more than 100 first-, second-, and third-year teachers have logged on to the NTSP’s electronic bulletin board, which has 40 veteran teachers statewide as e-mentors.
“You can reach out and someone will respond,” said Cari Klecka, a University of Illinois doctoral student and the program’s online moderator. "[Teachers] want access to the outside world. Once you close the door, you’re there by yourself with your kids. So online mentoring offers pedagogical and emotional support.”
After a year of fiddling with the bulletin board’s technology and fine-tuning online access, the university started its e-mentoring program in earnest this school year. Now, teachers can log on to different sections of the bulletin board, depending on their grade levels and subjects, or click on popular topics, such as classroom management, working with parents, and assessment.
Novice teacher Cheryl Swafford said she got some good advice on classroom discipline from the e-mentoring program, as well as creative ideas on celebrating the 100th day of school with her 2nd graders.
“It has been very valuable to me,” said Ms. Swafford, a teacher at Edison Elementary School in Danville, Ill. “I just love it because it’s an unlimited resource.”
Teachers can send and receive messages any time of the day or night, and they can share personal information or post anonymously.
The latter option offers an added level of confidentiality often sought by new teachers. Neophytes may not want to confide in their schools’ principals or designated mentors, for fear of seeming not up to par, said Sue Seymour, an e-mentor and a veteran teacher at Steeple Run Elementary School in Naperville, Ill.
“That [anonymity is] critical to teachers who aren’t tenured and feel pressure,” she said.
The online program’s start-up costs totaled more than $150,000, and were paid for with a mix of university, state, and federal funding. Novice teachers who participate are paid a $250 yearly stipend and must post at least five messages per semester. E-mentors are paid $300 and must post at least 12 messages per semester.
But both groups communicate much more than that, Ms. Klecka said. So far this year, 3,000 messages have been posted.
The Illinois program includes a face-to-face component, too: Novice teachers and e-mentors must meet in person at least twice a year.
Such human contact is important because online mentoring should complement, not take the place of, in-person mentoring, and vice versa, said Judi Harris, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Texas at Austin.
She should know. This school year, Ms. Harris started WINGS Online, a publicly accessible Internet bulletin board that enables student- and new teachers in Texas to chat with each other, find and get advice from e-mentors, and seek research help on various topics. The attractive and user-friendly Web site, monitored by five doctoral students and Ms. Harris, is divided into four areas: stories, discussions, telementoring, and information on demand.
So far, about 43 novice teachers talk online regularly, and about 40 more have e- mentors.
Both Ms. Harris in Texas and the university educators in Illinois hope to improve their online programs by, for example, sponsoring real-time interactive chats with experts and perhaps providing participant profiles. Ms. Harris said she hopes to have more than 2,000 teachers using WINGS in the near future, and she wants the program to be self-sustaining by 2006.
“The goal,” Ms. Harris said, “is to build an online sustained community.”
Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as ‘E-Mentors’ Offer Online Support, Information for Novice Instructors