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Volume 26, Number 1
January/February 2010

Principles of High-Quality Mentoring

An instructionally intensive approach to supporting new teacher development


NYC public schools mentor George Georgilakis takes observation notes on tablet. Photo: Jon Silver, New Teacher Center

The educational landscape in the United States is shifting. As more politicians call for reform efforts that are proven to improve student outcomes, an awareness has emerged among policy makers and school district leaders that a focus on new teachers represents powerful leverage for increasing teacher, and teaching, quality throughout the system.

The theory of change is simple. Research is clear that new teachers, because of their lack of experience and underdeveloped skills, are the least likely to help students achieve their academic potential. Yet school districts, especially in urban settings with high levels of attrition, have disproportionately large numbers of new teachers. By supporting new teachers and raising their level of effectiveness early in their careers, school districts can dramatically improve student outcomes across the board.

Instructionally intensive, high-quality mentoring programs have risen to the surface as a promising strategy to support new teacher development. The goal is to provide novice teachers with the tools they need to become excellent teachers. The underlying philosophy is that when new teachers don’t achieve at high levels, it is not because they aren’t trying hard enough nor because they don’t care about the kids. Rather, it’s that they don’t yet have the skills or knowledge to provide the deep, complex level of instruction that will engage, motivate, and inspire their students to succeed.

The evidence is still in its nascent stages. But a number of indicators suggest that when instructionally intensive mentoring programs are implemented well, when mentors help new teachers develop their skills in reaching the hearts and minds of the students in their classrooms, new teachers want to remain in the classroom longer and are better able to help children, especially the most underserved kids, succeed at levels that defy expectations.

However, not all mentoring programs are built alike. The types of programs that have a meaningful impact on a new teacher’s practice look much different from the traditional “buddy systems” or “mentor lite” programs that provide moral and logistical support alone. Although these programs have a place in making new teachers feel emotionally supported, they do little to build the capacity of the new teacher to impact the outcomes of kids. An instructionally focused program of support is needed if mentors are to impact new teacher behaviors and practice in meaningful ways that will eventually lead to better opportunities for students.

Defining High-Quality Mentoring

The following overview outlines the principles underlying the components of high-quality mentoring, based on the experience of the New Teacher Center (NTC) in working with a range of districts. They can be applied in any school or district context, regardless of size, location, governance structure, or partnership support.

Principle 1: Recruit, Select, Train, and Support Highly Skilled Mentors

Much as the classroom teacher has been shown to be the single most important ingredient in student learning, the mentor is the most critical element in an effective mentoring program. If a mentoring program is to succeed, its first priority must be to ensure that it has identified and selected the most talented mentors to work with new teachers. The second priority is to build the capacity of those mentors so that they can be effective in their roles.

Mentor Recruitment. Like teacher recruitment, mentor recruitment is a key step in building effective programs. There are two paths to excellence in recruitment. The first is to include all high-level stakeholders (those who make, or influence, critical decisions about teaching and learning) in a highly visible communication campaign that underscores the value and rigor of the new mentoring program. This high-level support builds support for the program, raises the prestige of the mentor position, and helps to secure a large, high-quality pool of applicants. Building the cachet associated with becoming a rigorously selected mentor is critical, especially when programs are getting off the ground. The second path is to engage in a personalized effort to identify those who would make extraordinary mentor candidates and then woo these individuals through any means necessary. Many effective programs engage in both approaches simultaneously.

Mentor Selection. Once a high-quality pool of applicants has been secured, programs must conduct a rigorous selection process. Many traditional selection routines identify and assign mentors based on who has time available to meet with the new teacher, who has the most seniority in the contract, or who has the closest relationship with the principal. These practices are logistically easy for school and district administrators, but they have the potential to perpetuate poor or mediocre teaching practice. A rigorous selection process prioritizes the attributes of a high-quality mentor over ease of schedule, contract provisions, or perks to specific teachers (see sidebar “Mentor Selection Criteria”). Mentor Selection Criteria

Although school districts may consider a host of attributes when searching for high-quality mentors, selection criteria should at least include the following:

• Evidence of outstanding teaching practice
• Strong interpersonal skills
• Experience with adult learners
• At least five years of teaching experience
• Respect of peers
• Current knowledge of curriculum and professional development
• History of advocacy leading to change
• Commitment to lifelong learning

A rigorous program also ensures that the process for selection is transparent, uses rubrics to standardize selection, and involves multiple key stakeholders, such as mentor program leaders, site and district administrators, union or teacher organization leaders, veteran teacher leaders, former or current mentors, university clinical and tenured faculty, and district leaders.

Professional Development of Mentors. Once hired, mentors must be trained in the art of guiding new teachers through their first years on the job. Without in-depth professional development, many mentors will revert to the “tell them what I know” strategy. This approach might feel nice for the mentor, who can impart some of the knowledge accrued over many years in schools, but it is not effective in building the capacity of the teacher to improve. Teachers improve most when their learning is self-directed, tailored to meet their own individual needs, and based on real-time data from their own instructional efforts.

Ongoing Support and Evaluation. It is essential that teacher leaders come together weekly or every other week with facilitators (program leaders) who can help them deepen their understanding of this important work, collectively review data on new teachers, share best practices, and hone their mentoring skills. Program leaders must also understand what high-quality mentoring interactions look like and must have the time to devote to shadowing, providing clear feedback based on data, and developing formal structures for evaluation.

Principle 2: Sanction and Reinforce Time for Meaningful Mentoring Interactions

Finding and developing effective mentors are critical elements of successful mentoring programs. However, if school officials do not provide the conditions that support meaningful interactions between mentors and new teachers, mentors cannot achieve the goal of moving teacher practice forward.

Full or Substantial Release Time for Mentors. In some programs, meetings between mentors and new teachers occur occasionally or whenever the mentor and teacher are available. Both parties are often so busy with their own responsibilities that meeting time becomes a low priority. Even when some release time is provided, mentors are occasionally asked to take on other last-minute responsibilities (such as covering classes, proctoring exams, serving lunch duty, and doing paperwork), and the time for mentoring gets whittled down. If mentors do not have time to get into new teachers’ classrooms to see their instructional practice in action, mentors’ feedback will be underinformed and significantly less meaningful. Mentors need regularly protected time to observe, reflect on, and discuss the teacher’s practice. NTC experience suggests that mentors and new teachers need between 1.5 and 2.5 hours per week for interactions, whether the mentoring model is full-time or part-time release.
Sanctioning this time is much easier in a full-time release model in which mentors have no more than fifteen new teachers and work in no more than four schools (see sidebar “Full-time vs. Part-time Release”) Full-Time vs. Part-time? District-based or School-based?

The New Teacher Center (NTC) believes that when mentors are released full time and selected and deployed from a central or district-based office, several benefits accrue:

Mentor Selection and Capacity to Select. District leaders can be trained to use a common protocol for mentor selection. They are well positioned to recruit the most exceptional educators in the system and can ensure that the mentors selected have reached a common standard of excellence.

On the other hand, principals have no shared selection criteria nor a common protocol. Understandably, when asked to identify mentors, many principals choose teachers based on who expresses interest, has corresponding prep times with new teachers, or has the most seniority. Schools with the greatest number of beginning teachers are statistically less likely to have a sufficiently large pool of talented veteran teachers to draw on.

Sanctioned Time. In a full-release, central-deployment model, program leaders can ensure that mentors spend 100 percent of their time focused on mentoring. Because they report to a central office administrator and are not based at only one school site, mentors are less likely to be tapped to take on additional duties that may arise at a site.

In school-based programs, however, mentors with release time may be pulled off task to address last-minute school needs, such as covering classes for an absent teacher, making copies for meetings, proctoring exams, and addressing student behavior issues.

In school-based programs where mentors do not have any release time, mentoring interactions must occur before or after school or during common prep times. Thus, conversations about practice between mentors and beginning teachers take place without data of practice that can highlight critical next steps.

Confidentiality. In the NTC model the relationship between mentors and new teachers is confidential. This practice encourages new teachers to talk openly about their instructional challenges without fear of the information being used against them in their evaluations—or the faculty lounge.

In school-based models, new teachers are aware that mentors report to the principal directly and are fearful that being transparent about the challenges they face may come back to haunt them in future evaluations.

A Community of Practice for Mentors. In a central-deployment model, mentors belong to a community where they receive intensive training, ongoing professional development, and inquiry-based learning about their practice with a cohort of other mentors. In a school-based model, mentors (like teachers) are often isolated in their work and have less access to community building among their mentor peers.

Mentor Learning Curve. Mentors who work all day, every day with beginning teachers are likely to build their skills and knowledge relatively quickly. In part-time models, the learning curve is much steeper.

Proponents of the school-based, part-time model, however, argue that the benefits of the school as the central point of services outstrip those of a central-deployment model.

Principal Choice in Selection and Investment in the Program. Most principals go to great lengths to select the faculty and staff in their schools. When the central office hires a pool of mentors and deploys them to schools, principals may feel that it undermines their ability to develop an effective team that is aligned with their goals.

School Change. In the central-deployment model, some principals feel that mentors are outside consultants who don’t have a sense of the school’s ethos or priorities. Mentors coming from an external source focus on change at the level of the individual teacher, and it may take time for change to filter out to support changes at the school level.

Informal and On-Demand Support. Because most full-time mentors work in multiple schools, they schedule weekly meetings with new teachers. If a teacher needs extra support, the mentor generally must provide it via phone or e-mail. In contrast, because school-housed mentors are on-site, they are available at all times of the day and can provide informal or in-time support when crises or urgent situations arise.

Integrated Support with the School. In schools that provide multilayered support to new teachers, mentoring can take on a new approach. Teachers can get classroom management support from one mentor, instructional guidance from another, planning support from yet another, and content expertise from someone in their department. New teachers benefit from regular collaborative meetings with grade-level and subject-alike teachers that focus on substantive discussion about how to move students forward, providing added layers of support that yield gains in the quality of instructional practice.

Multiyear Mentoring. If the goal is to improve teacher practice and consequent student achievement, mentoring should be intensive and ongoing (for at least two years). One-year mentoring programs can provide the initial support first-year teachers need to survive but are not sufficient to help teachers reach optimal effectiveness. There is general consensus that most deep learning about instruction (through mentoring) occurs during the second and third years of teaching.

Principle 3: Focus Interactions on Classroom and Student Data

There is a significant and important difference between traditional mentoring and rigorous instructional mentoring. In the former, teachers may receive moral and logistical support that might feel good in the moment but by itself is not sufficient for improving teaching practice. Examples might be a mentor leaving a gift in the new teacher’s mailbox or popping in during prep time every now and again to say, “You are doing a great job, Jane. Keep it up!” Without specific instructional feedback, mentoring might boost spirits for the short term, but it will not impact student learning.

Instructional mentoring ensures that all interactions are grounded in evidence and critical dialogues about instruction. Although a strong, trusting relationship is an essential component of an effective mentoring relationship, the focus of high-quality programs remains on advancing the beginning teacher’s classroom practice. Mentors who are trained to draw upon professional teaching standards, formative assessments, and appropriate content-area standards focus their support on long-term instructional growth as well as concrete next steps to help new teachers improve their teaching.

An example from an instructional mentoring program might show a mentor coming into the classroom and suggesting to the new teacher, “Let’s look at your student assessment data and talk about what strategies will help you address the concern you had about reaching your struggling English language learners.”

Principle 4: Engage Stakeholders and Align Mentoring with Instructional Initiatives

If mentoring programs lack strong partnerships and alignment across the system, beginning teachers may receive mixed messages from various support providers and may feel overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated. Strong communication and collaboration among stakeholders—including school and district administrators, school board members, union or association leadership, community groups, universities, and professional partners—create a culture of commitment to new teacher support and ensure success across the board.

In particular, teacher mentoring represents an opportunity and crossover issue for teacher unions. Although many traditional union ideologies focus on bread-and-butter issues such as salary, benefits, and working conditions, some more progressive associations and unions also are interested in focusing on educational issues that impact student achievement. Because teacher mentoring is closely associated with retention and badly needed support for new teachers, and because high-quality programs ultimately yield stronger student outcomes, unions can become leading advocates for comprehensive mentoring. Programs in districts that contain teacher unions and organizations increase their leverage, and likely improve their outcomes, when deep partnerships are created. Union involvement increases program ownership by new and veteran teachers, improves the quality of implementation, reinforces educator professionalism, and heightens respect for teacher leadership—all critical elements of an effective program.

Principle 5: Collect, Analyze, and Communicate Program Data

Even the most effective mentoring program might not be sustainable if leaders cannot see and understand where the program is working, where improvements can be made, and what the bottom-line outcomes are. Just like mentors and teachers, program implementers should collect, analyze, and make decisions based on data. A wide range of data used to inform a cycle of continuous improvement can help programs assess teacher and mentor progress, identify programmatic obstacles, and explore refinements to program design and implementation.  Outcome data—information on trends in teacher retention, school movement, student achievement, and other metrics (such as teacher and student absences, student engagement, and so on)—are also critical for understanding a program’s impact and for making a strong case for the program’s continued existence and support.

Principle 6: Support Schools to Develop an Environment Where New Teachers Thrive

A wide range of policies and practices in the school and district influences the life of a new teacher: how teachers are recruited and hired, how they are placed in an assignment; how courseloads and student placements are determined; whether and how new teachers are oriented to the district, their schools, their colleagues, students, and the broader community; what resources are made available; and how teachers will be evaluated. Strong mentoring programs work with schools, teacher associations and unions, and cross-district leadership to consider the broader new teacher experience.

Interpreting and Applying the Principles

The principles of high-quality mentoring provide a road map for districts to build or advance programs in ways that have the greatest likelihood of impacting teacher effectiveness and student outcomes. To be successful, such efforts require transforming education policies and structures that may have been in place for many years. They demand that members of the education community push back on the norms that characterized their own individual experiences in schools and rethink and reshape the critical strategies that matter for children: distribution of human resources, rigorous structures for educator learning, data-driven decision making, and infrastructure that builds the human capacity to succeed.

Ellen Moir is founder and executive director of the New Teacher Center. Dara Barlin is associate director of policy for the New Teacher Center. Jane Gless is associate director of the New Teacher Center. Jan Miles is northwest regional director at the New Teacher Center. This article is adapted from New Teacher Mentoring: Hopes and Promise for Improving Teacher Effectiveness (Harvard Education Press, 2009).

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