Formal and informal mentoring can complement one another and expand support for beginning teachers.
With the first year of a teacher’s career often described in terms like “trial by fire” and “sink or swim,” it is no wonder that a teacher’s first year now generally includes some form of induction experience. The foundation of teacher induction is typically formal mentoring, where the school, district, or state assigns a mentor to a new teacher (Smith & Ingersoll, 2004). As mentoring has been linked to improved teaching, teacher retention, and student achievement, ensuring strong formal mentoring to support beginning teachers is essential (Ingersoll & Strong, 2011).
Efforts to improve formal mentoring have involved identifying aspects of mentors and mentoring that seem to matter most. For instance, having a mentor who has experience with the same subject area, grade level, and school community — what is commonly referred to as mentor-mentee match (Hobson et al., 2009) — is a boon for a beginning teacher because mentors who share common ground with beginning teachers should be able to address teachers’ needs more effectively. Research on teachers’ professional development suggests prioritizing formal mentoring activities that are grounded in teachers’ instruction and instructional content. Another frequent recommendation is engaging teachers in more active forms of learning, such as planning lessons and analyzing student work with their mentors, in contrast to more passive forms of learning, such as sharing materials (Desimone et al., 2002; Garet et al., 2001).
But teachers also seek and receive support, advice, and guidance from others who aren’t specifically assigned to take teachers under their wing. These informal mentors are distinct from formal mentors because teachers choose them for themselves. Any efforts to strengthen formal mentoring — or new teacher supports more generally — would benefit from a clearer understanding of who informal mentors are, how teachers engage with them, and the functions they serve for teachers who are just beginning their careers. For instance, do teachers choose informal mentors to compensate for qualities, characteristics, or perspectives they find lacking in their formally assigned mentors? Are informal mentors more often serving the role of the “shoulder to cry on” — providing support that is more social-emotional in nature — and formal mentors more often supporting the development of instruction? Answers to questions like these are vital for improving support systems for beginning teachers.
What we studied
We examined survey and interview data from 57 middle school mathematics teachers in 11 eastern U.S. school districts that varied in size, geography, and racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of students. These teachers, who began their careers in 2007 through 2009, were participants in a five-year, longitudinal study of beginning teachers’ induction, mentoring, and professional development, supported by the National Science Foundation. Data allowing for comparisons of characteristics and quality of formal and informal mentors, and frequency and duration of formal and informal mentoring interactions, come from surveys administered to teachers in December and again in May of their first school year. Teachers also participated in extensive, structured one-on-one interviews at their school sites in October or November and again in May or June of the same school year. We used transcripts of these interviews to learn more about the challenges facing teachers in their first year and the kinds of assistance they received from formal and informal mentors, as well as to identify factors that may have led to differences between teachers’ formal and informal mentoring. The 57 teachers we studied had at least one formal mentor, although 32 teachers had more than one. (In some locations, teacher induction policies require the assignment of multiple mentors.) Fifty-one teachers had at least one informal mentor, but teachers identified as many as six. In all cases, teachers determined if their mentors were formally assigned or informal.
What we learned
Formal and informal mentors look similar on paper. Previous research suggests that for mentors to be effective, they should have a number of important characteristics. These include having expertise in the mentee’s content area, being familiar with the school and its students, being located in the same school as the new teacher, and having time to meet with the mentee teacher during the school day. We found that formal and informal mentors were similar in both their location relative to the teacher and their availability. (Most teachers had a formal and an informal mentor in the same school and with time to meet during the school day.) However, formal mentors were more likely to have math teaching experience, which research indicates may be especially important in supporting beginning math teachers.
Formal and informal mentors tend to complement, rather than compensate for, one another. Teachers generally spent more time with informal mentors than with formal ones, but formal and informal mentoring occurred around similar topics, and the way time was distributed was roughly equivalent across both formal and informal mentors. About half of teachers’ mentoring addressed issues pertaining directly to instructional content and activities — like analyzing students’ math work and planning and pacing instruction — with the remainder divided among topics like behavior management, administrative expectations, relationships with parents, and the provision of emotional support. In addition, teachers’ impressions of the quality of their mentors, including their knowledge of teaching and of mathematics and their skill as a mentor, did not suggest that teachers found formal mentors to be any more or less effective than informal ones. In actuality, teachers tended to regard both formal and informal mentors and the mentoring they provided quite positively, appreciating almost any support, regardless of its source.
Formal mentoring is more systematic, whereas informal mentoring is more “in the moment.”
Formal mentoring is more systematic, whereas informal mentoring is more “in the moment.” One major difference between formal and informal mentoring concerns the opportunity for teachers to be observed by and receive feedback from a mentor regarding their instruction. Teachers appreciated feedback from mentors who observed them teaching — they saw the feedback as “more personal” and “more detailed about what [they] do well, what [they] can work on.” Often, observation and feedback were required components of formal programs, whereas informal mentors rarely, if ever, observed their mentees. Observation and feedback is but one distinction indicating that the functions of formal and informal mentors can be a bit different, in ways that teachers appreciate. Teachers noted that formal mentors tended to follow more structured and predictable forms of interaction, with feedback sometimes centered around specific standards of practice, whereas informal mentors’ support was less systematic. In contrast to formal mentoring, teachers described informal mentors’ support as more “in the moment,” as when beginning teachers sought assistance with the logistics of a particular lesson, with problematic student behaviors, or with understanding administrative requirements.
Above all, the research underscores that beginning teachers appreciate and benefit from support from both informal and formal mentors. Our work suggests several considerations for school leaders and other mentoring and induction program facilitators as they seek to improve support activities.
Focus on a hybrid mentoring approach. Teachers appreciate both formal and informal mentoring that addresses their needs, and schools should aim to embrace both approaches as part of a wraparound system for inducting new teachers. Schools and districts can work to define more carefully the specific roles of formal mentors and to train formal mentors to assume these roles, while also building a culture of support among teaching staff in which more experienced colleagues are available to help new teachers succeed. Opportunities for regular collaboration may help break down barriers.
Designate a mentor coordinator. Having someone monitor how teachers’ needs are and are not being met through a combination of the teachers’ formal mentoring as well as their more organic collegial relationships — and making introductions or suggesting particular activities to fill any gaps — would maximize the benefits of mentoring. This mentor coordinator need not be a separate position; a principal, instructional coach, or teacher leader might assume this role (Desimone et al., 2014).
Make formal mentoring about improving instruction. Formal mentors, particularly when trained specifically for the role and recruited based on their effectiveness as teachers, are apt to provide meaningful feedback on teachers’ instruction. However, their ability to do so depends on having sufficient time to observe teachers as they teach and to engage with teachers about these observations. Focusing on instruction does not necessarily mean that formal mentors couldn’t also be a “shoulder to cry on” — a common conceptualization of the mentor’s role; however, making the provision of personal or emotional support the formal mentor’s primary objective may interfere with efforts to improve teachers’ skills and confidence related to their teaching.
Give teachers time to interact. Apart from time for structured activities with formal mentors — ideally including an expectation of observation of and feedback on instruction — teachers need time for personal interactions and collaboration with colleagues.
Successfully integrating formal and informal mentoring will depend on having structures in place to provide common time for mentoring interactions to occur during the school day.
Desimone, L.M., Hochberg, E.D., Porter, A.C., Polikoff, M.S., Schwartz, R., & Johnson, L.J. (2014). Formal and informal mentoring: Complementary, compensatory, or consistent? Journal of Teacher Education, 65 (2), 88-110.
Desimone, L.M., Porter, A.C., Garet, M., Yoon, K., & Birman, B. (2002). Effects of professional development on teachers’ instruction: Results from a three-year study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24 (2), 81-112.
Garet, M., Porter, A., Desimone, L., Birman, B., & Yoon, K. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Analysis of a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38 (4), 915-945.
Hobson, A.J., Ashby, P., Malderez, A., & Tomlinson, P.D. (2009). Mentoring beginning teachers: What we know and what we don’t. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25 (1), 207-216.
Ingersoll, R.M. & Strong, M. (2011). The impact of induction and mentoring programs for beginning teachers: A critical review of the research. Review of Educational Research, 81 (2), 201-233.
Smith, T.M. & Ingersoll, R.M. (2004). What are the effects of induction and mentoring on beginning teacher turnover? American Educational Research Journal, 41 (3), 681-714.
CITATION: Hochberg, E.D., Desimone, L.M., Porter, A.C., Polikoff, M.S., Schwawrtz, R., & Johnson, L.J. (2015). A hybrid approach benefits beginning teachers. Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (8), 70-72.