The multiple roles of mentors 

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In an urban teacher residency program at Teachers College, mentors play three interconnected roles: teacher, field-based teacher educator, and learner. 

 

I think it’s good to share the successes but also to share the failures and own them so the resident sees that you, too, fail at things, that you have to rethink and assess your practice constantly. It’s an ongoing process. It also shows the resident that being a teacher is a learning experience and that you’ve been there; it models to them what you did when similar things happened to you. That makes you more accessible as a mentor, instead of hoping the resident is always seeing the best in you.  

— Kelsey, mentor 2010-11, 2011-12 

The best strategy I’ve used is talking out my thinking and planning process. Logically, I think that’s the only way for my resident to understand how to think about things like objectives and how to assess student learning effectively. I’ve used this successfully because my resident has been able to emulate my thinking and process. The challenge is knowing exactly when to take a step back and let her develop her own thinking, while acknowledging that it sometimes is tempting to step away from “thinking out loud” before the resident is truly ready to be on her own.  

— Elijah, mentor 2011-12, 2012-13 

 

Kelsey and Elijah have both served as mentor teachers for the Teaching Residents at Teachers College (TR@TC) program. This 18-month graduate-level program prepares teachers for high-needs schools in New York City in two areas: teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) and teaching students with disabilities. As part of this program, student teachers, called teaching residents, spend a full academic year working with a carefully selected mentor teacher.  

The mentor teacher acts as more than simply a host teacher who provides a place for residents to practice, stepping back to allow them to demonstrate their ability to teach. Instead, like Kelsey and Elijah, they take on the role of field-based teacher educators and engage with residents in deep thinking around teaching and learning. Coplanning and coteaching, as adapted from the work of St. Cloud University, are integral to the process (Bacharach & Heck, 2012). 

The research behind our approach 

We began developing TR@TC in December 2009; the first cohort began the summer before the 2010-11 school year. As we created the program, we looked at different approaches to mentoring that could best support this yearlong teaching residency and that positioned mentor teachers as field-based teacher educators. Achinstein and Athanases’s (2006) understanding of mentoring provided a foundation for developing our mentoring component. They refer to “mentors in the making” to connote that being a good mentor is not necessarily an inherent skill, that good mentors are “developed through conscious, deliberate, ongoing learning” (p. 3). We don’t assume that good teachers will, by default, become good mentors; instead, we draw on Achinstein and Athanases’s careful unpacking of ways that mentors can develop the skills and knowledge they need to support residents to become quality novice teachers. Some of these ways include developing “the ability to examine student work carefully” and learning to “gauge novices’ knowledge of their students” (p. 25-26). Such skills enable mentor teachers “to prompt [student teachers’] reflection on individual students and to guide teacher growth toward student learning” (p. 27). 

We’ve also been guided by Feiman-Nemser’s (2001) notion of educative mentoring, focusing on how mentors create experiences that promote learning for teaching residents. She differentiates this approach to mentoring from those that focus on emotional support or situational adjustment. Although mentors who adopt an educative mentoring stance do attend to those aspects, they simultaneously maintain a larger vision of teaching that includes supporting new teachers as they inquire and reflect. Feiman-Nemser’s research sheds light on specific practices mentor teachers can engage in to support novices’ deeper understandings of teaching and learning. These practices include probing novices’ thinking and encouraging them to explain what they do or helping beginning teachers make meaningful connections between theory and practice (p. 22, 24).   

With this research in mind, we adopted a mentoring stance that emphasizes the three interconnected roles of mentor teachers — as teachers of K-12 students, as field-based teacher educators, and as learners themselves. This approach to mentoring is an intentional aspect of our work.  

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A focus on educative mentoring  

As we formulated our ideas about mentor teachers as field-based teacher educators, we began by creating a set of standards for mentoring and designing a yearlong professional development curriculum specifically for mentors. Our standards drew on multiple sources: the theoretical literature, existing standards for new teacher mentoring, and various state mentoring standards. The standards we developed fall in three areas: resident learning, K-12 student learning, and professional commitments (such as to equity and social justice) (see Figure 1). They form the basis for biannual self-assessments, providing mentor teachers with a space to reflect on their practice. These assessments along with feedback that mentors provide help us better tailor our professional development to mentors’ needs and concerns. 

We’ve incorporated the mentoring standards into our curriculum. Yearlong professional development brings mentors together in learning communities where they are able — both individually and collectively — to think about their role as mentors and about the development of the residents with whom they work. Mentor professional development has consistently included an orientation, after-school meetings, and a year-end retreat. However, over time we’ve enhanced the program to better support mentors in their role of field-based teacher educators. Figure 2 shows some of those enhancements on the right. 

One key change involved restructuring the monthly community meetings from one meeting of all the mentors in one location to three smaller meetings spread throughout the city. This shift of structure and location meant less travel, supported increased attendance, and enabled mentors to participate more actively. Smaller meetings also provided additional space for conversation and encouraged the development of relationships among mentors who taught at nearby schools. In addition, we added two full-day retreats for mentors and their teaching residents, which enabled them to work on specific aspects of coteaching, including developing a positive relationship, improving classroom practice, and analyzing student work. 

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Lessons learned 

As we enter our sixth year as a teacher residency, we offer several lessons learned.  

Mentors need guidance on how to best teach adults.  

Despite our attempts to support mentors in connecting learning opportunities in the classroom with the professional development needs of their teaching resident, mentor teachers continue to ask us for a guide that tells them where residents should be at specific points throughout the year. This surprised us because in their work with K-12 students, mentors work as responsive teachers who focus on facilitating learning that meets student needs.  

As mentors of adults, however, the teachers want more explicit instruction around how to give their residents greater responsibility throughout the year. They often focus on discrete tasks, such as leading a “do-now,” without considering what residents know about leading such a task, about the reason behind doing it, or about how it fits into the larger unit of instruction. This may be part of the developmental process of learning to mentor; as mentors have more practice in mentoring, they become more comfortable understanding their residents’ development as teachers and may be less inclined to need concrete guidelines.  

What we’ve learned is that we need to work further with mentors, not only around seeing residents as adult learners but also on what the process of learning to teach entails. Residents learn through constructing their own knowledge and understandings; simply telling them to do something, such as checking for understanding, doesn’t mean they’ll enact or understand it. For this reason, we’ve expanded the professional development curriculum to include such topics as strategies to support professional talk, scaffolding, and feedback that fosters adult learning.  

Mentors have begun to engage with these topics in their monthly community meetings They work together to consider how they can assess their residents’ level of understanding of different pedagogical skills and approaches and then create opportunities to further residents’ growth. We also plan to include activities on the topic of what it means to learn to teach, based on both the mentor teachers’ experience and the literature on learning to teach. One activity we’ve used is having mentor teachers bring in cases or stories from their own practice that then become the content for discussions about learning to teach. Our hope is to increase mentors’ understanding of how to support the teaching residents in their development, based on an individual resident’s current practice and understanding, not on a template of where they think residents should be at a certain point in time. 

Working with general education teachers broadens perspectives.  

All the mentor teachers in our program work in either special education or with English language learners, and more than half of them do so in co-teaching contexts in which they share a classroom with a general education teacher. We’ve come to realize the importance of viewing the general education teacher as a mentor as well — someone with whom our residents interact daily and who implicitly or explicitly presents a perspective of what it means to teach.  

As a result, we’ve learned the value of including general education teachers in our selection of co-teachers, as well as in our planning and professional development. When we invite general education coteachers to participate in professional development opportunities with the mentor teacher and resident, they actively participate in and benefit from the opportunity. In addition, they respond positively to being included in conversations about how to support residents in their growth, as well as how to develop their own teacher leadership skills as mentors.  

Partnership schools play an important role in supporting this work. 

When we think about site selection and recruiting mentor teachers, it’s important to consider not only the mentor teacher and his or her possible coteacher but also the school as a whole, knowing that residents will interact regularly with a range of professionals. We must identify school cultures that recognize the benefits of developing beginning teachers and that define themselves as a team of educators working together for all their students, including those with disabilities and English language learners. 

As we work toward a model of school recruitment, as opposed to individual mentor recruitment, we need to ensure that we have buy-in from the administration and the faculty as a whole and that the school has practices and structures that support mentors’ work. This includes released time for mentors, common planning time for team-teaching pairs, and a sense of community support for the residents.  

Positioning mentors as experts enriches the program as a whole. 

Although we’ve always embraced a stance of mentors as experts, over time we’ve learned a greater range of practices that truly demonstrate this stance. For example, we invite mentors with specific areas of expertise to conduct professional development for other mentor teachers and for teaching residents. This has included leading breakout sessions during a retreat on coplanning and coteaching, as well as facilitating modules on a range of topics, such as instructional objectives, differentiation, coteaching strategies, and core-curriculum alignment.  

Identifying mentor teachers as experts not only involves opportunities to develop and carry out professional development for other mentors or residents but also opportunities to participate in developing the program itself. One of the TR@TC instructors regularly attends mentor community meetings to hear feedback from mentors about the needs of the residents and how she might address these needs in the student teaching seminar that all residents attend. Using mentors’ input as practicing teachers to inform the residents’ curriculum highlights the value we place on mentors’ knowledge and practice. Next we’re planning to invite mentor teachers to teach mini lessons during the student teaching seminar, based on their areas of expertise. 

Mentor community meetings also draw from mentors’ expertise. Although a program facilitator develops an agenda based on TR@TC objectives and mentor teacher input, the facilitator encourages and expects mentors to support one another and suggest solutions to mentoring dilemmas that arise instead of acting as the sole provider of solutions. 

Mentors maintain a larger vision of teaching that includes supporting new teachers as they inquire and reflect. 

Moving forward 

Our work with mentor teachers highlights a double need. First, we must reconceptualize the role of cooperating teachers as field-based teacher educators and provide the professional development and support necessary for this role. Second, we need to work more broadly within schools to leverage partnerships and shared expertise. Rather than “cooperating” with the university by opening up their school doors, we always aim to work with mentors as a community network of field-based teacher educators who play a crucial role in new teachers’ developing practice. We see mentor teachers as experts who should be treated as such. We also see them as learners who are developing their knowledge and practice as mentors and teacher leaders while engaging with K-12 students. 

We’re continually learning how to best prepare mentors for this type of role, identifying partnership schools that support this model of mentoring and teacher preparation. The more we engage in this work, the more we recognize how important these kinds of partnerships are — especially as the field of teacher preparation moves toward longer and more intensive clinical experiences for preservice teachers.  

It’s not enough to spend more time in a K-12 classroom with cooperating teachers who take a step back. Instead, we must ask: What’s happening in those classrooms? How are cooperating teachers who are mentors and field-based experts using that time to create meaningful learning opportunities for novice teachers who are developing their craft? Just as teacher preparation programs work with preservice teachers to develop their teaching practice, these programs must work with mentor teachers to develop their mentoring practice.

References 

Achinstein, B. & Athanases, S.Z. (2006). Mentors’ knowledge of formative assessment: Guiding new teachers to look closely at individual students. In B. Achinstein & S.Z. Athanases (eds.), Mentors in the making: Developing new leaders for new teachers (pp. 23-37). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 

Bacharach, N. & Heck, T.W. (2012). Voices from the field: Multiple perspectives on a co-teaching in student teaching model. Educational Renaissance, 1 (1). 

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). Helping novices learn to teach: Lessons from an exemplary support teacher. Journal of Teacher Education, 52 (1), 17-30. 

 

Citation: Sanchez, S. Roegman, R., & Goodwin, A.L. (2016). R&&D: The multiple roles of mentors. Phi Delta Kappan, 98 (2), 66-71. 

 

R&D appears in each issue of Kappan with the assistance of the Deans Alliance, which is composed of the deans of the education schools/colleges at the following universities: George Washington University, Harvard University, Michigan State University, Northwestern University, Stanford University, Teachers College Columbia University, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Los Angeles, University of Colorado, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Wisconsin. 

 

SABRINA R. SANCHEZ is the former codirector of Teaching Residents at Teachers College at Columbia University, New York, N.Y.
RACHEL ROEGMAN (Roegman@illinois.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. 
A. LIN GOODWIN (alg25@tc.columbia.edu) is a professor of education and vice dean at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, N.Y.

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