Mentoring teachers is a practice that is viewed as a favorable strategy for preparing novice teachers for their new roles in education. Pairing a veteran teacher with one just beginning a teaching career will reap benefits for the new teacher. Additionally, mentoring represents a career opportunity for teachers with years of professional experience behind them.
For the new teacher, having a mentor means removing fear of the unknown from the teaching equation. It can be an abrupt and frightening event to go fresh into the classroom as a brand new teacher, just certified, without the benefit of compassionate assistance from a more experienced fellow teacher. In addition to helping new teachers get over the hump of their early days in the profession, mentoring has the potential of being a vehicle for teaching best-teaching practices.
In the United States, mentoring teachers became a popular strategy during the 1980s with its aim of improving education. Educational leaders and those charged with creating educational policy thought that mentoring might reform teacher education as well as the teaching profession. At the time, many new teachers left the profession during their first three years of hands-on teaching. Policymakers were concerned about this rate of attrition and thought it made sense to offer novice teachers support during that crucial first year of teaching. As of 1999, 30 states had made onsite mentorship mandatory for new teachers.
The idea broadened to include mentorship of teachers at the preservice level. It became de rigueur for veteran teachers to serve as models to novices in order to help them learn new teaching methods and to help them acclimate to professional norms. Schools formed partnerships with universities for this purpose, toward the vision of offering professional development for teacher candidates and their mentors.
There has been some question about the form that mentorship should take. Most educators feel that mentors should only assist teachers and not be called upon to assess them. It is believed that if the mentor is not charged with evaluating his or her student teachers, the novice will feel more comfortable asking for help or seeking advice about thorny teaching issues.
However, the various mentorship programs have not enumerated any unified course of action in this regard. Some programs use teams of educators in the mentoring process in which teachers offer support while principals or professors evaluate the novice's performance for the purpose of gaining employment or receiving certification. Other programs leave both the assistance and the assessment up to the mentor, believing that this approach speaks to the mentor teacher's accountability and professionalism. Each of these different tacks for resolving the issue of assistance versus assessment has its own merits and demerits for the profession as a whole and for teachers, novices, states and teaching districts.
Another issue is found in formalizing the mentoring relationship as a program. The relationship between mentor and student is very personal. This begs the question of whether mentors should be assigned or chosen. Some feel that a close working relationship means the novice will gain more from the mentoring experience. Others feel that a novice should be able to learn from any teacher deemed appropriate as a mentor.
A third important issue involves time. Some mentoring programs hire teachers who have retired from active teaching. Other programs relieve mentors from some or even all of their classroom duties for the duration of the mentorship. Still other programs expect that mentors will manage a full-time teaching schedule plus the burdens of mentorship.
The various arrangements for mentoring raise the question of what mentoring is meant to do and express. Employing retired teachers shows them they are valued -- that they still have a contribution to make to the profession and to society. Accommodating mentors who must combine teaching with mentoring shows compassion and flexibility as well as concern for the mentor's classroom pupils. If the mentor must carry a full teaching schedule in addition to mentoring, does this not place too great a demand on mentors personally and professionally? Does the work/mentorship combination detract from a teacher's ability to provide appropriate education to his or her students?
Then too, the different mentoring arrangements offer varied situations in which mentors can apply and hone their skills. Almost all mentoring programs offer some type of training or orientation. The topics that may be covered in the training period include adult learning theory, concerns of novice teachers, the latest pedagogical research and clinical supervision.
Mentoring programs sometimes offer opportunities for mentors to explore their own thoughts on learning how to teach. This offers experienced teachers a chance to share the practical knowledge they've accumulated in their years of teaching. Training takes place before a mentor begins to work with a novice teacher. However, it is also valuable to offer mentors an opportunity to discuss problems and questions that come up during the course of the mentoring relationship.