Mentoring for Quality Improvement: A Case Study of a Mentor Teacher in the Reform Process

Article excerpt

Abstract. As qualified teachers are central to children receiving a high-quality preschool education, many policy initiatives aimed at improving program quality are thwarted when insufficient attention is paid to the professional development of the workforce. One response to this issue has been to create teacher leadership roles so that teachers mentor colleagues through the process of translating policies into practices. This article reports on a case study of one such mentor teacher involved in helping child care teachers implement the High/Scope curriculum. Employing qualitative and quantitative methods, the mentor teacher was found to engage in 14 different activities within the categories of technical assistance, professional development, leadership, district-related work, and other. Despite utilizing skills identified as central to effective mentoring and teacher learning, the mentor teacher found it difficult to assist some teachers because of a lack of expertise, inappropriate training, and multiple job demands. This article argues that these issues, while not new, take on a different meaning when considered in relation to the aims of mentoring roles in early childhood policy efforts when, as often occurs, classroom teachers have more experience than their mentors.

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Catalyzed by the research evidence that a high-quality early education can ameliorate the effects of disadvantage and produce ongoing benefits for children and society as a whole (Barnett, 1998), preschool is one of the fastest growing sectors of public education. Central to any efforts to improve the education young children receive in their local communities is a qualified teaching workforce (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2001). An extensive research base demonstrates that teachers with higher levels of education and specialized training are more likely to be sensitive to their students, facilitate their language and cognitive development, and work with children in developmentally appropriate ways (Dwyer, Chait, & McKee, 2000; Helburn, 1995; Whitebook, 2003). Despite the research evidence, however, policymakers intent on implementing quality preschool programs face several barriers to recruiting and retaining qualified teachers.

The first of these barriers is the lack of qualifications held by many early childhood teachers already in the workforce. Although kindergarten teachers are required to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree (Kaye, 2001), most preschool teachers have little more than a high school diploma and are not required to have much training in early childhood education (Azer, LeMoine, Morgan, Clifford, & Crawford, 2002). Compounding this issue further are the inadequate wages and conditions that characterize the work of teaching young children. Minimal salaries are commonplace and the field has a "higher concentration of poverty-level jobs than almost any other occupation in the United States" (Laverty, Siepak, Burton, Whitebook, & Bellm, 2002, p. 3). These inadequate conditions are manifested in a staff turnover that averages around one-third each year (Saluja, Early, & Clifford, 2002), and that offers few incentives for teachers to enter the profession, let alone undertake professional development opportunities. Thus, policymakers intent on ensuring that all children benefit from a quality early educational experience face a unique set of challenges. Without qualified teachers with specialized knowledge and expertise in early education, it is not possible to ensure that quality will be created or maintained at the classroom level; however, getting qualified teachers to enter and remain in the field is almost impossible because of the poor working conditions.

One response to these challenges has been the creation of mentoring programs and the leadership role of mentor or master teacher. Mentors are exemplary teachers who use their extensive experience and understandings of early childhood education to facilitate the professional development of less experienced and skilled peers (Whitebook & Bellm, 1996). …