Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Teaching at the Boundary of Acceptable Practice: What Is a New Teacher Mentor to Do?

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Teaching at the Boundary of Acceptable Practice: What Is a New Teacher Mentor to Do?

Article excerpt

INTRODUCING THE PROBLEM

The statistics are daunting; an estimated 2.5 million new teachers will be needed over the next 10 years to fill our nation's classrooms (Villani, 2002). Although many of these newcomers will arrive sufficiently prepared and ready for the enormous task of teaching other's children, some will not. Each year, in schools everywhere, a subset of new teachers struggles in their daily efforts to maintain a classroom learning environment, understand the complexity of their subject matter, plan for appropriate instruction, and make sound professional decisions. By year's end, a number of these newcomers will decide voluntarily to leave the profession; others may be placed on assistance plans. Either way, learning will have been compromised for the children in those classrooms. As stated in the influential National Commission for Teaching and America's Future (NCTAF) (1996) report, What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future, "The problem of teacher incompetence represents a tiny fraction of the overall teaching force, but in each case where it is left unaddressed, it undermines public confidence and harms hundreds of students" (p. 100).

In response to an impending teacher shortage, rising rates of attrition, and a growing commitment to retain our most promising new teachers, mentoring programs at the state and local levels have been on the rise for the past two decades (Fideler & Haselkorn, 1999; Huling-Austin, 1990). Although individual programs vary significantly in their organization, a commitment to new teacher support remains central to them all (American Federation of Teachers, 2001). Mentors are looked to as coaches, guides, teachers, and cheerleaders. Their tasks include helping novices prepare for their first year, locating and adapting instructional materials, deciphering standards, and assessing student learning. Their mission is to retain and develop quality new teachers. Less clear is how mentors actually do this, particularly when the novice struggles to teach well.

In our zeal to ensure that new teachers are well supported in their early years, policy makers and educators overlook the fact that not all beginning teaching is good teaching. Every novice enters the profession with things to learn, as even the best preparation program cannot fully prepare new teachers for the demands and responsibilities they will face their first years in the classroom (Bartell, 1995). Although there is growing recognition that well-prepared and supported mentors can influence, shape, and challenge beginning teachers' practice in educative ways (e.g., Norman & Feiman-Nemser, 2002; Schwille & Wolf, 1995; Yusko, 2001), too many induction programs are narrowly focused on providing short-term support for immediate problems rather than on ongoing commitment to teacher development (Feiman-Nemser, 2000). What happens when people come to teaching without adequate subject matter knowledge, when they are unable to control a group of children safely, or when fixed beliefs about students and/or teaching interfere with their willingness to teach all students fairly? More important, what responsibility does a mentor have for addressing these concerns?

The literature on new teacher induction and mentoring continues to be dominated by a discourse of support (Gold, 1996; Huling-Austin, 1990). Certainly, new teachers, as beginners and learners, are in a vulnerable position with many pressing needs. For mentors working with new teachers, the lure of providing technical and emotional support can be especially seductive (Anctil, 1991). Understandably, it will always be easier for mentors to help rearrange seating charts than confront inequitable teaching practices. To compensate for this strong impulse to avoid difficult problems and offer "feel-good" support, mentors need deliberate tools and strategies to foster new teacher development, training in their use, and the authority to act. …

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