A Look Inside the Mentor Teacher Role

August 17, 2018

A Look Inside the Mentor Teacher Role

Lauren Moore of Goshen Community Schools, Indiana, navigates the best of both worlds: teacher leadership and classroom instruction

Making a difference in a student's life is the ultimate goal of any caring educator. Some affect that change by standing in front of a classroom of students, instructing and inspiring them. Others help those classroom teachers hone their craft—by integrating more rigorous uses of data into their assessments, for example. Many teachers are willing to take on more responsibilities as teacher leaders and make a larger impact, but don't want to leave the classroom. But what if someone could do both?

That's the idea behind the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching's mentor teacher role, which is embedded in the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement. Mentor teachers have their own classrooms as well as 3-5 hours of release time to work with other educators, both one-on-one and in larger staff professional learning sessions.

Features of the TAP mentor role:
Serves on the school leadership team, along with master teachers and administrators, who helps identify big-picture goals and develop strategies to reach them.
Acts as a conduit between the administrators/master teachers and the classroom teachers, helping to transfer the learning from professional development sessions to the classroom.
Is granted authority to observe a teacher's classroom, co-teach, conduct pre- and post-conferences, and evaluate teachers.
Is provided formal release time to carry out tasks

At Indiana's West Goshen Elementary School, winner of the 2018 TAP Founder's Award for excellent implementation of the TAP System and principles, Mentor Teacher Lauren Moore believes that leading her special education classroom gives her a depth of knowledge into how all students learn, which she uses to help other instructors accommodate student needs. According to Moore, key to effective partnerships are garnering buy-in and giving educators ownership of the strategies planned out in professional learning settings. She feels that the trust had been there from day one, given her role inside the classroom.

It's these characteristics that make mentor teachers strong support systems for classroom teachers. While many schools have mentor teacher roles, rarely are they formalized such as Moore's, with the authority and responsibility to drive instructional decision-making and foster continuous improvement. To share how these structures can be replicated, Moore recently lent her expertise to the prestigious and highly selective 2018 Carnegie Summit on the Improvement of Education. She and NIET Chief Policy Officer Kristan Van Hook were joined by other educators and national leaders.

"Classroom teachers are the experts. They're with the kids all day," says Moore, who became a mentor teacher at just 24 years old. She explains that at West Goshen, teacher leaders field-test new strategies with small sample groups of students. They then bring the results from their field testing back to broader staff development meetings. Master teacher Aimee Schade—who is released full-time to work with administrators and fellow faculty—and mentor teachers then take feedback from the classroom teachers and adjust the strategies accordingly based on what works best for the students. Only then, classroom teachers, armed with confidence and trust in the data, implement those strategies.

West Goshen has benefitted from the acute attention to the needs of students and teachers alike. Before TAP was implemented at West Goshen, the school was labeled a D on the state A-F scale. West Goshen went on to earn a state-designated A rating for the first time in 2016, which it maintained in2017. Similarly, West Goshen earned a value-added growth score of 5—the highest possible score on a 1-5 scale.

Goshen's hallways have become a free-flowing space, where mentor, master and classroom teachers are constantly in and out of classrooms, learning from and guiding each other along the way. The culture of the school was built on the trust of each other and trust in the system to unite the staff under a common vision.

According to Moore, the first step to creating a mutual understanding was adopting a clear description of strong teaching practice, using the TAP instructional rubric as a solid road map. Then the teachers were able to get on the same page about what good instruction looked like in the classroom. And from there, it was just about supporting the classroom teachers to execute and letting them take the wheel.

Principal Lori Line, who has had experience with TAP at the regional and state levels, regularly works with her mentor and master teachers to review schoolwide and individual goals. The support from the top enables mentor teachers like Moore to observe, provide detailed and consistent feedback, and support classroom teachers. She says, "This leadership team, and meeting with my master teacher Aimee Schade weekly, are designed to support me, so that I can go back and support teachers."

In addition to supporting a group of 6-8 teachers in weekly professional learning meetings, mentor teachers at West Goshen are matched up with individual classroom teachers. At the beginning of the year, the school's leadership team looks at classroom and observation data to figure out which teachers need more differentiated support. Then they decide which mentors to match up with which teachers based on those teachers' individual needs and the mentors' skillsets, availability and pre-existing relationships with the teachers. The system has fluidity built in, as some teacher coaches realize another would be better served to help a specific instructor. They are able to make that adjustment partway through the year.

During her release time, Moore can be found in the classroom of her trainee, Ryan Miller, helping to set individualized goals to keep students motivated through the end of the year, or conferencing with Schade about the next professional learning session. The system enables classroom teachers to experiment and understand the full gamut of good instruction. In those sessions, strategy is worked through more broadly, and then Moore will meet with Miller before or after the session so that they can hammer out the details of his individual classroom data sets.

Miller appreciates Moore's skills as both a special education instructor and mentor teacher. "It's a real gift to have that kind of teacher leadership," he says. "I can try things and we can be reflective together."

Besides meeting after professional learning sessions, mentor and master teachers meet with classroom teachers generally after observing their classrooms. This is when they drill down into the specifics of their instruction. To make sure that these post-conferences are as valuable as possible, West Goshen has focused on providing full-scale briefings to classroom observers like Moore in advance, so they’re thoroughly informed about what the instructors are doing in the classrooms before they go to observe them. The observers conduct walk-throughs to gather as much information and data about a teacher as possible before they go in for the official observation. "This really allows us to get to the heart of their teaching … and give applicable and valuable feedback," says Moore. These exchanges are exactly what continue to challenge Moore and motivate her to stay.

"I don’t know another way to teach other than the TAP rubric. It works for students and makes sense for kids," says Moore. "This is the way in which I teach and breathe. It becomes the way you teach as an educator. You want things to work for kids. That's what I’m going to keep doing. At the end of the day, that's what's important."

Read about West Goshen Elementary School’s TAP Founder’s Award and watch perspectives from the faculty in this video.