By: Dr. Thomas Smith, Professor, University of California, Riverside
As detailed in the recently released NIET report Why New Teacher Mentoring Falls Short, and How to Fix It, beginning teachers need a strong mentor – someone who they can go to when they are struggling, but who can also help them improve their instruction. My own research on organizational efforts to improve new teachers' math instruction (Smith et. al., 2018) found that one of the biggest challenges to providing high-quality mentoring is time, both for mentors and mentees to meet together but also to allow the mentor to regularly observe and provide feedback on their mentee's instruction. Another challenge is getting the right mentor/mentee fit – one that will lead to openness, trust, and the kinds of support that will help the new teacher succeed. In some of our work in large urban districts, instructional leaders found it challenging to identify mentors or coaches who not only effectively teach to the standards themselves but who also have the skills to help another adult do the same (Cobb et. al., 2018; Wilhelm et. al., 2016).
In addition to sufficient time and a positive mentor/mentee match, another challenge is proximity or access. While large urban schools may be able to find effective mentors for beginning teachers in the same school teaching the same grade or subject, smaller schools, often in more rural districts, may struggle to find a good match. One upside of the remote learning that most schools turned to over the last year is that both incoming beginning teachers and their mentors are much more familiar with Zoom/Google Classroom/Microsoft Teams or other video communications technologies. These technologies can allow for effective mentor/mentee matches across longer distances, for example, with mentees filming their own classroom instruction and then watching it with their mentor over the Internet – even if separated by hundreds of miles.
When administrators make support for new leaders a priority and lead by example, new teachers and their mentors are better supported to be successful. That tends to result in more direct success for students and teachers alike – our ultimate goal.Dr. Thomas Smith, Professor, University of California, Riverside
Beginning teachers also need supportive administrators. Study after study shows that good leadership reduces the likelihood of teacher turnover. But this is about more than just the relationship that a beginning teacher has with their principal or assistant principal, as illustrated in research on administrators' direct and indirect influence on teacher turnover (Redding et. al., 2019). An effective principal sets the context for beginning teachers to succeed: they put the beginner on a strong and supportive team; connect them with teachers who they can go to for advice – about lesson planning, effectively leading a discussion, or managing disciplinary issues. They expertly balance the need for teacher autonomy with the need for kids to learn. They establish a climate where it is expected that all students can learn with the right forms of scaffolding, teachers are free (or expected) to innovate, and everyone working at the school feels like they are making a positive contribution to student learning.
The steps to improving mentoring start by targeting these challenges and designing mentorship to work for all educators: the new teacher, their mentor, and the broader school faculty. When administrators make support for new leaders a priority and lead by example, new teachers and their mentors are better supported to be successful. And that tends to result in more direct success for students and teachers alike – our ultimate goal.
Cobb, P, Jackson, K, Henrick, E. C., Smith, T.M. and the MIST Team. 2018. Systems for Instructional Improvement: Creating Coherence from the Classroom to the District Office. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Redding, C., Booker, L., Smith, T. M., & Desimone, L.M. 2019. School Administrators' Direct and Indirect Influences on Middle School Math Teachers' Turnover. Journal of Educational Administration. Vol. 57 No. 6, 708-730. https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-10-2018-0190
Smith, T. M., Booker L.N., Hochberg, E., & Desimone, L. M. 2018. Do Organizational Supports for Math Instruction Improve the Quality of Beginning Teachers' Instruction? Teachers College Record 120(7) 1-46.
Wilhelm, A. G, Chen, I., Smith, T. M., Frank, K. A. 2016. Selecting Expertise in Context: Middle School Mathematics Teachers' Selection of New Sources of Instructional Advice. American Education Research Journal 53(3) 456-491.