How to Help New Teachers This Fall? Support Teacher Mentors.

September 2, 2021

How to Help New Teachers This Fall? Support Teacher Mentors.

This feature is the second in a series from NIET that focuses on mentorship for new teachers. On Sept. 9, NIET will publish a new report about effective teacher mentorship programs and strategies that states, districts, and schools can adopt to better support new teachers to be successful and stay in the profession longer-term.

Most new teachers are overwhelmed and less effective in their first years in the classroom, and as a result many decide to leave the profession. This turnover contributes to teacher shortages, particularly in hard-to-staff positions and in high-need schools.

This is not a new problem – it is one of the central challenges that school districts and education leaders have been trying to solve for decades. More encouragingly, there is evidence that shows new teachers can more rapidly improve their practice … if they have the right support. [1]

What can district and school leaders do to provide targeted, effective support for new teachers right now? High-quality mentoring – which includes job-embedded instructional coaching – offers one powerful solution for helping new teachers be successful and keep them in the profession. In our first feature, Three Critical Steps for Strengthening New Teacher Mentoring, we described the importance of focusing a mentor program on instructional improvement by establishing clear, instructionally focused goals; carving out time for mentors to observe new teachers' classrooms; selecting the right people; and providing compensation for the role. These foundational components are key to build a mentorship program that works.

From there, mentors need to be supported, equipped, and valued as coaches and guides. Here are four ways that mentors can take their support to the next level and districts can equip mentors to be successful:

1. Start by establishing a growth mindset.

Mentor programs must be focused on improving new teachers' instructional practice and supporting them to be self-reflective. By receiving feedback and coaching that is strengths-oriented and focused on continuous improvement, new teachers may feel more encouraged as they start. Instead of feeling demoralized, they see that all educators are refining and growing their skillset. 

There are tools to guide mentors and mentees toward a vision of strong instructional practice, and districts should consider what resources they can provide to help mentors drive growth in their mentees. For example, districtwide use of teaching standards or an instructional rubric provides new teachers with a clear and detailed understanding of what strong instruction looks like across a range of strategies, such as questioning, grouping students, or using activities and materials. This level of detail creates a common language and enables new teachers to understand the specific practices that lead to student learning and how to grow along that spectrum. Additionally, it allows districts to better equip their mentors and collaborate across schools on common strategies and trends.

Her feedback was so purposeful. It wasn't just, ‘You did a great job.’ It was, ‘You did a great job on this, and let's work on this for next time.’
Hannah Smith, Teacher, Assumption Parish, Louisiana

A rubric also helps mentors to provide richer and more specific feedback to their mentees to further their growth. New teacher Hannah Smith in Assumption Parish, Louisiana, described the feedback she received from her mentor this year. "Her feedback was so purposeful," she said. "It wasn't just, "You did a great job.' It was, 'You did a great job on this, and let's work on this for next time.'"

An instructional rubric provides mentors with a tool to structure and sequence their support for teachers, setting clear goals and expectations over the course of the year and a roadmap for improvement. Building a plan for individual growth for each new teacher reinforces a school culture where everyone is a learner.

2. Ground mentoring in student outcomes, and equip mentors to be instructional coaches.

While new teachers need support using the copier, understanding the student information system, and managing their classroom, it is essential for mentors to focus on each new teacher's instruction and how that leads to various student outcomes. 

Instructional coaching may be a new skill for some mentor teachers and providing them with training and tools to keep their coaching student-centered is key. Through high-quality training, mentors learn to help new teachers develop a student-centered approach to instruction and focus on what each student needs to learn. In particular, focusing on student work grounds the mentor's feedback and coaching in student outcomes, which ultimately helps new teachers understand how changes in their instruction impact student learning.

3. Use a coaching cycle for continuous improvement, and take it one step at a time.

One common mistake mentors make is trying to fix everything at once through their feedback to a new teacher, who is then overwhelmed. A cycle of coaching lets mentors and mentees focus on one particular area for improvement and work on that before addressing the next one.

NIET supports mentors to use tools such as the Five Steps for Effective Learning to identify a student need, obtain new learning to address that need, develop and apply that learning in the classroom, and evaluate the impact on students. A dedicated and specific coaching cycle also addresses another common gap in instructional coaching: ensuring that follow-up occurs and that teachers understand the feedback. These conversations are key in helping new teachers understand where to prioritize their focus.

Districts need to ensure mentors are equipped to do this kind of coaching well and have the time and space to see where their mentee most needs to improve. Mentors may need support in understanding where to start and what the biggest levers are for improvement. "Coaching the coach" will make mentorship programs even more effective.

4. Create opportunities for mentors and mentees to work with their peers.

Although the work of mentoring is individualized, it should not be done in isolation. Working collaboratively with other mentors creates opportunities to share ideas, strategies, and resources. "'Stronger together' is real," said Krista Marx, the human capital coordinator in Elgin ISD in Texas. "When mentors are able to collaborate instead of having seven different mentors trying to find seven different examples of one thing, they are able to pool their resources and find the one best example and share with the group." Having the time to collaborate is critical for mentors to be able to think through the many challenges that come up over the course of the year and possible solutions.

‘Stronger together’ is real. When mentors are able to collaborate instead of having seven different mentors trying to find seven different examples of one thing, they are able to pool their resources and find the one best example and share with the group.
Krista Marx, Human Capital Coordinator, Elgin ISD, Texas

New teachers also benefit from collaborative opportunities, and districts can bring new teachers together as a group to address their unique needs, in addition to integrating new teachers into existing collaborative professional learning teams. Building that community will help mentors and mentees see that they are not alone and give them the chance to make connections with others who may have ideas and experiences that they can relate to.

We know we can help new teachers to be more effective, more quickly, and high-quality mentoring is one of the most impactful strategies. There couldn't be a more important time to improve support for new teachers than this year, given the academic, social, and emotional challenges facing students and their teachers and given the disruption new teachers have experienced in their training and preparation. By providing them with a mentor – and by equipping that mentor to be successful – teachers in their first year will likely have a more positive experience in the months ahead, which benefits both them and their students.

[1] Glazerman, S., Isenberg, E., Dolfin, S. "Impacts of Comprehensive Teacher Induction: Final Results from a Randomized Control Study." June 2010. Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. [Impacts of Comprehensive Teacher Induction: Final Results from a Randomized Controlled Study]

Read the first feature: Three Critical Steps for Strengthening New Teacher Mentoring