This feature is the first of a series of pieces from NIET that will focus on mentorship for new teachers. This fall, 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.
New teachers consistently say that students' academic success is the most important aspect of their job ... but as anyone who starts a new job knows, being successful in a new environment can be challenging even for experienced professionals. Navigating the day-to-day culture of a new school is important and takes time to learn, and that can be stressful for new teachers who are still mastering their curriculum and instructional methods.
For example, when is it appropriate to call for support for a discipline issue, or how much classroom time can be used to work through a conflict when students return from recess? If a classroom observation reveals several areas for improvement, which priorities are most critical and where can new teachers go for support?
High levels of new teacher turnover demonstrate the need for greater support in the early years of teaching. Recent reports also point to the growing number of inexperienced teachers in the profession, with the typical teacher being in their first three years of teaching[i].
Educators and policymakers have recognized this challenge and responded with state policies and funding to encourage and support mentoring for new teachers. In 2018, approximately 39% of teachers in their first five years of teaching had an assigned mentor.[ii] While this is a step in the right direction, too many of these programs operate as little more than a "buddy system" where mentors' roles are informal, with little training or compensation, minimal if any release time, and a lack of clear expectations or direction. Despite rising numbers of new teachers being assigned a mentor, retention rates for new teachers remain persistently low.
It is no surprise that mentors who have the skills, training, and time to offer consistent and high-quality support are more effective, but many districts struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers as mentors or create the time needed to be successful. Districts also have not prioritized adequate or consistent resources – including funding, support, and release time – to make this work successful even when it is stated as a priority. While there are reasons to support mentorship as a right approach, more is needed to strengthen mentor programs to make them beneficial for both new teachers and the mentors themselves. We studied districts in Louisiana and Texas that made significant changes to their mentor programs through new state-level funding and training for mentoring, and found the following three actions were essential first steps:
Step 1: Establish a clear purpose for mentoring: improving teaching and learning.
A 2010 survey of new teachers in three states found that although 78% of new teachers were assigned mentors, only a little over half of those teachers reported having at least three conversations with their mentor, and only 41% were observed teaching at least once by their mentor. To be effective in supporting new teachers to improve, both the mentor and mentee must understand the role of mentor is to help improve instructional practice, and mentors need training to build their capacity to successfully coach and support adults.
There is no quick fix or ‘wow' PD that makes a new teacher effective overnight. It requires a long-term strategic plan.Shawn Hayes, Director of Teacher Development, Jefferson Parish Schools, Louisiana
Jefferson Parish Schools in Louisiana is a case in point. The largest district in Louisiana, Jefferson Parish hires hundreds of new teachers from traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs every year. For example, in the summer of 2018, the district hired almost 700 new teachers, and about half were first-year teachers. Supporting these new teachers to be effective as rapidly as possible is a top priority. Jefferson Parish prioritizes great classroom teaching by hiring, growing, and keeping the best teachers, as well as providing them with support to use a high-quality curriculum. This approach is foundational to the district's vision for creating a culture of access, equity, and opportunity that supports every student to succeed.
"There is no quick fix or 'wow' PD that makes a new teacher effective overnight," said Shawn Hayes, district director of teacher development. "It requires a long-term strategic plan." Jefferson Parish had a mentor program but struggled to fill the mentor positions. "We just couldn't get people to take the role. We decided to create 90 Teacher Leader Fellow positions focused on instructional improvement and provided intensive training and support for the role. Ninety-nine percent of that cohort of teacher leaders was retained into the next year. Principals started to see the impact of the coaching and mentoring that teacher leaders provided. In two years, we doubled that number."
Step 2: Invest in mentoring through funding, time, training, and the use of an evidence-based instructional rubric.
While Louisiana and Texas are investing state funds in stipends and high-quality training for mentors, districts must build on this foundation to ensure mentors have time and support to provide classroom coaching and create collaborative learning opportunities for new teachers. Following initial training, mentors need continued opportunities to strengthen their skills in providing feedback on classroom practices and supporting new teachers in developing and executing strong lessons through coaching cycles that extend over the course of the year. A research-based instructional rubric provides a framework mentors and mentees can use to create a path toward growth and ensure they are on the same page in defining effective teaching practices.
Rhea Blanchard, an eighth grade English language arts teacher and mentor at Assumption Parish Schools in Louisiana, explained how the mentoring program in her district has changed. "We now have a clear vision of how to go about helping these new teachers," she said. "From the initial process of observing and developing a coaching plan, meeting with the teachers, setting goals, working on what needs to be improved, and then starting over again with a new cycle, the goal is to help the new teacher to be successful, and ultimately, it needs to show up as student achievement."
I have done a better job mentoring because I have guidance and criteria. I have set myself goals for where I want to be with my mentees at different points in the year and how to move onto the next phase. It gives us something to reach for.Chris Mueller, High School Math Teacher and Mentor, Elgin ISD, Texas
Mentors cited the specific mentoring process they learned through training as key to helping them better focus on supporting new teachers' instruction. They described the training as giving them a guide for how to work with their mentees over the course of the year. "With the new training and support this year, it has given guidance and a framework for my work as a mentor,” said Chris Mueller, a high school math teacher and mentor in Elgin ISD in Texas. "In the years past, if you're thinking of it in a teacher sense, I have been going in blind with no lesson plans. I feel like now I have done a better job mentoring because I have guidance and criteria. I have set myself goals for where I want to be with my mentees at different points in the year and how to move onto the next phase. It gives us something to reach for."
Step 3: Create a clear job description, define compensation for mentors, and select the right people for the job.
When we asked district leaders to describe the type of teacher who makes an effective mentor, two characteristics stood out: 1. experience and success in supporting student learning in their own classroom, and 2. a desire to grow professionally and work with other adults. Jennifer Campbell of Algiers Charter Schools in New Orleans described looking for teachers who are "thirsty for new learning and want to grow by deepening their expertise and knowledge of curriculum as well as leadership."
Selecting, training, and compensating mentors signals the priority and importance of the work and makes being a mentor an attractive role for effective teachers. It also empowers mentors by providing them with a clear understanding of their role and the authority to carry it out. "Identifying strong teachers and building their leadership and coaching skills is only part of the solution," researcher Jonathan Supovitz writes. "Without empowering teacher leaders with more authority to exert influence on their colleagues to engage in instructional reform, efforts to leverage teacher leadership for school improvement will continue to fall short of their potential."[iii] By creating a clear job description, expectations, and compensation for the role of mentor, districts can help to provide mentors with the skills and authority to influence new teacher practice.
At Jefferson Parish, redesigning the mentor role fits into their overall work to elevate teachers and teacher leaders. "We have to make the job of teacher more attractive and rewarding, and part of that is making sure new teachers are not isolated, that they feel part of a family. Our district culture is built around growth and improvement, and this means new teachers are supported when they try something new and it doesn't work out as planned,” Hayes said. “We create consistency by training and supporting our teacher and school leaders. Everybody gets support. Our attitude is that everyone needs a mentor."
Most school districts have some version of a mentoring program in place but, in too many cases, mentoring is not given the leadership attention, funding, training, or time to be successful. By focusing on instructional improvement and providing the time, training and compensation for the role, districts can strengthen mentors as instructional coaches and partners in navigating the many challenges of being a new teacher. Integrating the position of mentor into a larger structure of support at the school and district level, and building the capacity of mentors, have made this role far more attractive and effective. State support for districts through funding for mentor stipends and high-quality mentor training is enabling districts to elevate and improve the quality of mentoring provided to new teachers, and that can be a catalyst for further action and initiative at the district and school level. As a result, both first-year teachers and their mentors strengthen their skills as educators, which means their schools and students ultimately benefit.
[i] Ingersoll, Richard M.; Merrill, Elizabeth; Stuckey, Daniel; and Collins, Gregory. (2018). Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force – Updated October 2018. CPRE Research Reports.
Retrieved from https://repository.upenn.edu/cpre_researchreports/108
[ii] OECD (2019), TALIS 2018 Results (Volume I): Teachers and School Leaders as Lifelong Learners, TALIS, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://www.oecd.org/education/talis/TALIS2018_CN_USA.pdf
[iii] Supovitz, J. (2017). “Teacher leaders’ work with peers in a quasi-formal teacher leadership model.” School Leadership & Management, 1-37.