Formal Or Informal Mentoring

by Barry Sweeny

"Why do we need a formal mentoring program? We are professionals and we always help each other informally. That's a part of our job."
Perhaps you have heard similar comments from colleagues when discussing new teacher mentoring. Perhaps you have wondered about the need for a formal mentoring program yourself. Is establishing a formal mentoring program really a better way to support new staff? Take a few minutes to review what has been learned after three years of mentoring experiences. I think you will agree that a formal approach to mentoring often makes good sense.

Selecting an Approach
Decisions about the degree of formality in mentoring need to be based on the purpose that your mentor program targets. Some purposes will require a very formal set of mentor roles, training and expectations if the purpose is to be accomplished. Other purposes can be achieved without formal structures.

New, But Experienced Staff
If your basic purpose is to help new staff become acclimated to their new roles and work setting then an informal approach to mentoring may be sufficient. You can usually rely on the good judgement of the faculty to provide needed orientation to new employees on:
  • Access to resources
  • Making social connections with the staff
  • Orientation to the building and community, and,
  • School procedures This type of help is most likely to be available in schools where there is a team structure or where the principal has clear expectations for a supportive response from staff. Such an informal approach to mentoring is often most appropriate for new staff hired with experience from other school districts.

    Beginning Educators
    My experience and research have convinced me that beginning staff (with no previous experience) will not find the level of assistance they need for success in an informal atmosphere. Beginning educators have far too much to learn in a very short time period. They go into the new job expecting to learn a lot, but most are suddenly overwhelmed with the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities they must carry and with the necessity to learn it fast and demonstrate mastery now.

    Beginning teachers, as a result, often internalize their struggles and begin to feel that they may never master the job or be able to endure high levels of stress for a long time. Like a child who blames himself for a parent's divorce, unsupported beginning teachers begin to question their own adequacy and choice of career. The assurances that "it will get better" are not reassuring.

    If your purpose for mentoring is to provide beginning staff with the support they need to gain self confidence, to provide models of effective practice, or to provide in-depth assistance in curriculum, then a more formal approach to mentoring will become a necessity. There is a mountain of evidence that "traditional" informal mentoring does not meet as much as 60% of beginning teacher professional growth needs.

    Intentional or Accidental?
    Whether it is formally planned or the informal response of helpful professionals, a major result of mentoring is the passing of organizational values and beliefs from one "generation" of teachers to the next. Typically, informal mentoring does not establish collaboration as the norm, but merely transmits the current culture of the school, the status quo. If this were not true then schools would have changed to more collaborative, supportive cultures long ago. Developing organizations must find ways to be intentional about what values and cultural norms are passed to new staff. Carrying out such intentions will require a formal approach to mentoring.

    If you have decided that a purpose for your mentoring program is to cause changes in the culture of your system, you are probably looking to transform teacher roles, to creating more collaborative relationships, or to establishing new norms for continual professional learning. Such organizational norms and relationships will only evolve in schools when teachers have extended opportunities to practice and refine the skills of collaboration. Formal mentoring is the natural tool to accomplish this purpose.

    Other Problems
    Relying on the veterans within a faculty to provide informal mentoring sets you up for a series of problems which cannot be solved except through more formal mentoring. Consider these as additional reasons to establish a formal approach in mentoring for new staff.

    1. If you don't know who is mentoring whom how can you provide on-going support or training for the mentors? How would you know what kinds of support are needed and when offering such support is appropriate?

    2. If you don't know the extent to which a person is being mentored how will you know which new staff members may need additional assistance? How will you know the appropriate kinds of assistance to provide? Research suggests that new staff members may not ask administrators for help.

    3. If you do not know who is fulfilling a mentor role, how can you provide recognition to the mentor?

    Each organization that conducts mentoring places itself somewhere along a continuum from informal to formal in its approach. The decision about the degree of formality to use is usually based on the level of commitment the organization is willing to bring to the program and on the benefits that the organization expects to capture through the program. If you are clear about your mentoring program's purpose you should be able to select the degree of commitment and formality required to gain the benefits expected.