Realizing the Full Potential of Mentoring

by Barry Sweeny

The Lessons Learned in One District
Mentoring seems to be an idea whose time has come. In 1988 when a committee of teachers, administrators and staff developers at Wheaton-Warrenville District 200 began looking at mentoring for their staff, it was a part of a larger effort to promote a more professional environment for teaching and learning. The committee selected mentoring as an initiative that could challenge traditional roles, relationships and organizational structures within the schools.

The group found that many mentoring programs have been emerging in school districts all over the country. Close examination of those programs and of the literature on mentoring revealed a wide variety of approaches, purposes and outcomes. A year of research and collaboration (1988-89) resulted in the following analysis which has guided the District 200 Mentor Program ever since. Perhaps this analysis can assist you if you are thinking about mentoring or if you are looking for a way to restructure professional roles and relationships in your district.

Some approaches to mentoring use mentors in induction programs to help new staff with orientation as they begin a career. This orientation can take two basic approaches.
1. One approach is defined as orientation to the school, district, community, the faculty, the job responsibilities, the principal's expectations, and the school's traditions and culture. Orientation to these is an essential mentoring purpose and helps dramatically, to reduce the stress of the tranisition to a new career and setting.
2. Another approach is defined as orientation to the curriculum. In this approach a mentor works with the novice teacher all through the semester or year so that the purposes, resources, and strategies for teaching each unit are understood and used successfully. Once the new teacher has been oriented to the curriculum, the new teacher is "on their own".
Experience and research shows that orientation for both purposes is a goal which mentoring can achieve quite readily and very effectively because the orientation is individualized.

Training Follow up & Support:
Other mentoring programs function as a follow-up to training where mentors demonstrate and coach staff on a model of effective instruction such as the Hunter "seven steps" model. This is a very effective use of mentoring as it provides support for the adaptation and practice with feed back so needed to take a teaching strategy from the workshop to the workplace. While such follow-up support and modeling IS a powerful staff development tool, we would urge you to look beyond these roles to discover some additional possibilities for your mentoring program.

As you consider what purpose your mentor program should serve, take the time to consider "What is the greatest potential benefit of mentoring?" and "How can we capture that benefit for our staff?". As the mentor program coordinator in District 200, Barry Sweeny described induction to the profession and the teaching of effective instruction models as very worthy, but short-sighted goals. The problem, he says, is that mentoring for induction or mentoring which is only based on a model of "best instructional practice" often focus exclusively on organizational goals and end up ignoring individual needs and much of what we know about effective professional development. A more "professional approach" to mentoring can go beyond the typical induction experience and beyond providing an instructional model, and can have a powerful impact on the growth of the individuals, and through them, on the school culture and teacher collaboration within that school.

Expanding our Definition of Purpose
The current reform movement exists because educators are interested in more than models of effective instruction. This is so because the culture of a school can "squelch" and individual teacher's efforts to improve. Our effort now is directed at creating a more professional culture in schools where staff are continually learning on the job, where collaboration and openness to feedback are the norm, and where organizational structures facilitate growth for adults as well as children. Particularly for districts that are hiring alot of new staff, creating a more professional culture is an achievable outcome of a more professional approach to mentoring.

A more professional model of mentoring would include mentors who can model the continual struggle to keep learning on the job and to be their personal best. This approach is more inclusive than "best practice" models of mentoring in which selection of mentors would screen out those who are "not good enough". Not only is that approach less of a professional development opportunity for staff, but it does not promote collaboration and it risks creating the appearance of elitism and the potential of a negative backlash from staff who seek closer, more collegial relationships and less isolation.

In a professional approach to mentoring the mentor's growth is as important a goal as the growth of the new employee. The mentor's development takes place in the open so that it may serve as a model that we all need to keep learning. Establishing close mentor-protege relationships creates the safety necessary for both persons to risk learning and growing along side of each other. Training is needed to facilitate building that kind of mentoring relationship. Mentors also need to understand that working with adults requires new skills which are not learned in most classrooms, so training and on-going support of mentors becomes even more critical.

Since growth for both mentor and protege is the goal, the differences between the mentor and protege increase the opportunities to learn as well as the need to learn to value and use that diversity as a strength. Training and on-going support are crucial in this developmental process as well.

Sweeny describes that mentoring in District 200 uses a combination of induction, effective instruction, AND the modeling of continual professional growth. This approach has begun to change the culture of the school because it promotes increased professional sharing and collaboration, qualities which are very appealing to teachers. The increase in mentors from seven in the pilot year, to thirty-four in the second year and fifty-one in the third year, was an indication of the positive response of the staff to this professional approach. The comments of mentors and their proteges reveal the impact that mentoring is having in the Wheaton-Warrenville Schools.

(Mentor) "The Mentor Program allows us to make full use of our greatest resources, the professionals who work with the children every day. This is exciting because through mentoring I can make a difference with another adult who will effect thousands of children."

(Mentor) "Formal mentoring is necessary so we can refine our skills through collaboration with our peers. I'm excited about that because I've been looking for something like this for a long time."

(Protege) "My mentor saved me. I don't know how I could have made it without her. I find it easier to believe in myself and to try new things because she believes in me. Because of that, I have come to believe more in myself!"

(Mentor) " Besides all that we have been learning and doing together, I am most excited about a realization we came to just the other day that I wanted to share with you. We were debriefing a coaching conference we had just completed and were talking about how much we have learned that applies to our teaching of our students. At that point we both understood what you meant in the mentoring training when you said "Good mentoring IS good teaching". We get it! What we are learning through mentoring is how to be effective mentors of the kids we teach."

(Protege) "I'm so pleased that my mentor has accepted me as a teammate. We have gotten so close because we work on almost everything together. I have learned so much from her and yet, she has helped me to feel so independent and responsible. I can't beieve how fast I have grown."

(Mentor) "Learning and using the mentoring process has helped me to understand that mentoring is so much more than what I thought. Even though I have grown tremendously, I see that there is much more to learn about how to do our job well. I appreciate the support I receive as I learn and develop my skills."