New And Renewed:
A Powerful Mentoring Combination In Ohio
by Gay Fawcett
"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 s
imilar 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.
- "Mentoring is about the human mind. It is about helping that young professional become the best pedagogical mind that is around" (Dr. Richard Hawthorne, Kent State University).
- Over 100 experienced teachers considered this statement as they began preparing to mentor new teachers through the Summit County Mentor-Entry Year Program. Now in its fourth year (as of 1992) , the program is funded through a grant from the Ohio Department of Education. Two major goals guide the program:
- (1) Assisting the entry-year teacher, and
- (2) facilitating professional growth for the mentor and entry-year teacher.
In order to meet the first goal, mentors attend a three-day summer training where they study issues such as the adult learner, trust-building, coaching, and conferencing. Prior to the first day of school, triads of mentors, entry-year teachers, and building administrators attend an orientation breakfast to discuss how they can work together to assist the new teacher. The program is unique in that the training is conducted by mentors previously trained in the program. Mentors and their entry-year teachers then meet for two days of interaction, one in September and one in December. In those sessions they discuss issues such as discipline, parent conferencing, and professional growth. Additional time is provided at the local level for teams to work together.
In order to meet the second program goal, professional growth of the mentor and entry-year teacher, funding is provided for participants during any year of the program to attend staff development and inservice meetings. Funds can also be used to support programs which mentors conduct in their districts. In addition, all trained mentors are provided with a subscription to MLRN's newsletter, "The Mentoring Resource."
The response of both mentors and entry-year teachers has been extremely positive. After completing the training, one mentor said, "The sense of renewal I felt was exciting and exhilarating! I'm excited all over again about teaching, and I can't wait to help someone who is new at it!" The renewed helping the new--what a powerful combination!
The author, Gay Fawcett, is the Coordinator of the Mentor-Entry Year Program at the Summit County Public Schools, Akron, Ohio.
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,
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.
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.
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.