MLRN's Recent "Mentorings"
The Impact of Time and Place In Mentoring

By: Tom Ganser, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
Published in MLRN's "Mentorings" occasional paper in November, 1994

Mentoring programs for beginning professionals in schools continue to be prominent in the mid-1990s (Furtwengler, 1993). Programs vary greatly but regardless of structural differences, all mentoring programs depend on a special relationship between an experienced teacher and a beginning teacher (Bey & Holmes, 1992; Dollase, 1992).

Several factors are critical in the potential effectiveness of any mentoring relationship. Some factors are related to the "match" between beginner and mentor with respect to work assignment and philosophies while others are related to the preparation of mentors, and to incentives. Two simple factors, time and place, are every bit as important as any other factors in accounting for the relative success of mentoring.

Subjects and Data Collected

The subjects in this study include 13 mentor teachers, one mentor school counselor, 13 beginning teachers and two beginning librarians, who worked in three different school districts in a central state. Each subject was interviewed once with most interviews being taped and transcribed. Twenty-six interviews were tape-recorded and verbatim transcriptions were prepared. Three subjects preferred that their interviews not be tape-recorded and in these cases notes were taken. Transcriptions were read four times for emergent categories, following the principles of constant comparison and analytic induction (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). A computer program was used to facilitate the coding of data, and the sorting and retrieval of coded segments (Seidel, Kjolseth, & Seymour, 1988).

The Impact of Time

Among the subjects, effectiveness of mentoring is consistently linked to the beginners' accessibility to their mentors. There is more agreement on the need for mentors and beginners to spend time together than on any other feature of mentoring programs. For example, Subject M-13 says: I'd say the number one [feature of an effective mentoring program is] release time from my class, to spend with this other teacher. Because in my opinion the number one priority of this job is availability, and I like to make myself available on the spur of the moment. Because in your work, you don't always know ahead when you're going to need to ask a question. M-06 suggests another important element of shared time: regularity. She calls for "a designated time where the mentor and the protegé could get together on a designated regular basis and be given time to do that." M-11 also calls for "blocks of time," 50 or 60 minutes in length, that the mentor and beginner can spend together, rather than just a few minutes here and there.

The subjects who are beginners make similar observations. "I think it would be terribly frustrating in a high school were you never could see the person," comments B-01. B-08 says: I don't think you could have an effective mentorship program if you didn't have proximity and free time, those release times at the same time, because odds are both of you have a family. You know, a first year teacher's going to be working 'til midnight anyway. She doesn't have time to take after-hour hours to do that [meet with her mentor].

Interestingly, only B-06, among all the subjects, links the work experience of prospective mentors with having the time to mentor. She says, "I think three or so years of teaching under your belt would be (is) important, so that they have the job down well enough that they've got the time to do these extra things."

The subjects cite numerous examples of how the time between beginners and mentors is used and where it is found. In some cases, the time is simply described as "some time to sit down to talk" (M-07). B-03 also says that beginners and mentors need to meet before the beginning of the semester: It might be better if mentors and their mentees got together for a week or two before. I mean, it's almost as though you meet each other the day before school starts and they [mentors] are necessarily too busy to take care of you, I understand that. M-07 also emphasizes that there must be unstructured time for the beginner and mentor to get to know one another before the mentor considers "going into the classroom and observing, because you have to have that relationship."

Another type of time spent by mentors and beginners is planning time. This can come before the school year or semester begins, when, as M-11 notes, "the mentor and beginning teacher can get together to do such things as figure out how to set up a room." Time for planning can also come during the school day when the beginner and mentor plan class activities together.

In addition to time spent just talking or in planning, the subjects often refer to time spent in the classroom of one's partner. For instance, M-07 believes that providing mentors with a chance to meet with and observe beginners is the most critical feature of an effective mentoring program. She says, "I would like to see some formalized time set aside [to meet with a beginner]. I'd also like to have some time to go in the room and actually observe the teacher teaching, which I've never been really given." M-03 points to a mentor's need for time to analyze observation notes and to meet with the beginner in a post-observation conference. "I need another hour to convert those tallies to some type of summary," she notes, "and then probably another hour to talk to her about the things I've observed." Some subjects also emphasize a need for beginners to spend time observing their mentors or working with their mentor. B-08 notes that seeing a mentor in actual working situations is valuable for the beginner, but that this visibility also puts the mentor into a vulnerable position: The beginning teacher can see this. Some kid belts her [the mentor] one and she rolls with the punches, literally, or the principal chews her out for something, or a parent is irate, and that's where proximity is real important, too, because you can just see those things. Of course, it leaves the mentor teacher wide open for feeling like Zeus on the mountain.

Having or finding the time to make classroom visits and to engage in related activities, such as post-observation conferences, is an issue raised by several subjects. Primarily, the comments refer to provision of released time from regularly assigned duties. M-03 argues that the school system must "provide release time for the mentor teacher and the beginning teacher. The state wants the mentor to observe in the classroom, fine. When do you expect us to do it?" However, one subject also suggests that absence from the classroom to observe a beginner, even if a substitute is provided, may not be desirable for all mentors. "My class comes first," M-14 says, "and I was concerned about my class and I hate to have a substitute in there."

The subjects describe several different times during and outside of the school day when they meet with their partners. They often mention meeting during conference hours or lunch periods. For example, M-03 reports meeting with her protege during their shared conference hour: My beginning teacher and I--it was just an accident, it was not arranged--we did have the same conference hour, which was wonderful, and I've often wondered how we could have done what little we did get done if we didn't have that mutual conference hour. However, B-03 indicates that meeting with a mentor during a conference hour may not always be a good choice. She points to the importance of that time for the mentor's and beginner's own work: It would be nice if they [the administration] could give time, somehow, so mentors could meet with beginners off the other's schedule, because you can't expect them to give up their conference hour. So I have found how valuable conference hours can be. That hour a day is the only time to do everything and so I can see that they wouldn't want to give it up.

Several subjects mention common lunch periods as another opportunity to meet. This time is occasionally described as desirable, as when M-04 comments that "Rhonda and I have been fortunate in that we do share the same lunch period and talk openly about things." B-01 reports that "Our whole staff eats lunch at the same time, so we've got that, which is invaluable for getting anything."

However, some subjects do not favor lunch as a time to meet. In the first place, many report that lunch periods are often very brief, sometimes shorter than 20 minutes. More importantly, they suggest that the lunch period is the only time during the day when teachers can relax a little. M-03 comments that lunch was the time that her beginner "got to really relax and forget about school for a brief time," and M-08 says that she and her beginner "did have lunch together, but that's not a good time to discuss anything. Everybody's trying to find a break away from everything."

The comments of many subjects indicate that the lack of time for mentoring is often related to features of the structure of schools which are largely inflexible. Occasionally they report that some time is made available to them for mentoring activities. For example, M-13 says, "I try to be available at any time, but I would like to have some release time when I could work with this teacher. And my experience has been that all I have to do is mention this and I am given that time." Similarly, M-14 indicates that she is provided with time to engage in peer coaching with her beginner: When we did our peer coaching we were given a half day and I went in and observed her. Then we had a thirty minute time block when the two of us conferred. They provided us with that. We did that type of peer coaching two or three times a year. B-13 describes arrangements which allowed her to observe a librarian in another school, both in the library and in the classroom. She says, "I observed her teach four classes, and that was very beneficial. We came away with some ideas for management of a class of students in the library, and some lesson plan ideas that I thought were good."

The subjects describe meeting times for beginners and mentors during the day as occurring much more by chance than by intention. This is true, for example, in terms of shared conference hours or lunch periods. The subjects working in elementary schools point to other times when, by chance, beginners and mentors can be together. For example, M-01 describes meeting with her beginner during recess: "A lot of times we would see each other out on the playground at recess time, 10 or 15 minutes. You'd be out there and you could ask, 'Well, how's it going? You having any problems?'" Other times that beginners and mentors can get together include those times when specialists in physical education, music, or art take over classes. A few subjects report that in some schools beginners and mentors are able to meet during 30 minutes before and after the students' school day when teachers are required to be in the school.

In contrast, many subjects describe ways in which the structure of schools and of the school day prevents or greatly restricts the time when mentors and beginners can interact. For example, B-14 says, "With her [B-14's beginner] teaching 6th grade and me with kindergarten, we had absolutely no time, ever. I never saw her during a free time in the building."

Among the subjects who work in high schools, structural impediments are frequently cited which prevent beginners and mentors from meeting together. For example, commenting on the trying to arrange beginners' and mentors' work schedules so that they share the same conference hour, M-02 says, "It would be next to impossible to schedule them that way. It's a good idea in theory; in practice it would never work. There's just no way that we could ever work it out." B-10 notes that she was unable to meet with her mentor during the day because he taught in an entirely separate building on the school grounds and also because he made home visits during his conference hour. B-11, a vocational home economics teacher, points out the need for her (or her mentor) to go on grocery shopping trips during their conference hour. B-07 reports that her mentor was frequently out of the building in the afternoon, and that various music competitions would often involve her and her mentor after school until as late as eight o'clock at night. M-02 mentions the need to schedule "singleton" classes [i.e., the only section of a course to be offered] as contributing significantly to the problem of assigning beginners and mentors to common conference hours or lunch periods. Finally, B-15 believes that her mentor's responsibilities as a department chairperson limited the opportunities for them to get together. She says: My mentor was department chairman. She had numerous other responsibilities, in addition to being my mentor, and she basically just ran out of time, I think.

The subjects suggest that beginners and mentors often must scramble to meet with one another. For example, M-14 reports that most of the time she worked with beginners occurred after school, and M-08 says that her beginner "would come in before school and grab me." B-07 admits that she and her mentor were forced to "catch each other on the run," and B-10 says that she met with her mentor while attending meetings after school when "we were supposed to be doing things besides mentoring."

The Impact of Place

Closely related to the subjects' remarks about time shared between beginners and mentors are their comments about the physical proximity of beginner and mentor. Some subjects do not consider proximity as a critical feature of mentoring. B-09 points out, for example, that many elementary schools are so small that the physical distance between mentors and beginners is manageable. M-03 considers other factors, like a personality match between beginner and mentor, as much more important than proximity. B-01 remarks that, except in huge high schools, distance is not a problem. She says, "I think you could take a few extra steps and go out of your way." By and large, the subjects view shared time as being more important than proximity. For example, B-09 comments: I think if you had those common times, like a lunch hour or a conference hour, that would take care of that need [for the beginner to have contact with the mentor]. I don't think you have to be teaching next door to each other to have a successful program. Location becomes an increasingly important factor as the amount of common time shared by beginner and mentor diminishes, as M-01 notes: If you had the time you could meet, the proximity of the rooms wouldn't matter that much. But if you couldn't get a time to meet, then I think being close to each other, where you could maybe see each other either first thing in the morning or last of the day or something like that, would be fine.

However, other subjects consider proximity as an important feature of good mentoring programs. B-07 says that the nearness of her mentor in a room directly above her "was the only thing that saved us" and M-13 comments "It would be extremely difficult for me to be of any help to someone out on the other wing." In the view of B-03, physical proximity is the most important feature of an effective mentoring program. She notes: First, I think he or she [the mentor] should be physically close. My mentor is all the way over there, so he's not been in my room once. Mainly because we're busy and so he doesn't have time to truck around and neither do I, so I haven't seen him much. Some subjects, like M-06, look for a combination of shared time and physical proximity. She says, "It's kind of a combination of being given some regular time and being close by--that accessibility to get to you when you have a problem."

In general, many subjects emphasize the importance of proximity for the beginner in getting quick answers to questions and ready advice for dealing with pressing classroom situations. "There are lots of times while teaching in elementary school, where things come up at the last minute and you need an answer immediately," observes B-06. M-07 believes that such immediate accessibility is very important. She comments: There just needs to be somebody who's going to be around where they can grab that person and say, "Hey, by the way, such and such happened. What can I do? What should I have done? Is there something I can change quickly now before my decision is set in cement?" M-03 points out that even a short delay of thirty minutes in providing the beginner with information or advice can be costly. Similarly, M-06 notes that immediate assistance is often crucial: it would be in teaching or counseling, your mentor would be someone who was close by, so that when you have problems you don't have to wait 'til the next day, that you can get some help and assistance immediately. In a classroom situation, if Johnny's misbehaving, and you ask "What can I do about it? What's worked?--It's not going to help if it's two days down the road.

M-12 and B-11 suggest that locating beginners near mentors is important for yet another reason. M-12 predicts that the concern for safety in the classrooms of some schools requires that beginners be located very near to their mentors in order to minimize the time that they spend out of their classrooms. B-11 makes a similar case for schools in which classroom discipline may be a great concern.

Among the subjects, only M-10 and M-03 suggest that there may be a disadvantage in locating beginners very near to their mentors. In such a situation, M-10 observes that the beginner and the mentor "could get on each other's nerves, like husband and wife." On the other hand, M-03 says that beginners may feel uncomfortable and under scrutiny if their classrooms are located very near to their mentors' classrooms. She says: You want to give her [the beginner] some space. You don't want her to feel like that mentor is watching every move she makes. She's got to have a little freedom of her own. I could see where they wouldn't want to feel like they were being watched every single second, or that we hear through the walls, or to think, "Every time my class gets a little loud, they're hearing it."

As with the feature of shared time, the subjects stress that the physical proximity of beginner and mentor is related to the physical structure and organization of schools. The subjects working in elementary schools point out that classroom locations are generally determined by grade. As M-08 suggests, significant differences in the grade taught by the beginner and the grade taught by the mentor can also affect their proximity to one another. She says, "I hardly ever see the upper grade people because they're at the other end of the building. Had she [M-08's beginner] been an upper grade person, our schedules would not ever have crossed one another." M-04, separated from her beginner by a flight of stairs, reports that she sometimes communicates with her beginner by means of notes carried by a student. M-14 also admits that "moving" classrooms so that a beginner and a mentor might be near one another would be a difficult task and "no small process" because of "the tons of little bitty things you have to move." Likewise, the subjects working in secondary schools indicate that classroom location is usually based on department or content area. However, this is not always the case, since M-02 points out that her department's classrooms are located in two sections of the school building that are separated from each other by a considerable distance.

Some subjects report situations in which mentors and beginners are completely isolated from one another. B-10, for example, notes that her mentor is located in a different building. B-2 and B-13, both school librarians, point out that an experienced elementary school librarian who serves as a mentor for a beginning elementary school librarian will usually work in a different school. The situation is even more drastic for M-06, a school counselor. She is assigned to two schools, and her beginner is assigned to three different schools. In these situations, direct contact between beginner and mentor is reported to be minimal, and most of the contact that does exist is by means of school mail, telephone, or electronic mail.


This paper focuses on the subjects' comments on two important factors in mentoring, the time and the place. Therefore, to put this paper into a more complete context, it is important to note that throughout their interviews, the subjects generally communicate that they value mentoring greatly. They believe effective mentoring is based on a few, key principles: that mentors are familiar with the beginner's work assignment (e.g., grade or content area taught), that mentors provide support and encouragement readily and in confidence, and that mentors gladly share their practical knowledge of school and district policies and procedures. It is also clear that the subjects' perceptions are similar to those of Schlechty and Whitford (1989) and Little (1990), that the greatest obstacles to successful mentoring often lie within the structure and organization of school, especially in terms of when beginners and mentors can spend time together, in conversation or in each other's working environment, and how physically accessible they are to one another.

Interestingly, there is little mention among the subjects of any need for extrinsic rewards (e.g., stipends or tuition vouchers). They communicate that there is more than adequate compensation for the work of mentoring arising from the satisfaction that the seasoned "pro" feels in passing on the torch of experience to the newly arrived "rookie." The subjects of this study, like beginners and mentors in schools everywhere, ask only that they be given time and place enough to ensure that their mentoring activities are as rich and rewarding as possible.

Bey, T. M., & Holmes, C. T. (Eds.). (1992). Mentoring: Contemporary principles and issues. Reston, Virginia: Association of Teacher Educators.
Dollase, R. H. (1992). Voices of beginning teachers: Visions and realities. New York: Teachers College.
Furtwengler, C. B. (1993). The reform movement: A fifty-state survey of state actions for beginning teacher programs. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Atlanta, GA
Goetz, J. P., & LeCompte, M. D. (1984). Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Little, J. W. (1990). The mentor phenomenon and the social organization of teaching. Review of Research in Education, 16, 297-351.
Schlechty, P. C., & Whitford, B. L. (1989). Systemic perspectives on beginning teacher programs. Elementary School Journal, 89, 441-449.
Seidel, J. V., Kjolseth, R., & Seymour, E. (1988, March). The ethnograph. [computer program]. Littleton, CO: Qualis Research.

An MLRN Position Statement

It is the position of the MLRN Executive Board that traditional concepts of the job of the teacher "set us up" in today's context where time for professional interaction, planning and feedback is required, not just for mentoring or peer coaching, but for all aspects of instructional and school improvement. Staff and organizational development must be planned and implemented as one. Otherwise we are encouraging professional growth in a rigid, unchanging context. This tragic legacy is why veteran teachers burn out and just "do the job." Restructuring our use of the resources which impact learning is the only way to resolve the current impossible mission of "stealing" time from students for our own professional growth.

By Barry Sweeny. MLRN Executive Board Member

Tom Ganser is the Director of the Office of Field Experiences at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He also conducts mentor training workshops throughout Wisconsin and directs the UW-Whitewater Beginning Teacher Assistance Program.