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Issues About Change v8.1 - Launching Professional Learning Communities: Beginning Actions

Lessons from Research on Teacher Mentoring: Review of the Literature

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by Sue E. Mutchler

The practice of mentoring beginning teachers emerged in the 1980s as a professional development strategy for achieving a variety of goals. One goal focuses solely on teachers who are just Picture of a female teacher entering the profession, while two others extend the benefits of mentoring to other educators in the school and district community. Mentorship promises potential benefits in at least the following three areas (Little, 1990):

  1. New teacher induction - to help transition beginning teachers into the classroom and acculturate them to the specific school and district setting in which they will work.
  2. Career enhancement - to provide an avenue for leadership, public recognition, and reward for skilled veteran teachers who serve their schools and districts as mentors, professional developers, and/or contributors to curriculum and instructional improvement.
  3. Professional development and program innovation - to build capacity for school and district program innovation and to guide local education reform.

As local and state-initiated teacher mentoring programs have been implemented and refined over time, the first two of these goals have proven to be interrelated. Most veteran teachers who serve as mentors to new teachers are recognized by, and in some cases receive tangible rewards from, their school districts. The predominant district assumption is that, "the status and responsibilities of mentorship ... [will enable] those teachers to experience a renewal of their enthusiasm for teaching" (Little, 1990, p. 333). The level of career enhancement for most mentor teachers, however, appears to be limited. Most mentors receive the gratitude of their proteges and other peers, but few receive more than a modest monetary stipend. Those who do experience career advancement find it in administrative positions--not teaching. In sum, Little suggests that, unlike mentoring in business and industry, mentoring in the field of K-12 education "neither promises nor is premised upon an advancement incentive, but rather on other dimensions of work that contribute to career satisfaction" (1990, p. 333).

A positive effect of teacher mentoring on the third goal, building capacity for local professional development and program innovation, is even less readily apparent in school practice. Theoretically, the development of new and more effective classroom and collegial practices by teachers involved in a mentoring relationship can be diffused throughout their school and beyond. That is, through mentoring activities, both the novice teacher and mentor gain understandings and concrete skills that will benefit their students and can be shared with colleagues. Expertise in specific areas of curriculum and instruction can, for example, enable them to help grade level team members implement a district-adopted early reading program more effectively, or improve their academic department's practice of using cooperative learning. To date, however, research shows that few mentoring programs exhibit the mission or devote resources necessary to connect the program to these broader purposes of ongoing professional development and school improvement (Feiman-Nemser, Carver, Schwille, and Yusko, 1999).

Little suggests that, ideally, the twin aims of a formal mentoring program are "to reward and inspire experienced teachers, while tapping their accumulated wisdom in the service of teachers and schools" (1990, p. 345). If this were the stated purpose of most mentoring programs, we would likely see more evidence in the literature of research on how such programs contribute to career enhancement and school improvement. We would also likely see veteran teachers--not beginning teachers--at the center of mentoring discussions, because it is their experience and expertise that leverages productive change in professional practice.

The beginning teacher, however, has received greatest attention in both research and policy. Most mentoring policies and practices are designed to provide induction support that will encourage their retention in the profession. The remainder of this discussion thus focuses on what we know about mentoring as a strategy aimed at effectively inducting beginning teachers.

Beginning Teacher Induction

Today, statewide experiences with teacher shortage and high attrition in the early teaching years have heightened the concerns of legislatures and state education agencies across the nation. The present shortage of K-12 public school teachers is due to multiple factors that are playing out differently in every state. Historically, fewer and fewer college students have been entering the field of K-12 education. The proportion of college students majoring in education declined from 21 percent to 9 percent between 1975 and 1984 (Stoddart and Floden, 1995), and there is no indication this trend is likely to reverse.

Perhaps the most serious trend, however, is the high numbers of prepared teachers who are exiting the field. Research on teacher attrition in the late 1970s and early 1980s reported 25 percent of prepared teachers either never taught or left the profession within a few years (Croasmun, Hampton, and Herrmann, 1997). More recent data indicate that only about 60 percent of teacher education graduates enter the profession. Among graduating teachers, 22 percent leave in their first three years in the classroom, and nearly 30 percent have left the profession by the five year mark (Darling-Hammond, 2000; U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1996). A recent study of Texas teacher recruitment and retention reported that 19 percent of new teachers leave after only one year in the profession "primarily because they fail to get badly needed professional support" (Texas Center for Educational Research, 1999, p. 2).

Data such as these, and the actual school and district experiences behind them, create an urgency to attend to the needs of new teachers beyond the informal attention that individual teachers and schools have always paid. It has become clear that successful hiring practices are only part of the answer to teacher shortage. School and district leaders need sound strategies for ensuring beginning teachers' successful transition to the classroom and school and then retention beyond the first few years.

A broad base of agreement exists for the idea that beginning teachers need support during their transition into professional practice (Brighton, 1999; Feiman-Nemser, Carver, Schwille, and Yusko, 1999; Huling-Austin, 1992; Little, 1990; Moir, Gless, and Baron, 1999; Odell and Huling, 2000; Stansbury and Zimmerman, 2000; Tellez, 1992). There is little argument that even the most well prepared beginning teacher needs individualized assistance during the first one to three years of practice. In 1980, only one state had implemented a mandated induction program. Since that time, such programs have become widespread; by 1988, 46 state legislatures had established mentoring or other kinds of induction programs for new teachers (Wilkinson, 1997), and many large school districts had initiated support systems as well.

Although longitudinal data tying teacher mentoring to improved retention is still largely lacking, evidence from evaluation of one of the largest statewide programs-- California's Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) system--is promising. Research shows that beginning teacher attrition in school districts operating BTSA programs has dropped to less than 10 percent (Wood, 1999). This is compared to a statewide trend of 50 percent attrition during the first five years of teaching. In one California community, Santa Cruz, evaluation studies show high rates of satisfaction, retention, and success with students among beginning teachers who participate in the district's New Teacher Project (Moir, Gless, and Baron, 1999). Similarly, in Louisiana results of a three-year implementation of the Framework for Inducting, Retaining, and Supporting Teachers (FIRST) show a 88 percent retention rate of certified new teachers in Thibodaux Parish (Breaux, 1999).

Some program evaluations show impact in areas other than new teacher retention. In Palatine, Illinois, although district records show little impact of its Helping Teacher program on teacher attrition, there is encouraging evidence of more rapid new teacher progress toward competency, which district leadership believes is contributing to the school system's increasing performance.

What Do Mentoring Programs Do?

Research indicates that professional development of teachers occurs in "stages" that extend, for most, well beyond their first year in the profession. For example, Feiman-Nemser and Remillard (1995, p. 4) suggest that teaching expertise is not achieved until the five- to seven-year mark. They characterize a teacher's development as moving from an initial period of survival and discovery, through a time of experimentation and consolidation, and finally to a point of mastery and stabilization. This third stage, where Conyers, Ewy, and Vass (1999) say teacher "competence" is achieved, can then provide a solid foundation for future development toward "proficiency," or true expertise as a professional.

By and large, teacher mentoring programs implemented by school districts tend to focus on the "survival and discovery" stage, providing support to teachers in their first year in the classroom (Feiman-Nemser and Remillard, 1995; Huling-Austin, 1992). During this stage of teacher development, the goal is to give intensive assistance to new teachers in meeting their immediate needs as they adjust to the demands of teaching and become socialized to the school organization.

Support. Two major kinds of support in this development stage are considered necessary by researchers and practitioners: psychological support and instruction-related support (Feiman-Nemser, Carver, Schwille, and Yusko, 1999; Stansbury and Zimmerman, 2000). Both categories of support have been found critical for new teachers who come to an array of new responsibilities with little time and few resources to direct toward transitioning into those responsibilities. In essence, "teaching is the only profession that requires beginners to do the same work as experienced teachers" (Tellez, 1992). In the vast majority of schools, a beginning teacher carries a full teaching schedule while:

  • adjusting to the school facility and routines,
  • becoming oriented to district policies and procedures,
  • becoming familiar with the specific curriculum and school- or district-adopted instructional strategies, and
  • establishing for the first time his/her own classroom management structure and procedures.

Psychological support addresses the most immediate personal and emotional needs of teachers new to the classroom. This kind of support centers on protecting the new teacher from isolation by providing him or her with moral support and suggesting ways in which to balance the unfamiliar demands and expectations of students, parents, and the school at large. Here, veteran teachers create an emotional safety net by:

    serving as a sounding board and assuring beginners that their experience is normal, offering sympathy and perspective, and providing advice to help reduce the inevitable stress (Stansbury and Zimmerman, 2000, p. 4).

Instruction-related support addresses the beginning teacher's need to navigate her or his way through multiple tasks and problems that, in the future, will be seen as standard activities associated with teaching but, at first, are important hurdles for the novice. This kind of support focuses on the nuts and bolts of teaching, from locating materials and other resources available in the school, to organizing classroom space, to adding to his or her still-limited repertoire of instructional strategies (Stansbury and Zimmerman, 2000).

Researchers and teacher educators suggest, however, that it is not enough for mentoring programs to provide support. Noting that beginning teachers are learners as well as teachers, they assert the importance of a second function of mentoring programs -- development -- which begins during the first year of teaching but extends into that stage of teacher growth Feiman-Nemser, Carver, Schwille, and Yusko (1999) refer to as "experimentation and consolidation."

Development. Development focuses on building a personal understanding of pedagogy--the art and science of teaching and learning--that allows a teacher to continually refine and adjust his/her practice in order to consistently and effectively help students master content and skills. Mentoring for development centers on helping novices begin to "craft a professional identity through their struggles with and explorations of students and subject matter" (Feiman-Nemser and Remillard, 1995, p. 4). The ultimate goal is for the novice teacher to gain independence as a professional who is empowered to draw from a foundation of experience-based knowledge and "collective wisdom about good practice" (Feiman-Nemser, Parker, and Zeichner, 1990, p. 16).

Stansbury and Zimmerman (2000) say a key aspect of mentoring for development is for teachers to become "skilled at independently identifying and addressing the idiosyncratic learning problems of their students" (p. 5). They suggest teachers gain these skills through critical self-reflection based on their students' behavior, student products, and other evidence of the effectiveness of their own teaching practices. The increasing diversity of students in the U.S. makes the building of this kind of expertise even more important--and presents an additional challenge in mentoring. Newly prepared teachers tend to hold "assumptions about the learning and thinking of others that fit with their own [cultural experience]" (Feiman-Nemser and Remillard, 1995, p. 8). For those who have had limited contact with students whose ethnicity, language, or culture is different from their own, mentoring for development may thus require some relearning as well as new learning:

    In order to build bridges between students and subject matter, teachers need to know how their students think about what they are learning. Attending to the thinking of others means trying to see the world through their eyes (Feiman-Nemser and Remillard, 1995, p. 8).

The development function of mentoring is given priority by a number of individual school districts across the nation (Reiman and Thies-Sprinthall, 1998). Some have refined and expanded their programs over time to create a comprehensive, long-term approach to teacher development, such as the Palatine, Illinois Helping Teacher induction program. Initiated in 1987, this program is based on standards from the Mentoring and Leadership Resource Network, sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). The Helping Teacher program now includes a four-year curriculum for all teachers new to the district, differentiated for novice teachers and those with previous teaching experience. In addition to addressing critical first-year needs for assistance in classroom management and communicating with parents, Palatine's new teacher curriculum includes a focus on such higher-level issues as engaged student learning, teacher expectations for student achievement, self-reflection, and action research (Conyers, Ewy, and Vass, 1999). In the estimation of district leadership, new teachers complete the four-year program well prepared to meet standards of good teaching, such as those required for certification by the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Other school districts have created shorter, more intensive programs that attempt to move new teachers quickly to the point of competence and self-reflective practice. The 11-year-old New Teacher Project in Santa Cruz, California, for example, invests in the development of highly trained veteran teachers who are released from classroom responsibilities for a three-year period to work full-time and exclusively as mentors, or "advisors," to new teachers. This cadre of advisors provides personalized assistance to individual teachers and also works to ensure continuous development of its members' own skills as observers and mentors and ongoing improvement of the mentoring program. Each new teacher receives two years of mentoring support, both inside and outside his/her classroom, through a mix of weekly one-on-one meetings, classroom observations, lesson modeling, co-teaching, monthly seminars, and professional portfolio development. District leaders claim that this kind of intensive support allows beginning teachers to make progress toward and document their own professional growth along the continuum of teacher abilities set forth by the state's Standards for the Teaching Profession (Moir, Gless, and Baron, 1999).

Despite these examples from the field, however, the development function of mentoring does not at all appear to be implemented as frequently as the support function. Indeed, surveys of new teachers in 1990 found that they were "more likely to credit mentors with providing moral support or enlarging a pool of material resources than with exerting direct influence on their curriculum priorities or instructional methods" (Little, 1990, p. 342). Although comprehensive mentoring programs and high-intensity support strategies "are more effective at improving beginning teacher practice" (Stansbury and Zimmerman, 2000), they pose structural and resource challenges to any district that decides to promote longer-term development of its new teachers. Picture of a female teacher

What Challenges Do Mentoring Programs Face?

As with any promising school improvement strategy, the implementation of a mentoring program faces multiple challenges. In their review of organized support efforts for beginning teachers, Stansbury and Zimmerman (2000) identified challenges associated with four major program components: mentor teacher selection and support, time, teacher evaluation, and resource allocation.

Mentor Teacher Selection and Support. Although there is evidence that a great deal of informal assistance to new teachers from veteran teachers occurs, a formal mentoring relationship requires considerably more commitment and effort from the mentor teacher. Even more importantly, mentor teachers need specific skills in how to help novice teachers move out of the first-year survival and socialization mode and begin to grapple with deeper-level learnings around subject matter and instructional problem solving (Huling-Austin, 1992).

Schools and districts must consider the qualifications of individuals they choose to recruit and be prepared to overcome a range of logistical problems that can stand in the way of successful mentoring. Stansbury and Zimmerman highlight a number of specific challenges associated with recruiting, preparing, and rewarding mentor teachers. Framed as questions that require resolution by schools and districts implementing mentoring programs, these challenges include:

  • What incentives will attract veteran teachers to mentoring?
  • How is their ability to effectively "teach" other teachers assessed?
  • What are the options for matching mentors and protˇgˇs (grade level, content area, school location)?
  • What training do mentors need?

Time. "Mentors are more often constrained than enabled by the organizational circumstances in which they work" (Little, 1990, p. 342). In the day-to-day life of schools, time is one of the most challenging of these circumstances. The typical teacher's schedule includes minimal time without direct teaching responsibilities for students, and these "planning and preparation" periods tend to be filled with exactly that--lesson planning, assessing student work, and meeting with grade level or department colleagues about shared responsibilities. Compared to their non-mentoring peers, it seems that new teachers and their mentors must somehow gain additional time for engaging in mentoring, or else they must use time already allocated for other teaching activities.

Challenges associated with time include:

  • Where will the additional time required for mentoring activities be scheduled? During existing teacher planning and preparation periods? Before or after school? On weekends? Before the school year begins or after it ends?
  • What logistical issues are associated with providing time for mentoring? Class scheduling? Teacher room assignments? Building access?
  • What costs are associated with providing additional time? Will mentor teachers be compensated? Are substitutes needed? How will these costs be funded?

Teacher Evaluation. The connection between teacher support and teacher evaluation is a controversial one. Most researchers and teacher educators believe the two processes must be separate and different out of a concern for protecting the formative nature of performance assessment as a critical component of successful new teacher development (Feiman-Nemser, Carver, Schwille, and Yusko, 1999). Huling-Austin (1992) voices a different concern and asserts that established state and district teacher summative evaluation instruments are inappropriate for novice teachers. Instead, she argues for a differentiated evaluation process for beginning teachers that recognizes their status as novices working toward proficiency.

Depending on a school district's local and state context for beginning teacher certification, appraisal, and school employment, there may be a number of different ways to manage the challenges associated with evaluating new teachers. In order to determine how mentoring assistance and performance appraisal must be related in their local context, schools and districts might consider:

  • What local- or state-mandated expectations for teacher performance exist (e.g., established teaching standards or competencies)? How are these expectations connected to teacher appraisal and/or certification?
  • What relationship exists between teacher appraisal and continued employment in the district? Between teacher appraisal and continued or advanced teacher certification?
  • How is teacher evaluation viewed in the district culture? How is professional development viewed?
  • How are beginning teachers viewed compared to veteran teachers, in terms of expected performance and professional development?
  • Regardless of whether teacher assistance and evaluation are to be managed separately or as mutually reinforcing processes, what will be the ground rules? How is confidentiality dealt with among the beginning teacher, the mentor, and the teacher's principal or evaluator? Are criteria for improvement the same, or at least compatible, for the purposes of assisting and evaluating the new teacher?

Resource Allocation. Just as all students are unique, so too are new teachers. Some come to the classroom with educational and experiential backgrounds that have better prepared them to be solely responsible for their first classroom of students. Others come with needs for more intensive support. It is thus unlikely that a single set of mentoring activities or a standard progression of activities will be suitable for all new teachers. If program flexibility is important, schools and districts might meet this challenge by answering the following questions:

  • How can the mentoring program be structured in such a way that those teachers who need more help receive it?
  • Which kinds of assistance can be provided to all new teachers? Which will more likely need to be provided on an as-needed basis?
  • What mechanisms will allow for necessary individualized support?
  • What resources are available to mentors beyond their own time and sets of skills?

Beyond Beginning Teacher Induction

  If mentoring is to function as a strategy of reform, it must be linked to a vision of good teaching, guided by an understanding of teacher learning, and supported by a professional culture that favors collaboration and inquiry (Feiman-Nemser, 1996, p. 1).  

A five year study by the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, "Learning from Mentors," yielded initial findings pointing to five important issues that may be important to creating successful mentoring programs that contribute to the quality of K-12 teachers in the profession (National Center for Research on Teacher Learning, 2000). As stated by NCRTL:

  • Mentoring must be connected to a vision of good teaching, if it is to contribute to educational reform.
  • Mentoring must be informed by an understanding of how one learns to teach.
  • Mentoring must be viewed as a professional practice, not merely a new social role for experienced teachers.
  • Mentors need time to mentor and opportunities to learn to mentor.
  • Mentoring is affected by the professional culture of the school and broader policies and values.

Researchers whose work is referenced in this review echo the first four of these findings. By and large, they argue that the mentoring of beginning teachers must be grounded in professional knowledge and skill. As such, the professional practice of mentoring requires resources--particularly in the form of time and training.

The fifth finding, though, might warrant additional inquiry by policy makers and educators who are concerned about inducting, developing, and retaining quality teachers in the longer term and in all schools--not just those schools that already enjoy a strong professional culture. School culture has received attention since the 1970s when effective schools research found correlation among certain types of organizational behavior (e.g., instructional leadership) and student success, and today researchers continue to explore the relationship between the school environment and the quality of the student learning that takes place there. NCRTL research draws attention to the relationship between school culture and the teaching that takes place there.

In her review of mentoring program implementation studies over a decade ago, Little (1990) found that most mentoring programs in the U.S. accept and build from the traditional view of teaching as an "individualistic and egalitarian" profession. NCRTL researchers who examined teacher mentoring in different nations found corroboration for the existence of this kind of professional culture in the U.S. The goal of mentoring is to help novices find their own "teaching style" and learn to contribute to ongoing curriculum development and reform. This is in contrast to other cultures, such as China, where mentors tend to be viewed as experts whose pedagogy should be emulated by novice teachers in order to implement effectively an established national curriculum.

In Little's opinion, the more-or-less unspoken definition in the U.S. of teachers as having a certain "equality in autonomy" makes it difficult for the idea of mentoring to take root in the professional culture of teaching. In the culture of U.S. public schools, there exist few precedents for positive differentiation among teachers' expertise or roles. So, it is not common for mentors to be viewed as teachers whose experience and expertise set them apart from their peers in a positive sense. Instead, they are viewed as peers either engaged in "help giving" or doing "extra work for extra pay" (1990, pp. 340, 342). Little concludes that, when problems emerge during the implementation of mentoring initiatives, teachers and administrators tend to conceive of them as "problems of a program to be marketed rather than as problems of a culture to be built" (Little, 1990, p. 341).

Feiman-Nemser, Carver, Schwille, and Yusko (1999) express a related concern regarding the relationship between school culture and mentoring. They claim research shows that even a well-resourced, formal mentoring program "may perpetuate traditional norms and practices rather than promote high-quality teaching" (p. 4) unless the explicit goal of the program is to build teaching professionals who can foster complex student learning. These researchers say that a program that focuses only on new teacher support "favors the agendas of individual teachers and works against a sense of collective responsibility for student learning" (p. 10). Feiman-Nemser et al (1999) advocate that schools and districts, instead, view beginning-teacher induction as part of the broader system of professional development and accountability for educators.

In a recent study, Ingersoll (1999) found evidence that points to other factors in the school culture that might be considered along with teacher mentoring if a district chooses to take a comprehensive approach to stemming the tide of teacher attrition. Based on an investigation of reasons given by teachers for leaving the profession, his data suggest that teacher turnover can be positively impacted through improvements in four areas of the school organization. None of these solutions--increased support from the school administration, enhanced faculty input into school decision-making, reduction of student discipline problems, and increased salaries-- explicitly focus on new teacher support.

Huling-Austin (1992) sums up the critical connection between beginning teacher success and factors in school culture and organization as follows:

    If schools operate in ways that are unresponsive to the needs of the students, it is unreasonable to expect novice teachers to learn to operate effectively in them (pp. 178-179).


Lessons from the literature suggest that a well-developed mentoring program for new teachers can contribute to the quality of their practice, not merely their retention in the profession. Moreover, some would say that an education system's commitment to an ongoing, comprehensive mentoring program could go a long way toward achieving the broader potential of mentorship in K-12 education. Such a program could build the instructional leadership of veteran teachers who serve as mentors, thus serving a career enhancement purpose, and engage all educators in ongoing professional development and program innovation--toward the ultimate improvement of the school program.

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