The Essential Value of Mentorship: An Equity Issue

By guestblogger Christopher Records, a special education teacher at a high school in Southeast Los Angeles and a member of Educators 4 Excellence

At its best, education is collaborative. Teachers see it in action every day at our schools. We work with students, parents, fellow teachers, administrators, and other service providers to ensure that what’s going on in our classrooms is successful, day in and day out. Our efforts take a number of different forms: collaborative planning, student and family conferences, school governance councils, and student enrichment and support programs. We understand, however hackneyed the phrase, that it does “take a village to raise a child,” and that supporting our kids toward success and life-readiness means enlisting every possible resource and person in their growth and development.

But what about our own growth and development as teachers? Shouldn’t our careers mirror the relentless pursuit of growth and lifelong learning that we want for our students?

While we recognize the essential value of community and collaboration in supporting kids toward excellence, we’re failing to effectively provide just that kind of support to developing teachers, especially at the beginning stages of their careers. For far too many new teachers, the first years of teaching are experienced in relative isolation, with minimal opportunities for interaction and collaboration with more seasoned and effective colleagues. This “you figure it out” approach for those entering the teaching profession directly leads to new teachers feeling less effective and more stressed, inevitably leading to burn-out and high attrition. One need only look to the alarming statistics on new teacher turn-over to see the results. Unsupported, isolated, and demoralized, nearly 50 percent of new teachers leave the teaching profession within 5 years of entering it. A 2007 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report estimated the annual cost of this to the country at $7 billion.

A truly collaborative approach to supporting new teachers’ growth and development will go a long way in addressing this problem. Providing effective mentorship is a key component of that, affording new and developing teachers with both holistic and content-specific support. A 2013 survey of 310 teachers in Los Angeles Unified School District conducted by Educators 4 Excellence showed more than 90 percent of respondents rate holistic and content-specific support for developing teachers as either “impactful” or “critical.” Organizations such as The New Teacher Project have reported that, where effective mentorship is provided to new and developing teachers, some school districts have seen teacher attrition rates cut by as much as 50 percent.

Districts must define what this mentorship should look like, and work toward making it meaningful, systemic, and impactful for mentor and mentee teachers. Throughout this year, as part of the 2013 Educators 4 Excellence Teacher Policy Team on Teacher Career Pathways, I and 12 other Los Angeles-area educators have met to discuss issues like mentorship, and to put forward a number of common-sense, easily implementable recommendations for a new approach to teacher professional support and pathways for advancement in our district’s schools. Our report, entitled “STEP: Supporting Teachers as Empowered Professionals,” offers a comprehensive outline for what effective mentorship for beginning teachers should look like. Our approach calls for two distinct mentors for beginning teachers: one providing holistic support, and one providing content-specific support. We also call for shared planning time for mentor and mentee teachers, extra release time for beginning teachers to observe their mentors in the classroom, and involvement of mentor teachers in the professional development offered to their mentees. 

In other words, we firmly believe that any mentorship program for developing teachers must be broadly utilized, and that the teachers involved in this program must be given the resources and flexibility—both in terms of training, time and autonomy—to truly leverage and support our mentors and mentees. In creating meaningful mentorship programs, district should prioritize giving mentor teachers enough release time to effectively support and coach their mentees; provide consistent feedback and evaluation for mentor teachers by, for example, surveying their mentees; and ensure mentors offer low-anxiety and no-stakes mentee observations and feedback (with an understanding that administrators will be providing the formal evaluations for stakes).

 Finding a solution to this problem is more than just a staffing issue. It is a fundamental issue of equity. New teachers are disproportionately placed at high-needs and hard-to-staff schools, and disproportionately teach low-income students. High turnover only contributes to the instability of these schools, and to the deficits in educational achievement of the students who attend them. By building effective mentorship systems to support retention, we can reduce instability within the teaching force, and thereby influence better student outcomes.

Unlike many other educational reforms, mentorship is easily implementable and low-cost. It builds on the existing human capital resources that districts already have (i.e. teachers currently leading peers in informal and formal ways). Moreover, models of effective mentorship exist throughout the country, in Boston, Chicago, Durham, and in other districts, large and small, urban and rural. In Hillsborough County, Florida, where a comprehensive mentorship and induction program for new teachers has existed since 2011, retention of first year teachers increased by 14 percent in 1 year, with 86 percent of teachers remaining in the classroom after their first year. 

Replicating the successes of those models, and building systems to improve and develop our own, is the necessary work of teachers and districts, for the teachers with whom we work, and for the students and schools whom we serve.

2 Replies to “The Essential Value of Mentorship: An Equity Issue”

  1. There is a critical need for support for new teachers. It has been an accepted practice for too long that beginning teachers will somehow manage on their own. Little thought is given to who is being used for their trial and error…..the students. That is critical class time that the students will never get back. This hit even closer to home for me since my child is about to start her second year with a very inexperienced teacher. There must be better standards and practices to fill in these gaps. One organization that is gaining momentum is the TNTP. After attending several days of training with their organization, I think they are on the right track to addressing some of these key issues.

  2. I agree with Christopher that mentor programs are the way to go for new teachers. I student taught in a Professional Development School, which was where I followed the school district’s calendar for the year instead of following my university’s calendar. I worked with a mentor teacher for the year and my university professors. It was great! I think it really prepared me for my first year of teaching. Also, the school that I was hired at has a mentor program where I was allowed common planning times with my mentor and observations (I could observe her and she could observe me). I have never officially been a mentor, but I have worked closely with a first year teacher and I learned some new ideas from her as well. I believe it can be beneficial for all involved.

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