By Danny Burleigh
Who is your mentor? To whom do you attribute your pivotal development as a professional? As a first year teacher, I was lucky enough to have been offered two fifth grade positions at two schools. I met with friends, colleagues, and administrators weighing in on which offer to accept, and ultimately the decision was made on a single factor. I chose a school where I would be able to teach and grow alongside Patrick Allen.
I was entering the education field after serving as a Marine Officer for four years (talk about culture shock), and I knew that I needed guidance. I had incredible mentors that guided me throughout that career, so I had a deep desire to find strong mentorship as a teacher. I already knew Patrick to be a brilliant educator through his book Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop and classroom observations, and he was going to mentor me.
He just didn’t know it yet.
It is no secret that the long term outlook for new teachers in the field is often bleak. Nearly one third of all new teachers leave the profession within three years. Half leave after five. Statistically, I still have a 50/50 shot of being in my classroom next year (social distancing aside). Most states and districts have mandated induction programs for new teachers and yet these numbers have seen little change over the years (Ingersoll, R., & Merrill, L., 2012).
There are a number of factors that contribute to why induction programs may, or may not, lead to long and productive careers in teaching; but I can only speak from my experience (both in and out of the classroom). As educators, we are deeply compassionate people. We remember the whirlwind that was our first year and, when placed in positions of leadership, do not want to overwhelm our new teachers with the burden of induction programs. Coupled with our responsibilities to our students or other teachers, induction programs begin to degrade into a task that you “get through” rather than something efficacious.
Induction/mentorship programs are the single most important developmental step for any teacher (Rockoff, 2008). It should be a rich and intensive process in order to continue developing strong foundations. It is the benchmark that influences the trajectory of how they interact with children for the rest of their career. Everyone has intense and specific responsibilities to uphold within the mentorship process that are essential for development as a teacher.
Responsibility Starts with Mentees
The responsibility for the effective mentorship rests on the mentee. I was determined to find a mentor who would challenge me professionally. Even though Patrick didn’t initially know that he would be my mentor, I sought him out for his wisdom and guidance. I count my blessings now as I look at our friendship and know that he has been an important part of my development as a professional.
Mentees are responsible for their trajectory within their mentorship. It is their responsibility to express their needs and to pursue a greater understanding of their craft. If the mentee is unwilling to sacrifice time and effort in the pursuit of greater understanding, then the mentorship process is irrelevant.
When I first approached Patrick, I was seeking help with conferring. I knew that was an area of growth for me and I sought out specific guidance around a concept with which I was struggling in the classroom. I spoke frequently to Patrick over a multitude of topics ranging from instruction with thinking strategies, to discourse in the classroom, to creating a warm environment with my classroom furniture.
I learned a long time ago that it was better for me to understand why my mentor did things rather than what they actually did. I would certainly mimic some of my mentor’s choices in my own classroom, but I knew the reasoning behind teacher decisions was how I would make instructional decisions for students regardless of the thinking we were tackling. Mentees, whether veteran teachers or fresh out of school, need to understand how great teachers make the decisions they do rather than trying to merely mimic instructional practices.
But how do we find this person? First develop a list in your mind of what qualities you would expect to see from students of great teachers. Would they be engaged? Creative? Love learning? Ask yourself what feelings you get when you walk into an ideal classroom? Once you answer these questions for yourself, start looking for teachers in your building, district, city, or state that foster the kind of learning you your students should be doing.
If your workplace does not provide the mentorship you need, it is your responsibility to be creative. There are a multitude of ways to get involved with other teachers professionally, both in-person and virtually. If you expect your students to seek answers to their questions, I would encourage you to also do the same.
Responsibility of Mentors
Mentorship is a privilege in any profession. To be called a mentor is something that should be received with humble respect. It means sacrificing time and energy to share wisdom with a colleague who holds you in the highest regard. It means staying later and coming earlier. It means giving up breaks and plan times to work with your mentee. It also means influencing a whole generation of educators and the students they are privileged to teach.
Mentors are well read. If mentees are to hold the responsibility of seeking out why mentors make the decisions they do, mentors are responsible for providing the research and reading for the instructional moves they make in the classroom. I know this is a high order, but it is one that will not only benefit the practice of the mentee, but will also challenge the mentor to truly decide if their practice holds up to a research-based standard.
Mentorship is fostered through inquiry. When I expressed to Patrick that I was wanting to work on writing instruction, I came in the next day to a pile of articles by Penny Kittle, Donald Graves, Katy Wood Ray and a myriad of other writers who mentored him. It was long work sifting through those documents finding idea after idea on how I might implement those concepts into our study on the persuasive mode. A few days later he and I met to discuss what I discovered and he helped me bring some lofty ideas down to earth, demonstrating how he has used many of the same ideas in his own instruction. Positive mentorship allows the mentee to formulate their own ideas then refine them instead of offering the refined idea with no understanding of its origin.
Often mentor and mentee conversations can become debased to a discussion on how to teach to certain programs and resources within the school. However, no program has ever been shown to create high quality teaching on its own accord (Allington, 2013). If this is true, then it is far more beneficial for mentors to help their mentees to understand why they might choose to use certain resources, or not use them. Mentors might help guide mentees to understand how their philosophies on education and students (backed by research of course) can be interwoven into mandatory programs or resources. They might help them to whittle away at the purposeless activities that are ever present.
Observation is key to developing great teachers. Mentors need to be in mentees’ classrooms and vice versa. This is where mentors have the ability to note where their discussions meet children and how their mentees are truly utilizing them.
Patrick once observed a workshop I facilitated with my students. We had just finished our composing time and had transitioned to our reflection. A student began sharing and, when they were finished, the conversation moved to another student. Following the workshop, Patrick said little about my management or instructional prowess. Rather, he made a small note. The first student was not finished with their thinking. He told me to “hold out your silence a little longer; students will continue to dig deeper into their thinking.”
Instructional moves like that cannot be discovered through conversation. They are only seen through the lens of an observer who is focused on perfecting the craft of their mentee. Inversely, mentees need to be afforded the opportunity to observe the mentor’s classroom. This allows them to ask questions about practices that develop into rich dialogue toward instructional decisions in their own classrooms.
Administrators are responsible for vision and implementation.
Without a clear mission and vision in the school, teachers are at a loss for what is truly important for them to accomplish. The school’s mission needs to be clear, concise, and explicit. Most schools and educator leaders have this mission. What begins to degrade this vision are the implicit, “suggested” missions that we set.
When I was a young officer in command of a motor transport platoon, I was walking my line of vehicles with my squad leaders. I remember making a careless suggestion that it would be, “awesome if all the tires were polished.” I did not intend for it to be an order, nor did I think it was at all necessary. However, the next day I discovered that my platoon had stayed late and polished all the tires of all 32 vehicles in our platoon. Obviously I was mortified, but I learned a valuable lesson. Implicit missions are just as heard and carried out as explicit ones. Leaders must be cognizant of the implicit missions they direct.
For example, if we state that our school’s vision is for students to create a lifelong love for reading, but we only discuss student standardized testing scores, there are competing visions. Implicitly, teachers are perceiving that standardized testing is the most important factor in evaluations because it is the only factor discussed. These small, competing visions ultimately cause burnout, especially for teachers who are already unsure of their own visions within the classroom.
Administrators should not be the source of mentorship for new teachers. They are responsible for providing and supporting mentors by providing them time and resources in order to foster growth in their mentees. Mentors need time to observe and coach the mentee. Mentorship is a difficult and sacrificial task that requires professional development and guidance. Administrators who invest in these leaders must create opportunities for their mentors to grow.
It is imperative to understand that mentorship is not something that ends with a two-year induction program, it evolves to a different form. In my fifth year of teaching I still know that my friend and mentor will continue to coach me, even if we are not in the same building; just like he seeks mentorship from colleagues he respects. I also know that in each new chapter of my career, I will find colleagues who will continually support me professionally, challenge my thinking, and help me strive to understand my vision for students.
Who is my mentor? I know I will continue to add to the answer.
Now I ask who is my mentee? To whom will I offer support?
These are also important questions to ask.
Allington, R. L. (2013). What Really Matters When Working With Struggling Readers. The Reading Teacher, 66(7), 520–530. doi: 10.1002/trtr.1154
Ingersoll, R., & Merrill, L. (2012). Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e579212012-001
Rockoff, J. (2008). Does Mentoring Reduce Turnover and Improve Skills of New Employees? Evidence from Teachers in New York City. National Bureau of Economic Research, 12(24). doi: 10.3386/w13868
Danny Burleigh served as a United States Marine Corps Captain before becoming a teacher in Parker, Colorado. He is in his fifth year of teaching and currently teaches fourth grade at Mammoth Heights Elementary. He was fortunate to present at CCIRA 2020 on teacher mentorship with Dana Sorensen from the Public Education and Business Coalition. He is currently a member of the Public Education and Business Coalition Lab Host Fellowship.