Teacher Mentoring: A Critical Review

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Teacher Mentoring: A Critical ReviewMentoring is a critical topic in education today and a favored strategy in U.S. policy initiatives focused on teacher induction. Besides creating new career opportunities for veteran teachers, assigning mentors to work with beginning teachers represents an improvement over the abrupt and unassisted entry into teaching that characterizes the experience of many novices. Still, the promise of mentoring goes beyond helping novices survive their first year of teaching. 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. This Digest examines the spread of mentoring in the United States, obstacles to realizing the potential of mentoring as a vehicle of reform, needed research, and selected issues of policy and practice.
The Spread of Mentoring
Since the early l980s, when mentoring burst onto the educational scene as part of a broad movement aimed at improving education, policymakers and educational leaders have pinned high hopes on mentoring as a vehicle for reforming teaching and teacher education. Concerned about the rate of attrition during the first 3 years of teaching and aware of the problems faced by beginning teachers, policymakers saw the logic of providing on-site support and assistance to novices during their first year of teaching (Little, l990). The scale of mentoring has increased rapidly, with over 30 states mandating some form of mentored support for beginning teachers.
The mentoring idea has also been extended to the preservice level. Proposals for the redesign of teacher preparation (e.g., Holmes Group, l990) call for teacher candidates to work closely with experienced teachers in internship sites and restructured school settings such as professional development schools. The hope is that experienced teachers will serve as mentors and models, helping novices learn new pedagogies and socializing them to new professional norms. This vision of mentoring depends on school-university partnerships that support professional development for both mentors and teacher candidates.
A Cautionary Note
Enthusiasm for mentoring has not been matched by clarity about the purposes of mentoring. Nor have claims about mentoring been subjected to rigorous empirical scrutiny. The education community understands that mentors have a positive affect on teacher retention, but that leaves open the question of what mentors should do, what they actually do, and what novices learn as a result. Just as research on student teaching highlights the conservative influence of cooperating teachers and school cultures on novices practice, so some studies show that mentors promote conventional norms and practices, thus limiting reform (e.g., Feiman-Nemser, Parker, & Zeichner, l993).
These findings should not surprise us. Mentor teachers have little experience with the core activities of mentoring–observing and discussing teaching with colleagues. Most teachers work alone, in the privacy of their classroom, protected by norms of autonomy and noninterference. Nor does the culture of teaching encourage distinctions among teachers based on expertise. The persistence of privacy, the lack of opportunities to observe and discuss each other s practice, and the tendency to treat all teachers as equal limits what mentors can do, even when working with novices (Little, l990).
In addition, few mentor teachers practice the kind of conceptually oriented, learner- centered teaching advocated by reformers (Cohen, McLaughlin, & Talbert, l993). If we want mentors to help novices learn the ways of thinking and acting associated with new kinds of teaching, then we have to place them with mentors who are already reformers in their schools and classrooms (Cochran-Smith, l991), or develop collaborative contexts where mentors and novices can explore new approaches together.
Needed Research
Before l990, the literature on mentoring consisted mainly of program descriptions, survey-based evaluations, definitions of mentoring, and general discussions of mentors roles and responsibilities. Researchers did not conceptualize mentors work in relation to novices learning or study the practice of mentoring directly. Reviewing the literature, Little (l990) found few comprehensive studies well-informed by theory and designed to examine in depth the context, content and consequences of mentoring (p. 297).
Since l990, some researchers have begun to fill in those gaps. In one comparison of two beginning teacher programs, researchers documented striking differences in the way mentor teachers conceived of and carried out their work with novices. They linked these differences in mentors perspectives and practices to differences in role expectations, working conditions, program orientations, and mentor preparation (Feiman-Nemser & Parker, l993). In a reform- oriented preservice program, Cochran-Smith (l991) studied the conversations of student teachers and experienced teachers in weekly, school-site meetings at four urban schools. She shows how these conversations, occasions for group mentoring, expose novices to broad themes of reform through discussions of highly contextualized problems of practice. Between l991-95, researchers at the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning at Michigan State carried out a comparative, cross-cultural study of mentoring in selected sites in the United States, England, and China. The study sought insights about learning to teach, mentoring practices, and the conditions that enable novices and mentors to work together in productive ways. Preliminary findings underscore the influence of mentors beliefs about learning to teach, the challenges of learning to teach for understanding, and the impact of different contextual factors (e.g., school culture, national policies) on mentors practice and novices learning.
To inform mentoring policy and practice, we need more direct studies of mentoring and its affects on teaching and teacher retention, especially in urban settings where turnover is high. We also need to know more about how mentors learn to work with novices in productive ways, what structures and resources enable that work, and how mentoring fits into broader frameworks of professional development and accountability.

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Teacher Mentoring: A Critical Review

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This article was published on 2010/10/07