Mentoring - Why It's So Important

This article was originally published in the Illinois Education Association (IEA/NEA) "Advocate",
the December 1998-January 1999 issue, page 9.
It is used with the permission of Gordon Jackson, Editor.
IEA's website is www.ieanea.org

Palatine 15 Induction facilitator Carole Einhorn and the teacher-leader she calls her "mentor," Dr. Karen Peterson of Governors State University, have studied the tremendous importance of mentoring programs for new teachers. Einhorn lists four research-based reasons why induction programs are vital:

"These would be daunting challenges for the best veteran teachers," says Einhorn. "Sometimes, new teachers don't even have a classroom and have to teach all day from a mobile cart."

Dr. Peterson, formerly an elementary teacher for 23 years and currently an education professor at Governors State, is another forceful mentoring advocate. And, like IEA, she believes local associations should help establish and support school-based mentoring programs. Besides her GSU teaching duties, Peterson directs a "Beginning Teacher Program" for six school districts in south-suburban Chicago. A 15-member Coordinating Council governs the "Bridging the Gap" initiative, now in its sixth year.

IEA UniServ Director Greg Jurgenson, who serves on the Coordinating Council, points out the GSU program was started to provide a "support network" for newer teachers. "The first year of teaching can be a real struggle. Mentoring enhances the potential for success," he says. "This program benefits the mentors as well. They get to interact with their colleagues. Everybody benefits."

Dr. Peterson notes that while the mentoring approach varies slightly in the six participating districts, " all six of them are more than a buddy system. It's more like peer coaching." The GSU mentor/novice program, with 135 participants this school year, provides a general $250 stipend for each mentor, plus $25 workshop stipends for mentors and new teachers (known as "partners").

Three days of formal training and keynote speakers kick off the program as schools open in the fall. "That's when the mentors and their partners begin building a relationship that hopefully will grow throughout the school year," says Peterson, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on teacher induction. "We want to help new teachers deal with the first-day jitters and get off on the right track in their careers."

Once the school year gets started, the GSU-based program features four after-school workshops, monthly peer support meetings, and classroom observation, but the mentors do not evaluate the partners. "The guiding principle is always 'assistance, not assessment,'", says Dr. Peterson. "These are learning, collaborative partnerships."

Teachers at Lincoln School in Blue Island District 130 wholeheartedly support the GSU mentoring program. Reading recovery/gifted teacher Corinne Ufferman, an 18-year teacher, is in her second year as a mentor. "I feel new teachers really need guidance, someone to answer their questions," she says. "We are not there to be judgmental but to help in any way we can." This year, Ufferman is mentoring music teacher Sara Forman.

Last year, she worked with two novices-art teacher Bridget Scales and 1st-grade teacher Karen Zydakis. "Mentoring allows for brainstorming. It's an opportunity to bounce ideas off an experienced teacher," says program "graduate" Zydakis. "When you're secluded in the classroom, it helps to have someone to talk to, for emotional as well as educational support."

Mentor Lourdes Ibarra and her partner, Sandra Polarski, are "old friends." Polarski did her student teaching in Ibarra's classroom before returning to Lincoln School last fall. Both also teach bilingual 1st-grade classes just two doors apart. "Being a mentor takes me back to when I was a new teacher," says 22-year veteran Ibarra. "Now I remember how frustrating, how overwhelming, it could be. I can put myself in Sandra's shoes. But I'm also learning much about myself. Mentoring helps me in my own classroom."

"This program has helped me a great deal," adds Polarski. "Talking with teachers from this and other districts in the program has opened new doors. I've learned a lot."

GSU's Dr. Peterson, who estimates that only 50 to 60 Illinois school districts have full-fledged mentoring programs, also serves on the State Induction Advisory Panel that has drafted a "statewide model" for bringing new teachers into the profession. "There's a long way to go in this area. Mentoring programs are yet to be introduced in many schools," she points out. "But I believe in teacher empowerment and turning teachers into leaders. Mentoring programs move us in that direction."

in GSU's Beginning Teacher Program this year.

Several of the enrolled school districts face financial hardships, but local school leaders nevertheless have made a commitment to mentoring. So far, some 600 new teachers have received "certificates" for completing GUS's pioneering peer mentoring program.