Mentoring: A Win-Win Situation

Julie, 36, is a first-year middle school teacher for whom teaching was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. As a participant in the Dorothy Danforth Compton Fellowship Program, she was able to leave her career in banking to pursue a teaching career. Julie was one of fifty mid-career changers who was selected to participate in the structured, year-long teacher education and mentoring program.
Instead of being given a classroom of students and left to fend for herself, she was given a valuable resource to turn to- Lisa Jackson, a sixth grade teacher who served as Julie’s mentor. She offered Julie emotional support and suggestions for classroom management, curriculum planning, assessment, and educational materials. Lisa also modeled instructional strategies, team-taught and engaged in ongoing problem solving with Julie. She helped Julie understand how to meet state standards and district curriculum standards while individualizing instruction for her culturally diverse students.
In a sense, Lisa was the “life support” to Julie. Julie had a positive first year experience and attributes her success in the classroom to having a mentor. But if the statistics hold true, there is a nearly 1-in-2 chance that she will be doing something else in five years.
Most people think of mentoring in terms of retention of new teachers, although this is a special need in urban schools, the retention of mentors is a less well understood aspect of the mentoring trend. This article will show the benefits of mentoring for both novice teacher and mentor teacher.


A Program Grounded in Teaching Standards
Many schools are faced with ongoing shortages of teachers. While this situation affects school districts nationwide, the problem is most severe in urban school districts where teacher turnover is as high as 50% in the first three years (Odell, 1990; Haberman & Rickards, 1990). To address the teacher shortage and to develop a more diverse teaching force, Milwaukee set up the Dorothy Danforth Compton Fellowship Program in 1996 to recruit, prepare, and retain new middle school teachers of color. A collaborative effort among the Milwaukee Public Schools, Marquette University, Alverno College, and Lakeland College, the alternative licensure program each year offers high quality teacher preparation to approximately 50 mid-career changers who have completed bachelor’s degrees from accredited institutions and wish to earn teacher certification.
At the end of this one- year graduate program, each participant defends a portfolio that demonstrates competency in the performance-based standards by the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC) and adopted by the state of Wisconsin. Upon successful completion of the one-year program, teachers are guaranteed a contract in the Milwaukee Public Schools and recommended for grade 5-8 certification by one of the three participating colleges.


Selecting the Right Mentors
To support the success and retention of teachers in the program, mentors work closely with the participants. Each participant works with a supervisor and a faculty member from the colleges in graduate courses during the year. But each participant’s most crucial relationship is with a mentor, a veteran teacher who works full time as a coach to approximately seven Compton participants each. Because the program is grounded in the INTASC standards, the full-time mentors help Compton participants to meet the performance assessment standards that are incorporated in the Milwaukee Public Schools curriculum. Through daily on-the-job coaching, mentors help the Compton participants learn the INTASC standards and pedagogy. Mentors gently push the Compton participants forward in their practice in relationship to skills and knowledge needed to work successfully in an urban context.
Mentors are recruited from a pool of those who have taught for at least five years, demonstrated successful urban teaching practices, received strong recommendations from school principals or administrators, and had some experience teaching adults. All mentors receive training in Cognitive Coaching, Efficacy and dealing with difficult people. As instructional leaders and successful urban veteran teachers, the mentors provide professional lifelines to the Compton participants.


Mentoring In Urban Schools
It is essential that mentors be familiar with the backgrounds of the students in his or her mentees care. Without that awareness of their culture and history, a mentor is not in a good position to give relevant advice to the prospective teacher. Often times, the prospective teacher may be a contributing factor to dilemmas in the classroom by having a lack of understanding of cultural and racial differences, and a mentor who has such an awareness can provide the teacher with valuable insight.
Compton mentors have experience working with students from diverse backgrounds and they are familiar with culturally relevant pedagogy. This helps them in their work with the Compton participants, because they are able to help their mentees develop culturally relevant teaching practices. This type of teaching uses the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through the strengths of these students (Gay, 2000).
The mentors help their mentees go beyond the traditional textbook curricula. Because mentors know that teaching methods and irrelevant school curriculum cause large numbers of urban children to be at risk, they show the Compton participants how to incorporate culturally relevant teaching practices to heighten students’ interest. For example, one mentor encouraged her mentee to use pop culture rap songs when trying to get the students to understand poetry. Another mentor, helped her mentee design a social studies unit that allowed her students to make meaningful connections between home and school. Instead of just having her 6th grade class read about the Civil Rights Movement, this mentee had her students interview elderly family members and friends to find out what they remembered about that time period before they started the unit. Students were surprised that many of their class members had relatives that could recall their experiences with the Jim Crow laws. This generated a lot of interest for the rest of the unit.
The mentors help the participants to realize that all communities have funds of knowledge and resources that teachers can use to create curricula and educational environments that are inclusive of students’ backgrounds and provide students greater access to new knowledge. The participants find out that learning to teach culturally diverse students involves classroom practices that respect and take advantage of students’ cultural knowledge and experiences (Ladson-Billings, 1995).


Win/Win Situation
Mentoring has the potential to benefit both novice teachers and veteran teachers. It helps novice teachers confront their challenges in the classroom; through collegial conversations and consistent support with an experienced teacher, they improve their teaching practices. The mentoring experience also provides professional development for the veteran teacher.
Evaluations of the Compton Program have been very positive. Survey data showed that 75% of the participants said that having a mentor their first year impacted their decision to stay in teaching (Edwards, 2002). The participants emphasized that the emotional support the mentor provided, the nonjudgmental feedback, and the opportunity to grow professionally were important to their staying in teaching.
The mentoring experience also proved to be very positive for the veteran teachers. Those who stepped out of their classrooms for three years for this mentoring position increased their knowledge of the performance-based standards and strengthened their teaching and leadership skills. In Saffold (2003), mentors described four specific benefits of participating in the program: improved reflective practices, a higher level of professional responsibilities, a broadened view of the profession, and a renewed appreciation for the education field.
Success
Judging from program data that show 228 participants received their teaching credential (91% of them were people of color) and 91.5% have remained in the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Compton Fellowship Program has proven to be a success for the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Compton participants and the mentors who coached them. The Compton Fellowship Program began with the vision of recruiting, preparing and supporting new teachers. While that vision remains the same, the program clearly provides new ways that veteran urban teachers are refining their practices, taking on leadership roles, and making notable contributions to the profession.
Milwaukee’s program is an excellent one because it improves the effectiveness of both the mentors and the new teachers. Seeing someone with a different teaching style doing things in a different way energizes veteran teachers and new teachers are provided with a collegial support system that helps to ease their transition into teaching. This is a model of induction that has worked well. Those who design mentoring programs should carefully consider how veteran teachers and new teachers could both receive mentoring’s full benefits. Then, perhaps more veteran teachers will experience a renewed commitment to the profession and more novice teachers will stay in the profession.


References
Edwards, F. (2002). The impact of mentoring on new teacher retention.
Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Cardinal Stritch University, Wisconsin.
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice. New
York: Teachers College Press.
Haberman, M., & Rickards, W. R. (1990). Urban teachers who quit: Why they leave and
what they do. Urban Education, 25(3), 297–303.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant
pedagogy. Theory Into Practice, 34(3), 159-165.
Odell, S. J. (1990). Support for new teachers in mentoring. In T.M. Bey & C.T. Holmes
(Eds.), Mentoring: Developing successful new teachers (pp. 3-23). Reston, VA:
Association of Teacher Educators.
Saffold, F. (in press). Renewing urban teachers through mentoring. In Keeping good
teachers. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Development.