Reimagining Teacher Mentoring Programs: A Key to Solving the Teacher Shortage
It is officially that time again. The time when teachers start returning to their classrooms for another school year. For an estimated 310,000 teachers (Perry-Graves, 2022), this will be their first time in the classroom, and back to school also means meeting their assigned mentor. Most districts use a formal mentoring program in which districts place new teachers with veteran colleagues. While many believe that mentors are only responsible for providing feedback on their mentee’s classroom instruction, the mentor’s role is much more complex. A good mentor can be an essential resource for helping novice teachers navigate the hidden curriculum of their new workspace, find a sustainable work/life balance, juggle the countless demands of the profession, and rely upon a consistent sounding board for what is sure to be a rollercoaster of a year.
As a former teacher, I was lucky enough to have an active and caring mentor during my first year of teaching, and was able to model those relationships as I moved from mentee to mentor later in my career. My mentor and my mentees were all good matches for my personality, and we were able to establish strong relationships through shared goals and reciprocal trust. But I know my experience might be an outlier, as the effectiveness of mentoring programs is often questioned. Given these concerns, I have identified several interconnected areas that need further consideration to improve the mentoring experience for novice teachers.
First, there is often a personality mismatch between the mentor and mentee. Teacher turnover contributes to this problem. As more teachers leave the profession and the average experience level skews younger, there are often more mentees than mentors. Given this imbalance, any teacher who volunteers to be a mentor receives the position, even if they may not be properly suited for the role (Hudson, 2014). Choosing mentors out of convenience instead of merit often leads to a mismatch of personalities. Regular workplace dynamics and age-related tensions layer on top of these issues. For instance, studies have indicated that some mentors feel threatened when their mentees display capabilities beyond what they possess, or that some mentees believe they cannot speak truthfully without offending their mentor’s abilities (Hudson, 2014). Amid these dynamics, friction forms and the mentor/mentee relationship becomes less productive. To establish a strong mentor/mentee relationship, it is most helpful when both parties share similar beliefs and values. These similarities can help build trust and respect and make collaboration and communication efforts more successful (Greiman et al., 2007). When mentors and mentees have shared beliefs and values, they are able to work toward common goals in their teaching practices.
Second, good mentoring takes time, and must be intentionally and thoughtfully built into the system. Many schools do not give mentors and mentees common planning periods. They are therefore stuck meeting during their own time—usually before or after school. This can be particularly challenging when veteran teachers often serve on committees or take on various leadership roles, and novice teachers are typically “voluntold” to coach or lead extracurricular activities. Add in the numerous meetings teachers attend each week and the time allotted for mentors and mentees is sporadic at best. Then, when they finally get a chance to meet, they spend their precious minutes completing specific requirements that usually consist of completing a check list or mentoring log—all things that essentially equate to busy work. Time grows even shorter if the mentor/mentee pairing teach different subjects, grades, or are spread out across different school buildings. Whatever the reasoning, mentors and mentees are not meeting nearly enough. Research shows that on average less than 60% of mentees reported having three or more conversations with their mentors during the school year and only 41% of mentees reported being observed by their mentors (Kardos & Moore Johnson, 2008).
Third, mentoring programs must build in a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). An absence of this focus can be especially jarring for novice teachers, as many teacher preparation programs have incorporated DEI into their pedagogy and the new hires expect to continue that work when they arrive at their new schools. Of the schools that do incorporate DEI into their mentoring programs, their offerings often consist of one or two professional development (PD) sessions—and then it is incorrectly decided that they have completed their equity work, not realizing it is an ongoing journey (Lee, 2006).
These sorts of oversights have overwhelming real-world effects on teacher retention. Just last month, The Washington Post released an article with a terrifying headline that read “’Never seen it this bad’: America faces catastrophic teacher shortage.” While news sources have pointed out many issues as the culprit of teacher shortages—such as unlivable wages, COVID-19, burnout, and lack of flexibility—one must question the role teacher mentoring programs play in this phenomenon.
Many of the teacher retention concerns take place in low-income schools, where it is harder to retain teachers (Kardos & Moore Johnson, 2008). Many teachers in these districts are unprepared to meet the needs of their culturally and linguistically diverse students (Achinstein & Athanases, 2005). Yet, mentoring programs rarely focus on ways to promote equitable learning and developing cultural competence (Achinstein & Athanases, 2005). When you take into consideration that this type of work takes time and strong relationships—two items often missing from teacher mentoring programs—you realize that this work rarely gets done. Thus, “new teachers may become overwhelmed and somewhat reluctant to receive guidance that pushes them beyond their zones of proximal development or what they can manage during this early stage of a teaching career” (Achinstein & Athanases, 2005).
Furthermore, many novice teachers feel less effective in the classroom and have trouble meeting intense accountability standards related to evaluations and test scores. All of which increases stress and reduces job satisfaction. However, research found that "a positive relationship with a mentor can reduce stress and increase job satisfaction--two ways to retain teachers" (Greiman et al., 2007). Without a proper support system, novice teachers tend to move to higher performing districts or leave the profession altogether.
The current mentoring programs we have in place lack personal compatibility assessments, adequate time allocation, and a DEI focus, all of which ultimately hurts teachers and students as teacher turnover increases. The mentoring relationship is about so much more than just sharing classroom experiences and tips. Rather, it is about helping to make schools more equitable, to retain highly qualified teachers, and to have professionals who genuinely enjoy their working experience. By re-framing mentoring programs, we may be able to both improve teachers’ current experiences and abilities and encourage them to invest in a long-term career in the classroom.