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.

Pausing To Reflect On A Stressful School Year

The Albert Shanker Institute has long prioritized research on improving conditions for teaching and learning. We committed to compile and share the ideas and actions of accomplished educators and education leaders while seeing the impact of the pandemic on our schools. Knowing that research also points to the importance of principal leadership in our school communities, we were troubled to read the concerning results of the survey the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) released earlier this month. We knew we needed to share the results. We are very fortunate that, amidst the whirlwind of her school and leadership duties, NASSP Principal of the Year, Beth Houf shared her reflections on her experiences, the NASSP survey results, and suggestions for a path forward with the Shanker blog. Please take some time to read and reflect on Beth’s experience and commit to advocating in 2022 for the insightful and productive ideas she offers. Thank you. - Mary Cathryn Ricker

Winter break has officially started for our school, and I finally have time to reflect on the first half of the school year. It has truly been a whirlwind.

Being a principal has never been an easy job. But there have been more days this year that have delivered impossible situations and that have left me overwhelmed, overstressed, and completely empty. Everything is urgent. We all know that when everything is important, nothing can be important. My school is understaffed daily. Everyone is doing their own job and then the job of others. Those who need to take a day off carry the guilt of their absence. Student behaviors are over the top. Fuses are short and tempers flare. Social media has only added fuel to the fire. All I can do is react. There’s simply no time to be the proactive leader that I strive to be. It shouldn’t be this way.

Allied Around Student Success

I see multiple stories published daily about the fragile state of the teaching profession and educators themselves. There is also concerning anecdotal evidence suggesting that the work of other school-related professionals, such as bus drivers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers, is also suffering due to stress from the pandemic, which may also be contributing to turnover and educator shortages. What can be most productive at this point would be to refocus on and rebuild the trust between families and educators to help promote student learning.

One thing the adults (and the students) in our schools don’t need right now is an opportunistic wedge being driven between the most natural allies in the cause of student success: families and educators. Rather than focus on problem-solving and communication, there are many stories that are focused on pitting educators and families against each other over teaching practices and materials, which is increasing the stress of teaching and learning just about every day.

I’m not just talking about late-in-the-game advertisements during the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. The work to create distrust between these longstanding partners—educators and parents—rather than nurture communication and collaboration, goes back months and has presented itself in state houses across the country. Leading the effort are state laws that create a climate of shoot-first ask-questions-later when it comes to perceived instructional transgressions. Books are being banned rather than discussed in Texas. The Tennessee Department of Education has instituted emergency rules for financially penalizing districts, and  disciplining or reporting teachers violating  a law  of 14 concepts deemed too contentious by the legislature. Similarly, the New Hampshire Department of Education has created an online form to collect complaints about teachers from parents and students. A growing number of states have introduced or passed laws similar to these in 2021, while other states have plans to introduce similar measures in future legislative sessions.

The Struggle Over The Power Of Naming

Our guest author today is Leo Casey, former Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute and current Assistant to the President at the American Federation of Teachers. He is the author of The Teacher Insurgency (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

Do teachers have a “free speech” or “freedom of conscience” right to call students by the name and pronouns the teacher wants to use, rather than a responsibility to use the name and pronouns students’ provide for themselves—as some on the political right in education now claim?

I come to this question as someone who has spent the last four decades of my life as a teacher unionist fighting for the “freedom to teach.” For me and for the great preponderance of the teachers I have worked with, that freedom was never an unconditional right to do whatever we wanted to do in a classroom. Rather, it was our collective right to teach in accordance with the best educational practices, as understood by the professional teaching community.* To properly address the question of what name(s) a teacher should use, therefore, we must situate it in the work that teachers do, and the responsibilities that work entails.

How To Support Teachers' Well-Being During COVID-19? Prioritize Relationships With Students.

Our guest authors today are Kristabel Stark, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, and Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education and education policy at Boston University. 

As schools around the country get ready to reopen this month, we’ve heard a lot of talk about masks, ventilation systems, tablets, and internet access. But in the midst of these logistical conversations, it’s been easy to overlook the thing that matters most for a successful return to school: teachers.  For teachers, factors associated with COVID-19 have challenged core dimensions of their work. As school gets underway this year, and building and district administrators strategize how to go about rebuilding again in the midst of a pandemic, our research suggests that one action is critical: prioritizing relationship building between teachers and students. We find that, of all of teachers’ daily activities, it is their work with students that is most strongly associated with positive emotions. And, this relationship actually intensified in the early months of the pandemic.

We did not set out to write a COVID paper. In the fall of 2019, we set out to conduct a longitudinal study of teachers’ daily work experiences, including how they budgeted their time across activities and how their emotions varied within and across schooldays. In the study, nearly 250 teachers in two urban school districts completed time diary surveys in which they recorded how long they spent on various activities, who they spent their time with, and how they felt during these activities and interactions.  We wanted to understand how teachers’ emotions were associated with specific professional activities, and how those emotions changed over the course of a school year. But of course, we didn’t foresee that, midway through data collection, a global pandemic would emerge, temporarily transforming the nature of teachers’ work lives and professional experiences.

School Organizational Practices And The Challenges Of Remote Teaching During A Pandemic

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guests today are Matthew A. Kraft, Associate Professor of Education and Economics at Brown University and Research Director at Upbeat, and Nicole S. Simon, director in the Office of K-16 Initiatives at the City University of New York. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered schools across the United States, upending traditional approaches to education. The health threats posed by the Coronavirus, a sudden shift to remote teaching, and added caretaking responsibilities at home have created a uniquely stressful and demanding context for teachers’ work. Major concerns exist about teachers’ wellbeing during the pandemic and their ability to successfully deliver instruction remotely. Teachers have also expressed apprehension about their willingness to return to the classroom when schools are able to reopen. Even more troubling are projections of substantial student learning loss and the likelihood that differential access to technology and learning supports at home are exacerbating longstanding achievement gaps along racial and socio-economic lines. 

We developed the “Teaching From Home Survey” for Upbeat to support districts in better understanding and responding to teachers’ experience in working remotely. Between April 27 and May 26, 2020, a diverse sample of 7,195 teachers working across nine southern, midwestern and eastern states answered the survey. 78% of teachers responded to the survey, including teachers working across 8 districts and 3 charter school networks in rural, suburban, and urban areas. Our analyses complement and extend recent findings by smaller, nationally representative surveys by USA Today, Educators for Excellence, Ed Week, and RAND. The large and diverse sample of respondents allow us to explore how teachers’ experiences working remotely differ across both individual and school characteristics.

Why School Climate Matters For Teachers And Students

Our guest authors today are Mathew A. Kraft, associate professor of education and economics at Brown University, and Grace T. Falken, a research program associate at Brown’s Annenberg Institute. This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of The State Education Standard, the journal of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

Over the past decade, education reformers have focused much of their attention on raising teacher quality. This makes sense, given the well-evidenced, large impacts teachers have on student outcomes and the wide variation in teacher effectiveness, even within the same school (Goldhaber 2015Jackson et al. 2014). Yet this focus on individual teachers has caused policymakers to lose sight of the importance of the organizational contexts in which teachers work and students learn. 

The quality of a school’s teaching staff is greater than the sum of its parts. School environments can enable teachers to perform to their fullest potential or undercut their efforts to do so. 

When we think of work environments, we often envision physical features: school facilities, instructional resources, and the surrounding neighborhood. State and district policies that shape curriculum standards, class size, and compensation also come to mind. These things matter, but so do school climate factors that are less easily observed or measured. Teachers’ day-to-day experiences are influenced most directly by the culture and interpersonal environment of their schools.

Social Identity Development In The Age Of Accountability

According to a recent NPR article, the “majority of parents” do not talk to their children about social identity, which refers to group membership based on characteristics such as religion, gender, national origin, race, family makeup, and socio-economic status. The article presents results from a report, co-published by The Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago, called the Identity Matters Study. The study includes survey responses from 6,000 parents about their children’s sense of identity at home and in the classroom, as well as results from a second survey of 1,046 educators’ perspectives on identity development in school. 

Many readers were quick to respond that NPR’s headline was misleading, pointing out that the wording should have been, “White parents rarely, if ever, discuss ethnicity, gender, class or other identity categories with their kids…” This objection has merit. The report does show parent responses by race for just five survey questions, but the data confirm that White parents are far less likely than Black parents to talk about identity with students, with 6 percent of White parents and 22 percent of Black parents answering that they often talk about race. Nevertheless, the study concludes that, overall, 60 percent of parents rarely or never talk about race, ethnicity, or social class with their children. In the second survey, which queried educators, the study found that one third of teachers had a student affected by a negative comment targeting their social identity, but that most teachers feel unprepared or uncomfortable when it comes to navigating conversations on the matter. 

It is clear that we need more comprehensive survey data, including more questions broken down by race and other demographic indicators, in order to have a better understanding of how children are developing a sense of social identity at home. In the meantime, what we can gather from this article is that many students, particularly White students, do not develop an awareness of their own complex social identity until they get to school, and that this awareness often comes via negative comments.

How can schools do better?

Where Al Shanker Stood: How To Harass A Fulbright Teacher

In this column, originally published in the New York Times on November 3, 1985, Al Shanker argues that teachers need to be treated respectfully, as the dedicated professionals they are.

This is the story of a man who offended the powers that be. It has nothing to do with the Medicis, the Borgias or Henry the Eighth but a lot to do with the way too many of our schools are administered. Bert (not his real name) has been a New York City social studies teachers for many years, first in junior high and then in high school. He's also a perennial student. In addition to holding two master's degrees, he's spent most of his summers taking solid academic courses at places like Columbia, Temple, Princeton, Rensselaer. Over the years he's won three Fulbright scholarships for study in India, Israel and, this past summer, in Korea.

There's nothing parochial about Bert's  interests. He's done work in human relations, psychology, urban problems, Ottoman and Korean culture, the history of anti-Semitism and of slavery, law, school administration, American history and a whole college catalogue of other subjects. In 1980 he was cited for his "outstanding  professional participation" in a summer human rights workshop at Skidmore College.

Most important, there's nothing of the ivory tower or the dilettante in all this. Bert brought what he had studied back into his classroom and into his professional relations with his colleagues. His principal once praised him for the "keen insights" he offered in a presentation to the entire faculty after a summer of study in Israel. Now he's preparing a new syllabus for his social studies department based on his summer in Korea. His chairmen have consistently praised his teaching ability. A recent observation report on one of his lessons concluded with, "Keep up the good work."

Sounds like the record of one of the top teachers in his school, right? Wrong! The punch line is that Bert was rated "unsatisfactory" by his principal at the end of the last school year.

Preparing Future Leaders For Building Relationships

Our guest author today is Corrie Stone-Johnson, Associate Professor of Educational Administration at the University at Buffalo. She is Associate Editor of the journal Leadership and Policy in Schools published by Taylor & Francis. Her research in educational change and leadership examines the social contexts and organizational cultures within which teachers, leaders, and school support staff experience and enact change. 

While many “types” of leadership models, such as instructional leadership, transformative leadership, or moral leadership, have demonstrated positive effects on student learning, one common feature of high-quality leadership is that principals lead not by themselves but “with and through others” (Hargreaves and Harris 2010, p. 36), taking responsibility not just for success and failure but for developing the relationships needed to foster such success. Robust empirical evidence indicates that strong relationships between teachers are a key lever for a variety of important outcomes, including successful and sustainable change, teacher commitment, and student achievement. Relationships matter because they help to create social capital, which Leana and Pil define as the “glue that holds a school together.” The noted benefits of teacher social capital include student achievement gains above and beyond those attributable to teacher experience and instructional ability (see here). In schools where teachers collaborate, students do better in math and reading (see here) and teachers both stay and improve at greater rates (see here).

Social capital, or the value that inheres in the relationships among people (as opposed to the attributes of individuals), is developed in networks. Networks are important for the exchange of resources and they can be influenced by intentional strategies that build upon the existing relationships (or lack thereof) between and among district and school leaders —see here. There is no doubt that strong networks—to the extent that they generate trust and facilitate professional and organizational learning – can be a successful vehicle for student achievement and teacher retention. But—and this is very important—networks do not just happen; rather, they are the result of deliberate efforts undertaken by school administrators. Starratt (2004, 2005) argues that not only is a leader responsible to multiple stakeholders in the building, the district level and the community, he or she is also responsible for developing relationships with each of these stakeholders.