The Importance of Ongoing Mentoring for Teachers

In Atul Gawande’s The New Yorker piece about the importance of mentors, he, a surgeon, discusses the benefits he received from mentoring, wondering why the idea of mentorship is not more common in more fields. Mentoring (or coaching), Gawande argues, is common for sports players of all levels, even individuals who are paid millions of dollars, but in other fields, it is reserved only for those who need help, and he wonders if that’s really the best model.

The question he poses is especially relevant in the field of education. Usually a teacher receives significant mentoring while in a training program. She’ll have someone who watches her teach and gives her feedback on lessons. Someone with whom to brainstorm on how to use data to effectively reach all students. Someone to offer a second set of eyes and ears in a parent meeting in order to ensure she’s effectively communicating.

Once out of the training program, however, most of those supports go away. In many schools first (and possibly second) year teachers have a mentor and undergo a more thorough supervision process, but resources are limited beyond that, and sometimes these structures seem more like a formality than a framework in place to help the teacher grow in a supported way.

And that’s not even touching on more experiences and veteran teachers.

Teachers at all levels have a serious need to be supported and encouraged as they continue to master the skills needed to be a great teacher. Our students and their needs change so quickly; we have a duty and an obligation to continue to keep our pedagogy and methods updated, adapting to the needs of the students and the changing world, but working alone can be scary and confusing and overwhelming, and there has to be a better way.

There can be a better way, and it can make use of resources already present at the school.

A model that makes use of these faculty resources could consist of creating a culture of internal coaches. Teachers could be partnered up with each other with the expectation that they will observe classes and offer observations and suggestions to each other. Alternately, a system of instructional rounds, where teachers systematically observe other classes could be employed. These models would require a shift in school culture for many as, under the current culture in many schools, observations are usually done by administrators for evaluation purposes and not by peers as a part of self-improvement.

Teachers could also be encouraged to form professional learning communities to discuss topics of interest or to brainstorm and troubleshoot together. Monthly lunch-and-learns could be organized around specific topics or articles of interest, requiring minimal preparation time from teachers but still giving them an opportunity to reflect on their practice through a program that allows for peer coaching. Some professional development time could be used for structured protocols, allowing for and encouraging teachers to use their peers as sounding boards to work through difficult or challenging situations.

With the added expectation of coaching and mentoring, faculty duties may have to be redistributed. Gawande says, however, that the few hours he spends with his mentor each month far outweigh hundreds of thousands of dollars of fancy new equipment in terms of results for patients and success rates, so maybe it is worth considering? If schools could arrange their schedules in a way that allows for a few hours a month of mentoring or coaching time for every teacher, imagine how much our students could benefit.

Teacher support and ongoing growth is a key component at Einstein Academy. We truly see our teachers as the most important resource we have at the school, and we ask a lot of them. We ask for strong relationships with students and parents. We ask for creative, personalized, authentic curriculum that is adjusted to the needs of the specific students. We as for team players who are “school” teachers, not just “classroom” teachers, and want to do everything possible to make all of that happen. We look for teachers who love students and are open to learning, and we are committed to helping them grow, no matter what stage of career they find themselves.

Approaching teacher support in this way is ultimately best for students. Not only do supported teachers make better classroom teachers, but modeling ongoing growth and commitment to improvement is amazing for students to see. It helps to take away the stigma associated with not being an expert and sets the students towards the path of lifelong learning.

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