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June 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 9

Widening the Mentoring Circle

Even the best assigned mentor can't be all things to a teacher sliding toward burnout. We need to weave broader webs of support.

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School Culture
Mr. Allen is a first-year high school social studies teacher in Queens, New York. During his new-teacher orientation, Mr. Allen's principal assigns a senior member of the social studies department as his mentor. Mr. Komoro is expected to guide Mr. Allen in all matters pertaining to curriculum, instruction, classroom management, and the observation and tenure processes, to name just a few.
During his first weeks of teaching, Mr. Allen faces many unexpected challenges, including a large population of Spanish-speaking English language learners (ELLs) with very limited English proficiency; a deaf student who uses sign language and has an interpreter; and a student with Oppositional Defiant Disorder who makes frequent outbursts, including directing profanity toward other students.
When Mr. Allen meets with Mr. Komoro for their biweekly mentoring sessions, he shares his anxieties and challenges. But Mr. Komoro responds to the struggling teacher's genuine concerns by assuring him that they are there to teach social studies to students who are capable of learning the material. If the New York City Board of Education places students in his classes whose presence there is inappropriate, this mentor advises, Mr. Allen shouldn't let that change his course.
Mr. Komoro is helpful in answering all Mr. Allen's questions pertaining to academic content. He gives useful pointers on lesson planning, curriculum development, and assessment. But Mr. Allen perceives that—although Mr. Komoro is a senior member of the department, a good teacher, and a nice man—he doesn't know the latest strategies for working with ELLs and students with special needs. He therefore isn't a helpful mentor for struggles related to diverse student needs. For example, as Mr. Allen prepares for parent-teacher conferences, he asks for guidance on how to reach out to the parents of his students who don't speak English and if interpreters will be available. Mr. Komoro dismisses Mr. Allen's concerns, telling him he shouldn't expect many parents to attend.
For some challenges that contribute to teacher burnout, such as data-driven paperwork or school politics, Mr. Komoro doesn't believe it's his responsibility to mentor Mr. Allen. When Mr. Allen seeks help analyzing schoolwide testing data, a task the principal assigned all teachers, Mr. Komoro tells him the administration isn't even going to read the data analyses since the school is so low-performing, and to "just write something."
Such dismissals leave Mr. Allen feeling frustrated, with no one to turn to for support. Within two months, he feels overwhelmed and ill-equipped to meet the needs of his students. He doesn't share these struggles with anyone, but inside, he can feel himself starting to burn out. He questions his ability to be an effective teacher and considers leaving the field at the end of his first year.

Informal Mentors to the Rescue

Mr. Allen's slide toward burnout is a common occurrence, not just for new teachers, but also for experienced teachers facing newly complex conditions. And although a mentor who's a good fit can be a great buffer against burnout, it's not uncommon for floundering teachers to find their assigned mentors can't be all they need.
That doesn't mean that mentoring isn't an effective way to fight burnout, as a look at Mr. Allen's next step reveals. Rather than accepting Mr. Komoro as his only mentor, Mr. Allen follows the advice of a professor in his graduate program. He seeks out several additional informal mentors in his school and beyond it.
He first meets with Ms. Doran, a teacher of English as a new language, who not only provides him with suggestions and useful materials for working with his beginner Spanish-speaking ELLs, but also volunteers to come into his classes occasionally to translate, assist, and demonstrate some successful practices she uses. Ms. Doran lends Mr. Allen visual aids, maps, and Spanish-English dictionaries to keep in his classroom. She gives him articles to read about the needs of ELLs and how educators can incorporate students' native cultures and languages into a social studies classroom.
Mr. Allen then reaches out to Ms. Ritchie, a special education teacher with extensive experience working with students who have emotional and behavioral disorders. Ms. Ritchie observes Tim, the student in Mr. Allen's class with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and helps Mr. Allen make recommendations to the school to secure counseling services and special education testing accommodations for Tim. She and Mr. Allen create a plan for how to deal with Tim's outbursts, and they meet with Tim and his parents to communicate about what everyone will do when he starts to feel anxious and combative. This plan helps reduce Tim's behavioral outbursts considerably. Mr. Allen begins to develop a positive bond with the boy.
Finally, Mr. Allen starts having lunch once a month with Ms. Vacca, the interpreter for his deaf student. At their working lunches, Ms. Vacca teaches Mr. Allen some basic words and phrases in American Sign Language (good morning, that is correct, do you understand?). She instructs him in essential etiquette for talking to deaf people respectfully, such as making consistent eye contact with the deaf student rather than the interpreter. Mr. Allen realizes the importance of seating his deaf student where she can see the teacher at all times and using captions for the hearing impaired when showing videos.
Between Mr. Komoro, Ms. Doran, Ms. Ritchie, and Ms. Vacca, this teacher who felt himself becoming overwhelmed by self-doubt creates his own team of formal and informal mentors, with each team member providing him valuable advice and materials to face the challenges of his first year. By December, he no longer dreads going to school each day. He becomes confident that he's chosen the right profession.

Beyond Formal Mentoring

A mentoring relationship between an experienced teacher and a less experienced or struggling teacher is akin to the relationship between an adoptive parent and child. To do a good job, the veteran teacher has to really want to help his or her colleague. Good mentoring, like good parenting, is an act of love. Some people become parents by accident or because society convinces them they must; others do it by conscious choice. The same is true of mentoring. But—although people who have children by accident can be excellent parents—the differences between people who choose to do something and people who are coerced are often vast. Teachers should never be assigned randomly to mentor, and teachers who don't want to be mentors shouldn't be made to do so. Let's face it: Constructive relationships are less likely when one party is forced on the other.
The most effective mentoring relationships develop naturally and organically, out of mutual respect and admiration, and out of mentors' and mentees' sincere desires to share, teach, and learn reciprocally. Although formal mentoring programs may be necessary in schools, it's equally important to encourage beginning teachers and those approaching burnout to move beyond the confines of the formal program and forge supportive relationships on their own.

Keeping New Teachers Strong and Healthy

Encouraging educators to seek specialized guidance and support from colleagues who desire to give it is especially crucial for novice teachers. According to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, the teaching profession as a whole has a high attrition rate, and the tendency for novices to drop out is exacerbated in urban school systems like New York City, where the attrition rate of beginning teachers can be as high as one in four during their first three years. A 2014 report by Richard Ingersoll and colleagues estimated that as many as 41 percent of all U.S. teachers who enter the field leave it within five years. Burnout and a lack of multidimensional mentoring surely contribute to these statistics.
The idea of designating a single mentor as the one person who can transmit all important information and guide a new teacher's development is a narrow, outdated view of mentoring—one that weakens mentoring's power to slow attrition. Teachers like Mr. Allen usually don't leave the profession because they cannot write lesson plans or don't know their content, but because they're completely unprepared for the complex, culturally sensitive interactions they engage in daily with diverse students, parents, and colleagues. So guidance from multiple quarters strengthens their hand. Many members of a school or educational community—even people not on the school staff—should contribute to mentoring new teachers.
In his first two years of teaching, for instance, Mr. Allen forged informal mentoring relationships with a colleague from another school who was familiar with the social studies curriculum; a representative from the teachers' union who advised him on matters pertaining to his employment contract; and custodial and clerical staff members, who passed on valuable information about the history of the district. He initiated conversations with a football coach who knew several of his students well and partnered with him to help motivate them academically. And a classmate in a graduate course helped him reflect on several lessons. These informal mentors played pivotal roles in helping him thrive.
Some of the most important discussions new teachers engage in with informal mentors won't be about official mentoring topics (lesson planning, school policy, or classroom management issues), but about unofficial ones, including school and education politics, culturally sensitive issues, and the intricacies of interpersonal communication that are necessary to successful teaching. Such interactions can literally save someone's teaching life and enable them to keep strong, healthy attitudes in the face of adversity.

Making It Happen

School leaders can encourage teachers to seek out informal mentors and interact regularly with them in several ways. Teachers of special education, TESOL, and literacy might give periodic presentations at faculty meetings, describing their roles in the school and how they support both content-area teachers and students. Encourage teachers in these areas of specialization to partner with novice teachers—and all teachers needing assistance—by providing testing modifications, remediation, language support services, and so forth to students who need them.
School leaders can create collegial structures through which any struggling teacher can be informally observed by more experienced peers or teachers with particular expertise. Such informal observations, followed by reflections and discussions of the teacher's practice, let a colleague mentor a struggling teacher in ways that will be most effective for that particular teacher. Surveys or other gentle assessments should be regularly administered to all teachers, particularly new or struggling ones, to discern whether their assigned mentors are providing them everything they need. Use the results of these periodic inquiries to recommend specific informal mentors for teachers.
Schools should develop ways to recognize teachers on the verge of burnout so they can guide them toward a constellation of mentoring opportunities. Look for patterns in absenteeism, signs of depression, and similar indicators of stress. Check in periodically with teachers to ask how they're doing and if everything is OK. As simple as it sounds, this step is often overlooked in busy schools.

Who Makes a Good Mentor?

So how can leaders—and struggling teachers—identify teachers or school-connected adults who might make the best informal mentors? The first qualification should be that they're interested in helping struggling colleagues. Observing how a teacher relates to other teachers will show whether he or she has the qualities needed. The best informal mentors find ways to guide their peers, not only formally, but also "in the cracks." They seek out both subtle and direct ways of helping their mentees understand the potential minefields that exist in the schools where they teach; successful mentoring is as much about teaching a mentee what not to say and do as it is about leading an educator down the right path. And effective mentors encourage peers to benefit from mistakes they've made (or will make) rather than feeling embarrassed or disempowered by them—while still allowing mentees to make their own decisions and find their own way.
A good mentor can help a burned-out teacher better manage his or her time and prioritize the needs of students over the less important—yet stressful—aspects of teaching. Refocusing on the student-centered reasons why they went into teaching helps struggling educators rediscover their joy in teaching.

Advice for the Struggling

Although much has been written about the qualities of good mentors, little has been written about the ways that teachers needing support can find their own mentors and benefit most from generous colleagues' wisdom. Here's my advice to teachers who feel themselves becoming overwhelmed or dreading coming to school: Consciously and actively seek out people at your school whom you most admire. Start by watching them carefully. Listen to the things they say and do with students, parents, colleagues, and administrators.
Then invite someone you'd like to mentor you to tea or lunch. Although it's important to be mindful of other teachers' time, it's equally important to let your colleagues know you're seeking guidance in a certain area. Conversations that begin with a brief meeting can be continued through email or a regular series of interactions. To sustain such a relationship while making sure you aren't taking more time than a (polite) colleague really wants to give, negotiate acceptable parameters up front. You might ask, "Would it be alright if we met once a month to discuss the ELLs in my classes?" If the ELL teacher says she already has several monthly commitments, ask if meeting once per marking period would be better—and so on until both parties are happy with the arrangement. Remember that in an effective mentoring relationship, the mentor learns as much from the mentee as vice versa.
When you meet, pick your potential mentor's brains. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Teachers like to talk about things they're passionate about in their professional lives. Ask them about their teaching, their philosophies of learning, their favorite texts and authors. You might even ask carefully about their own families; like most of us, teachers often feel a desire to connect with a coworker and share their own struggles and lessons learned.
Reach out to teachers and education leaders from other schools, talk to classmates in graduate courses or stop by the office hours of teacher-education faculty, and approach people whose writing and teaching you admire. Create your own unique network of mentors, beginning with those folks that you most want to be like professionally.

Passing It On

A struggling teacher seeking help should never be a passive recipient. To get the most out of any mentoring relationship, foster in yourself the willingness to listen and learn, as well as a capacity to maintain trust, gratitude, respect, and an openness to accepting criticism and looking at situations through multiple perspectives. Like a runner in a relay, the mentee must have her hand out and open, ready to receive the baton being passed on. Once the baton is passed to you, pass it forward to a colleague whose steps are faltering.
End Notes

1 All teacher and student names are pseudonyms. This scenario is a composite based on situations experienced by teachers in New York City's public schools, which I have become aware of as a professor and teacher educator.

2 Ingersoll, R. (2003). Is there really a teacher shortage? Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

3 Ingersoll, R. (2003). Is there really a teacher shortage? Philadelphia: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

 Jacqueline Darvin is a deputy chair, program director, and professor of secondary literacy education at Queens College of the City University of New York. She is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Educational Leadership and credentials as a New York State School Building Leader and School District Leader.

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