How To Improve The Quality Of Teaching With Tools Districts Already Have At Hand (And How To Mess It Up)
There is never a shortage of ideas about how to improve the quality of teaching in U.S. classrooms. From the intrusive and convoluted (“Let’s give every student a test and then run the test through a complex mathematical formula and use it to identify the strongest and weakest teachers and then fire the weak ones and replace them with strong ones, somehow”) to the traditional and banal (“Time for a day of professional development sessions that most of you will find boring and useless”), tied to either threats (“We’ll fire you!”) or rewards (“Merit pay!”), school systems and policy makers have come up with a wide variety of approaches that don’t do a bit of good.
And yet, there is a very effective method that not only improves the quality of teaching in classrooms, but increases the chances of retaining good teachers in a district. Best of all, every district in the country already has every resource it needs to implement the technique. Some are even required to do it, though many mess it up badly. What’s the magic technique?
The only resource needed is a good, experienced teacher to mentor a new teacher for a year, or even two or three.
In the old days, new teachers found their mentors through happenstance. Like many beginning teachers, I found my first mentors in the staff room during lunch. If I had eaten a different shift, I might not have met them at all. I also had the good fortune to be in an unconventional education program; the same professor who supervised me during my student teaching also visited my classroom during my first year, and I met monthly with other first year teachers in the program. But in my second job, I was in a department whose member motto was, “Live and let live, and leave me alone.” In that job, I made needless mistakes because I was fumbling in the dark.
There is so much for a new teacher to learn. There are the official policies and procedures of the school, and then there are all the unofficial policies and procedures that aren’t written down anywhere (but heaven help you if you violate them). Then comes the real fun—figuring out how to use everything you’ve learned about pedagogy and content in an actual classroom with live human students.
Making mentorship an official paid position has many advantages, not the least of which is that the new teacher doesn’t have to feel as if she’s bothering someone, and the mentor doesn’t have to feel as if she’s intruding. Face to face feedback from a live human who is intimately—and successfully—familiar with the job you’re trying to do is priceless. It not only builds confidence and capability, but it keeps the new teacher from feeling isolated in her classroom, supported rather than abandoned. And it helps the school build culture and quality with something more deliberate than a hope that new teachers just happen to run into the right staff members.
If your state has no mentoring requirement, your district can—and should—implement mentoring anyway. And unfortunately even if your state does require mentoring, there are several ways that a school district can make the program ineffective:
Assign mentors by convenience. In some districts, administration just checks to see whose non-teaching period lines up with the new teacher’s non-teaching period, even if the mentor teaches a different subject or is otherwise a poor match for the new teacher. The best mentoring gets down to nuts and bolts (“Let me walk you through what I did when I taught this exact unit”). The very best mentoring matches a new teacher with an experienced teacher who can appreciate and nurture the newby’s personal approach to the work.
Don’t provide release time for mentoring. Mentor and mentee should have a period in their schedule set aside for the mentoring process. To expect them to just somehow squeeze in a few minutes every day on top of their regular duties is unproductive (particularly for the new teacher who is likely already battling the clock). This is important work; make time in their day for it. Bonus points if you actually give the mentor the opportunity to observe the mentee at work in classes.
Try to do it on the cheap. This goes hand in hand with the other two. It’s not just a matter of paying the mentor a more-than-token sum. Release time is necessary to do the job well, and in a school, time is money. You can implement mentoring with tools you already have, but you should be prepared to invest some money in it, too. In the long run, it will pay off.
Studies and a wealth of teacher anecdotes show that mentoring works. If you want a study to show that it helps raise test scores, those exist. There’s plenty of evidence that mentoring helps retain teachers. And it is the rare education policy idea that doesn’t start arguments between parties in the education reform debates.
While mentoring can be mandated by the state, it has to be implemented locally, and it has to be implemented well. It’s not flashy. It’s not even game changing. But done well, it will improve the quality of teaching in your school. Previously posted at Forbes.com