Benjamin Disraeli once said, “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”
This precept is at the heart of effective mentoring relationships and illustrates what is, in effect, a process of co-constructing knowledge between mentor and mentee that is necessary for the development of beginning teachers. There are complex aspects to teacher mentoring relationships, which distinguish them from other forms of teaching and learning. Part of this complexity has to do with the fact that teaching is a practiced art form. Experienced mentor teachers must define and articulate elements of their own practice that, in many ways, have become automatic, being composed of a repertoire of techniques and responses to student need and behaviors. Another area of complexity is that beginning teachers must translate what they learn from their mentors into their own voices, and develop their own repertoire of skills to be applied to a variety of situations. Finally, teacher mentoring takes place between people that are, more or less, peers, and the participants must deal with enduring perceptions about traditional teaching and learning that have to do with issues of hierarchy, influence, and knowledge development. This is particularly true in clinically based credentialing programs in which the beginning teachers and mentors are colleagues.
These processes are always present, even within approaches to mentoring new teachers that advocate for a co-construction of knowledge. The presumption here is that effective growth requires open and egalitarian dialogue, collective celebration of progress and collaborative goal setting. We contend that the degree to which the complex issues described above are addressed influences mentoring programs’ success. This article describes some of the theoretical and practical aspects of mentoring as they relate to these issues, and will describe illustrative examples from the mentoring program in a clinically based credentialing program at High Tech High Credentialing.
Researchers Marilyn Cochran-Smith and Susan Lytle (1999) assert that there are three differing conceptions of teacher knowledge: “Knowledge for practice,” “knowledge in practice,” and “knowledge of practice.” Each conception of teacher knowledge carries implications for models of new teacher learning and development. Cochran-Smith and Lytle argue that the most prevalent conception of the three across teacher education programs is “knowledge for practice,” placing an emphasis on developing deep formal knowledge about learning theories, pedagogy and content. In this model, to become effective practitioners teachers must “implement, translate, or otherwise put into practice the knowledge they acquire from experts outside the classroom” (p. 255). This is the model of teacher knowledge development for the vast majority of student teachers in traditional education programs.
In terms of implications for full immersion, clinical practice models the inherent conception of teacher learning inherent in a fusion of “knowledge in practice,” and “knowledge of practice.” The conception of “knowledge in practice” holds the view that teaching is “an uncertain and spontaneous craft” and that knowledge is held and expressed in the various actions and decisions teachers make in the day-to-day process of teaching. In this view, teachers learn from having “opportunities to enhance, make explicit, and articulate the tacit knowledge” (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, p. 262) that comprises expert teachers’ practices. This conception of knowledge goes hand in hand with the third conception, “knowledge of practice”—conceiving knowledge as being constructed through teacher networks and communities of practice that function to construct knowledge as it is developed in particular individuals and in specific contexts of use.
Blending The Conceptions of Teacher Knowledge
How do these conceptions of teacher knowledge translate to the training and development of new teachers in clinical practice models? First, clinical practice models in which teachers act as full-time classroom instructors while earning their credentials provide organizations with the ability to hire teachers with experience in fields other than education or who are recent college graduates. They also provide opportunities for career changers interested in pursuing careers in education but who are unable to enroll in traditional, full-time university-based programs. This practice of hiring teachers who are new to teaching but who have deep disciplinary content knowledge from prior experience is key to the concept of knowledge for practice. There is an assumption that people coming from fields of business and industry have comprehensive knowledge of their specific disciplines. Knowledge of theory, pedagogy, classroom structures, assessment, and differentiation are introduced in methods classes, and reinforced through conversations and observations with mentors. The new teachers apply their developing skills in real time, and in classroom contexts in which they are more fully responsible for student learning. These structures function to provide theoretical knowledge for new teachers within the context of the environment in which they are working. In this approach, knowledge of theory, philosophy and practice are developed through teaching and learning relationships within the authentic communities of practice in which the new teachers are employed and are full participants.
In keeping with the idea that teacher knowledge is expressed through the various actions and decisions teachers make in the ongoing practice of teaching, and is developed in the context of local communities of practice, mentoring must play a critical role in the development of new teachers in clinical practice programs. The guiding belief central to this approach is that there are crucial benefits in having mentoring occur on site and in the context of a particular organization’s approach. Mentees must have easy and frequent access to their mentors. There is great benefit to the fact that mentors are implementing the same approaches their mentees are developing in real time, in the same building, and with the same communities of students. In these situations, modeling, feedback and discussion are facilitated by proximity and common context. While there are benefits in implementing collegial relationships such as those described here, there are practical concerns related to providing ongoing support to assure that they are effective. These concerns include:
Providing support for mentors and mentees to adequately define and articulate effective teaching practice.
Defining and developing mentor roles, mentoring strategies and mentor identities.
Examples From One Program: High Tech High Credentialing
Mentoring relationships are part of a robust adult learning community within the High Tech High organization. High Tech High is in a rare position in the charter school world, as teachers who are hired without credentials automatically become part of a two-year District Intern Credentialing program. A vital aspect of this program is that each Intern is paired with a Mentor with whom they meet weekly. A second component of the High Tech High Credentialing Program is an Induction Program for teachers who are working to clear their credentials. These Induction teachers are also paired with Mentors. In this model, new teachers are supported for the first three to four years of their careers. Of the 240 teachers that High Tech High employs, approximately 200 are involved in mentoring relationships either as a mentor or a mentee.
These mentoring relationships occur within a context of daily morning meetings at each school site that include all staff, grade level team, and/or discipline groups. Regular discussion, project tuning, and problem solving are key components of the daily environment within the organization as a whole. The mentoring relationships that exist are integral parts of the adult learning community, both contributing to and dependent upon the organizational climate of mutual support and open dialogue.
The basic premise of the mentoring model is that meaning and knowledge are co-constructed between the participants and that this process requires specific relational characteristics between mentor and mentee. Awaya, et al. (2001) outline five ways of defining mentoring relationships that are reflective of this model:
The mentors in HTH’s program readily adopt these definitions of mentoring, primarily because they are also integral characteristics of the organization in general and are representative of approaches to curriculum implementation and relationships among faculty, staff and administration. Two of these characteristics, however, are the subjects of recurring questions and discussions with mentors: Mentor as guide to practical knowledge, and the practice of guiding through questioning while being minimally directive. These components are also core to the development of mentor identity.
We have found that mentors benefit from support in developing mentor identities and practice in much the same way that they are supporting their mentees in developing teacher identities. In identifying ways to support mentors we are guided by the questions:
Mentors are primarily practitioners in their own classrooms, and the role requires them to step into the role of defining and making explicit the tacit aspects of expert practice. The mentor role also requires them to guide developing thought and practice in a collaborative way. Mentors’ discussions have often focused on what kinds of questions will influence effective reflection and growth, and at what point is it appropriate to make specific suggestions when they believe that their mentees are not making progress. One mentor recently stated, “My instinct sometimes is to just tell my mentee what to do, but I know that’s wrong. It’s hard when it is clear to me what he can do to improve, but I also am stuck in how to help him see for himself. I don’t always know good questions to ask to help him move forward.” To address this common question, we have embarked on a collaborative approach in our mentor trainings to both define and make explicit effective teacher practice and to develop effective questioning strategies.
In mentor trainings, discussions have focused on the fact that teaching is often described in somewhat magical terms. A common refrain within the organization is to refer to expert teachers as “rock stars,” which, while being a wonderful compliment, also implies a certain level of achievement unattainable by most. Part of the mystique lies in the fact that the myriad plans, decisions, thought processes, and actions that expert teachers employ function at a level of automaticity, often appearing to be spontaneous and seamless. It is a much more complex example of other activities that become automatic, such as driving, in which novices are focused on executing the components of the task in awkward and self-conscious ways until they are able to integrate the parts into an elegant and seamlessly executed whole.
Over the course of the last year, High Tech High Mentors have worked together in meetings to develop descriptions of explicit characteristics of practice in regard to how teachers think about and develop classroom structures and routines, what student engagement and motivation look like, and concepts related to differentiation and equity. The questions that have guided this inquiry process include:
In addition to the descriptors of practice, Mentors have also been working collaboratively to develop a series of questions that are intended to either raise awareness about a concept of teaching, or refine practice that is already part of the new teacher’s developing knowledge. Our core theory of action in regard to this process is that teacher knowledge is primarily developed through a growing ability in “how to see” what is happening in a classroom, and “how to think” about practice. These resources have been made available online in a set of Mentor Reflection Guides and are intended to be used collaboratively in mentor/mentee discussions. Trainings for both mentors and beginning teachers have focused on using these Mentor Reflection Guides in conjunction with videos of lessons, observations in both mentor and mentee classrooms, as well as collaborative observations of other teachers within the organization. These resources are being continually refined through submission of Weekly Mentor Logs that the mentors complete online, the contents of which are disseminated back to the mentors and mentees through an ongoing blog.
Our intent in developing these structures has been to infuse the community with ongoing reflection and dialogue about teaching practice, mentoring strategies, and to provide feedback and moral support for these important relationships. We have found, in general, that the new teachers express great appreciation for the mentors with whom they work. Their conversations range from focusing on teaching strategies and support with curriculum content, to issues like establishing positive relationships with parents and working effectively with colleagues. We have also heard from many mentors that the opportunity to support new teachers has given them new insights into their own teaching practice. In a recent discussion with a group of visitors seeking information about establishing mentoring programs in their own school district, one mentor was asked to describe her experience. After detailing meeting schedules, topics of conversations and pragmatic issues like making time for observations, she enthusiastically stated, “The best thing about mentoring is that I am learning so much myself. It gives me the chance to think about teaching in a detailed and reflective way that I probably wouldn’t do if I was just teaching in my own classroom.” This statement is reflective of the sentiments of many mentors in the program, and is evidence that revealing knowledge and “riches” through the process of mentoring is a mutual endeavor.
Awaya, A., McEwan, H., Heyler, D., Linsky, S., Lum, D., & Wakukawa, P. (2003). Mentoring as a journey. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19, 45-56.
Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. (1999). Relationships of knowledge and practice: Teacher learning in communities. Review of Research in Education, 24, 249-305.
To learn more about the High Tech High credentialing program, visit: http://www.hightechhigh.org/about/educator_training.php