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Mentoring Pre-service Teachers

A Collaborative Approach to Improving the Practice of Teaching
By Susan Rismiller
January 1, 2008
"Everything depends upon the quality of
the experience which is had."

~John Dewey

It's a sad fact that in this current hiring environment, many new teachers haven't had the opportunity to "student teach" before accepting the responsibilities of a classroom. Through the years, and with allowances made for provisional licensure, as many as half of the teachers in my special education wing began their careers with little to no actual teaching experience. Even when student teaching is a part of the novice teacher's experience, it usually comes in the form of a 6 to 8 week model where veteran teachers demonstrate good teaching practices, and novice teachers soak up, then replicate teaching strategies.

In my 14 plus years as a teacher trainer, I've come to recognize the need for a more democratic, broader approach to teacher training. It's clear to me that new teachers need and deserve more than an experienced model and time to practice a checklist of standardized behaviors. In addition, preservice and new teachers need:

1. to learn how to affect change in their own teaching practice through reflective thinking. It's one thing to observe and model another's teaching style. It's more important that new teachers (and the rest of us) develop skills for identifying aspects of our own teaching that demand improvement, why it's not working well just now, and what to do to improve our student's learning. When all teachers value the supportive, central structure provided by reflective thinking, we are challenged to leave behind safe but ineffective strategies, and ascertain the usefulness of new methods and ideas.

2. to develop truly collaborative relationships with teaching peers. Many schools give only lip service to the idea of teacher collaboration. Instead, new teachers need to enter into professional relationships where colleagues "are accountable to each other, express themselves authentically, examine aspects of schooling that are typically taken for granted, and negotiate common understandings that support collective action" (Lipton and Oakes, Teaching to Change The World, 1999, p. 348). The mentor/mentee relationship itself should be a model of professional collaboration.

As such, a broader, more democratic approach to mentoring:

1. extends working relationships beyond the dyad of the mentor/mentee. When groups of new and seasoned teachers meet regularly in the spirit of collegiality, diverse points of view enrich an otherwise limited exchange. Group support provides a model of professional collaboration useful throughout a teaching career. While the mentor/mentee relationship continues to be primary, (some personal issues are still best be addressed in private) the one mentor/one mentee paradigm is limiting and reclusive.

2. includes routines for thinking critically and recording one's ideas. Journaling for private use and as a means of communication between mentoring groups provides a great opportunity for sharing, thinking, and documenting. Email can provide a forum for this daily exchange of ideas; furthermore, it respects the impact of time on our ability to consider and inquire. Reflective thinking that takes place hours or days later may not be as convenient as touching base verbally or in writing at the end of a busy school day, but it often reveals more of those "Ah Ha!" moments that lead to teaching improvement.

3. honors the mentee's experience and personal philosophies. A mentor's "one way-my way" thinking will undoubtedly thwart a new teacher's creativity and ability to trust the mentor. Modeling democratic ideals within the mentor/mentee relationship is key to helping novice teachers develop a supportive, professional, and caring commitment with their own students.

4. provides lots of time for supported practice, guiltless mistake-making, and opportunities for independence. By many standards, the best learning experiences are often hands-on, in-the-moment, and cultivated by caring professionals to foster independence. These standards are just as relevant for teacher training.

Based on Deborah Meier's "habits of mind" in The Power of Their Ideas (1995), the following questions can stir mentoring teams to better understand the whys and hows of their teaching:

  1. How do we know what we know?
  2. Whose perspective are we hearing?
  3. What patterns and causal factors can we identify?
  4. What factors might change the outcomes?
  5. Who thinks this is important?

These pointed questions probably won't be authentically answered within the constructs of an authoritative-model teacher training program. Instead, mentors must establish a climate where respect for each other, the work itself, and its effect on student achievement overrides all else. Once established and nurtured, this learning climate provides an action-oriented, collaborative experience, one that is likely to create a life-long commitment to professional growth and improved student learning. After all, that is the goal: a contingent of new teaching professionals ready to accept "public responsibility for the shared future of the next generation" (Meier, 1995, p. 4).

Mentees share in the responsibility for the success of a collaborative model:

1. Novice and pre-service teachers must enter into the collaborative model with an eye toward expansive professional development. The more open the mentee is to self-evaluation, questioning assumptions, and trying new ideas, the more valuable this experience will be.

2. Daily journal writing is an effective and thoughtful method of communication between mentor and mentee. (Most licensure programs require it as well). Journaling is an excellent life-long teacher skill, and can be an important part of classroom research that results in improved student achievement. This daily exercise becomes a strong indicator of the mentee's reflective skills, and often paves the way to improved teaching skills.

3. Finally, mentees are encouraged to ask questions, then ask some more! The value of their experience is greatly affected by the mentee's willingness to wonder aloud and in writing about the broad range of issues.

As practitioners of collaborative mentoring strategies, mentors should

  • maintain a positive learning climate where the mentee's questions and ideas are welcome and valued.
  • model and teach effective instructional and behavior management strategies; where applicable, provide ample practice time and support as intern learns these new skills.
  • model collaborative, professional interactions with all school personnel.
  • model trust-inspiring relationships with students, including the establishment of rules and routines necessary for safe and effective classroom activities.

The good news is that transformation of the mentor/mentee relationship is one means to fundamental school-wide change. When this working partnership gives educators the freedom to critically examine their teaching practice, the direction and focus of that practice can't help but shift. Ultimately, teachers who are comfortable and brave enough to ask tough questions about their work and its effect on student learning will make important grass roots changes in their classrooms.

» More Gazette articles...

About Susan Rismiller...

Special educator Susan Rismiller has mentored 14 new and preservice teachers, some in conjunction with Fairfax County, Virginia’s Great Beginnings Teacher Induction Program, as well as George Mason University’s unique year long internship program.A1980 graduate of James Madison University, Susan completed her masters degree in 2001 through George Mason University’s Initiatives in Educational Transformation (IET), and was awarded its Program Award for outstanding achievement and academic excellence. Information about GMU’s IET program can be found at .

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