Telementoring: Helping New Teachers Through the First Year

The phone rings at 6:35 p.m. A former student, now in her first year of teaching, calls for advice. Minutes become hours as Missy shares her concerns and asks for advice about a host of issues and events, ranging from classroom management to instructional strategies and working with her colleagues in the field. She expresses a sense of isolation, of being alone out there, trying to work toward all of the lofty goals and visions she developed while she was in our teacher education program. She finds herself wanting to implement the student-centered best practices she encountered in her coursework, but is frustrated when unable to do so. She can see the difference between the way she knows things ought to be and the way they are, not only in her school but also within her own classroom.

Are people looking at her classroom wondering about her control and skills as students engage in cooperative learning and dialogue? Are the students really learning what she hopes they are? Where is the time to plan and think about teaching and learning? What should she do when the students aren't behaving as she thought they would? Why is she so overwhelmed and tired?

These are all questions typical of the phone calls we receive from our students as they enter their first year of teaching. We usually talk to them, process, ask guiding questions, give assurance, and provide insight, at least, the best insight that we can over the phone in the middle of supper. We tell them there are others going through these same concerns, that this is normal and to be expected, that it is in fact developmental. We try to assure them that there have been others who have called to share their concerns, others that hold the same vision of teaching and learning, others who are part of the reform movement in schools with a commitment to student-centered education and best practices in the field. Somehow, it's not enough.

New teachers need support. They need ongoing professional development. They need a sense of belonging, of common cause, and the knowledge that over time they will make a difference not only in the lives of individual children they teach, but in their profession. The need for this support became the focus of a long range mentoring process between us and new graduates of our teacher development program. It also informed our ongoing research related to teaching and learning and the impact of our students' professional preparation.

 

Mentoring and Program Redesign

Several years ago the College of Education at Augusta State University decided to redesign the pre-service teacher preparation programs. This effort was centered on the INTASC standards for new teachers. Central to the process was the need to increase the pre-service teachers' reflection, critical thinking, and understanding of best practices. The standards were embedded throughout the program of study, including an emphasis on technology as a communication vehicle and means of reflection. Extensive field experiences brought the standards to life. The master teachers, peers and university faculty in the field helped to provide critical evaluation and feedback related to implementation of the standards. This new process supported pre-service teachers' professional growth during the initial teacher education courses.

Subsequent evaluation of the program showed that the student teaching experience did not match the new design. After working with field-based practitioners, a new process emerged. The emphasis shifted toward a mentoring model that tapped into the expertise of the teachers in the field. Master teachers, apprentices and university faculty worked together to apply the knowledge, skills and habits of mind developed in previous classroom and field experiences. Technology played a major role in communication, reflection and professional development. Use of a list server and e-mail provided timely feedback and ongoing reflective dialogue.

The mentoring aspect of the apprenticeship experience proved successful during a three year pilot study that addressed student needs related to developing reflective and critical thinking about teaching and learning in light of best practice and teaching standards. Goal-setting dialogue was fostered between not only the master teacher, college of education faculty member and the pre-service apprentices, but also among the apprentices themselves who developed a support network of peers. Students began to develop the communication skills necessary to work effectively with colleagues and mentors as a means of continuous improvement and working toward the realization of best practices within the classroom and school community.

However, once the apprentices began their careers as full time classroom teachers, the benefits of this mentoring were no longer readily accessible. The success of the apprenticeship mentoring program, and the reported lack of such mentoring by first year teachers, led us to take a deeper look into the concept of mentoring and how this might be best implemented to meet our former students' needs.

 

The Concept of Mentoring

Mentoring g'es back thousands of years to Homer's epic p'em, the Odyssey. Homer tells of a wise old sea captain named Mentor who gives Odysseus's son, Telemachus, guidance in coping with his father's long absence. In modern times, the word mentor has been used to refer to a relationship in which a knowledgeable person aids a less knowledgeable person (O Neill, Wagner, & Gomez 1996).

Mentoring helps close the gap between pre-service training and the actualities of teaching. Mentor programs have been shown to benefit the mentor as well as the student (Haworth 1998). It needs to be an equal partnership. This is a win-win situation, because to truly serve as a mentor for a novice teacher, one must critically rethink one's teaching methods and strategies, thereby improving one's teaching (Smith 1998).

The word telementoring has been used to refer to the use of e-mail to support a mentoring relationship (O' Neill, et. al. 1996). Often traditional mentoring programs have failed, in part due to disrupting work routines of the participants. Although e-mail may seem impersonal, it is important that mentors remain accessible and take the lead in the communication (Monsour 1998). For beginning teachers, mentors can be virtual colleagues, content experts, intellectual and emotional support, and a vital part of the teaching team (Mather 1997).

 

The Study

In this study we began by contacting graduates from the previous year and interviewing them. Information was gathered about where they were teaching (if at all), their access to e-mail, interest in participating, views on the preservice program and apprenticeship, current concerns about teaching and how they felt electronic mentoring could impact them professionally. Of the forty graduates contacted, twenty-seven were currently teaching and interested in the study. Focus group sessions paralleled the interview process. These allowed for further probing of identified issues and themes. A list server was established connecting the participants electronically. Training was held to help participants understand how to access the list server effectively. Participants agreed on a timeline for contact and goals for the project.

Initially, participants were surveyed to determine what value they saw in coming together to form an electronic mentoring network. They expressed interest in topics, which are fairly representative of concerns new teachers face. These included finding resources for teaching, gaining feedback on problems being faced, discussing curricular issues, managing time, and dealing with parents. Another set of topics reflected their need to network with others as a support for innovation and change. Within follow up focus groups these were identified as sharing teaching innovations and teachers' successes, challenges and barriers based on their experiences in the field. They expressed a need to network with other teachers with shared philosophies who were encountering similar challenges in their experiences to implement best practices and student-centeredness. They reported the need not only for help in the "how to" aspect of being a novice teacher, but also related to the "why" aspect as future teacher leaders. They are seeking to ground their practice and educational decisions in the shared knowledge base they had acquired in their undergraduate preparation, to not lose sight of their shared vision of teaching and learning.

 

The Beginnings

Several themes emerged from first year teachers, many typical of the challenges a beginning teacher faces. One area of concern for these teachers was classroom management. Although their coursework had components that focused on the development and practical implication of management strategies, including case analysis, simulation and field observation and teaching, the realization of doing this in one's own classroom was sometimes difficult. They reported concerns related to the myriad of administrative demands that teachers face and how to address these in light of the demands of actual instruction and working with students. They found challenges in teaching reading and math, especially to a wide variety of students with differing achievement, needs and ability.

Students reported a sense of isolation from others, especially those who shared the common vision and philosophy they had developed with their peer cohort members over their professional preparation. They felt pulled in multiple directions by mandates and administrative demands, and hard pressed to find the time and energy to deal with all of this. They were not only concerned with student behavior and motivation, but whether or not their students were actually learning. This was a primary concern in light of the focus on accountability and testing that they encountered in the field, a focus that they reported ran counter to many of the student-centered methods they had learned to implement. They needed to find a means to get support from others in the field: colleagues, administrators and parents. They felt the philosophy and methods they embraced would lead to student achievement and success but expressed the need for support to "convince" others of this. Without the support they had found at the university among peers and faculty, they began to feel overwhelmed in light of these issues.

Focus group participants reported difficulty with learning to negotiate the distance between their own emergent student-centered philosophy and practices and those they encountered in the field. The daily challenges of being a first year teacher, such as managing a classroom, planning, meeting, working with parents and day to day existence were compounded by the challenge of working toward being an agent of school improvement. This identification of themes and issues led to a plan for future mentoring of first year teachers.

 

The Future

The data gathered from the interviews and focus group sessions served as a need assessment to direct the development of a long range-mentoring plan. The plan included the establishment of a list server, face to face meetings with mentoring participants and their professors, and the development of mentoring teams to enable the network to become self sustaining. The list server would act as a means not only for participants to share their concerns, ideas and experiences, but also as a vehicle by which to focus on key issues, by responding to given questions or dilemmas. The questions and dilemmas would directly reflect themes emerging from the interactive electronic dialogue. The face to face meeting would allow the mentoring network members the benefits of meeting with all members together and building in personal contact and needed support of a first hand nature. These meetings are to occur several times over the course of the teacher's first year. They will also serve as planning sessions to move the network ahead in its development, with input from the members.

The final phase of the plan to be implemented involves first year teachers taking on the mentoring role, working with their new colleagues who enter the field in subsequent years. Training for this role occurs "on the job" as the new teachers participate in the sessions. Follow up support by the university professors will be made available to help the new mentors take on this role. In essence, it becomes a "trainer of trainer" model. The ongoing electronic communication, coupled with periodic contact and a built-in process to assure ongoing connections through the development of teachers as mentors, enables the program to become self sustaining and embedded within the structure of the new teachers' daily lives. New teachers begin to coalesce into their own support team, focused not only on meeting the daily challenges of learning to become a teacher, but on school improvement as a collective with common visions and goals.

 

Conclusion

New teachers need a transition from being a student of teaching to a teacher of students. There is less time for planning, reflection and dialogue about teaching and learning. There is still a tremendous need for support while putting what they have learned into practice. The results of the focus groups brought out the concerns the new teachers had that were not being addressed in their current situation. Existing mentoring programs may not provide the types of support necessary to the continued professional development of the novice teacher. The proposed electronic mentoring program described here provides the necessary bridge between the new teachers' professional preparation and their lived experiences in the field.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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