Recently, my district gave me a chance to think about a key area of work for any school system that seeks to maximize its long-term flourishing outcomes for both its staff and its students. That key area? New teacher mentoring programs.
Whether you're in a setting like mine, or a smaller one, or a larger one, I hope that the following (rough draft) thinking helps promote your own. My intended audience here is those who oversee and develop such programs, those who mentor within those programs, and those who “unofficially” mentor their newer colleagues. If you're not in the first two, then I hope you're in (or aspire to be in) that latter group. New teacher mentoring is a team effort upon which our cultures and outcomes are built. When we mentor well, we get better and happier teachers, and this means happier and more successful students.
New Teacher Mentoring Programs ought to be guided by a single “Everest statement,” and all stakeholders ought to be fluent in bringing this sentence and its parts to bear on all thinking around new teacher mentoring.
What are new teacher mentoring programs (NTMPs) for?
Here is the Everest I'd propose:
These programs exist to engage and develop new teachers at [insert school or system] until they become credible, long-term educators.A proposed Everest statement for NTMPs
In the rest of the essay, I’ll elaborate on the four key terms in the sentence — engagement and development, the means of goal achievement; and credible and long-term, the descriptions of goal achievement.
New Teacher Engagement (i.e., Motivation)
The first order of business is always human motivation. When a teacher is overly pressured, he or she will disengage — become demotivated — from the work as a function of the Yerkes-Dodson Curve. While sensitivity to pressure varies from person to person, no human being can flourish indefinitely in super-optimal pressure situations. We are not omnipotent, and there are certain parameters within which the human spirit functions best. Importantly, the super-optimal pressure that teachers experience is often as much (or more) a matter of their perspective and focus as it is their actual working conditions.
There are five key beliefs that new teacher mentors must cultivate in mentees, and that NTMPs must pervasively integrate (a Tammy Elser term) into all materials, trainings, and communications if their mentees are to flourish long-term.
(This list will look familiar to participants of the Student Motivation Course or readers of These 6 Things, Chapter 2.)
- Credibility: I’m a good teacher. I care about my students. I know what to do when problems arise. I’m passionate about my job.
- Value: This work matters. It is meaningful. It is interesting. It is relevant.
- Belonging: I’m a part of this school community. People here value, know, and respect me. People like me do work like this.
- Effort: I can improve through my effort. All aspects of teaching expertise are learnable, practicable, and improvable. As I learn and practice, my effort will pay off.
- Efficacy: I can succeed at teaching. I can accomplish specific teaching objectives.
The research on the beliefs (e.g., Farrington et al) demonstrates clearly that these five key beliefs are:
- Highly malleable, particularly at times of transition (hence the criticality of cultivating them well in NTMPs);
- Highly contextual, meaning that in every class, every circumstance, and with every student, the beliefs will fluctuate, especially in novice teachers;
- Highly predictive, meaning that a teacher consistently operating from these five key beliefs will consistently outperform like- or even more-skilled peers.
Low-touch, high-leverage interventions that work well in belief cultivation for students are likely to work well in new teacher engagement. So just as the Belonging belief is efficiently cultivated in students through teacher-generated moments of genuine connection, mentor-generated moments of genuine connection will produce a similar result. Mentors can accelerate the effects of these MGCs by building a cadre of experienced colleagues to seek MGCs with new teachers on a weekly basis. This way the new teacher's experience is well-watered with connection points to the team.
Similarly, just as one of the best ways to build the Effort belief in students is to explicitly teach the right kind of effort, effective NTMPs will also explicitly teach the core competencies and knowledge sets for fundamentally good teaching. And that brings us to our next section.
New teacher development:
Motivation is the first ingredient because a well-motivated teacher will find a way to develop him- or herself in areas of weakness. If you have to pick between engagement and development, pick engagement.
But a district that seeks to fast-track teachers from new and green to credibility and longevity must be radically clear in its thinking about what effective teachers know and are able to do. These two areas — knowledge and skill — are the two to pay attention to.
(Here it is useful to note that every teacher evaluation framework that I've seen is too complex to help with effective, consistent, strategic teacher development. Forgive the anecdotal evidence, but I am hopelessly confounded when I sit down to look at the 5D, or the framework that preceded it, or the frameworks I was evaluated against as a new teacher in Baltimore, MD. Effective teams and people cohere their efforts around a precious few things, not the exhaustive many. Frameworks like those mandated for teacher evaluation in the state of Michigan exemplify the exhaustive many versus the precious few.)
(And here it may also be useful to note that most continuing teacher development, such as development on the evaluation framework, is often inappropriate for early career teachers. If possible, allow your new teachers and mentors to slip away when possible to focus on novice-specific PD.)
So what do credible, long-term teachers know? What are they able to do?
What do they know? “Sets of Knowns”
Montana educator Tammy Elser requires her undergraduate teacher preparation students to master “sets of knowns” — a packet of items and lists and diagrams that her students are expected to memorize and explain during a semester with her. This sounds criminally arcane to most twenty-first-century educational thinkers, but it is fundamentally brilliant.
Consider one example. In Tammy’s state, all schools are required to provide “Indian Education for All.” Here is language from the 1999 Montana law, MCA 20-1-501:
Every Montanan…whether Indian or non-Indian, be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American Indians in a culturally responsive manner…All school personnel should have an understanding and awareness of Indian tribes to help them relate effectively with Indian students and parents…Every educational agency and all educational personnel will work cooperatively with Montana tribes…when providing instruction and implementing an educational goal.
Tammy was one of the folks in the state involved with seeing this ethically noble, legally mandated, and logistically challenging law from idea to practice. At early professional developments on the topic, Tammy would often notice teachers rolling their eyes at the mention of Indian Education for All. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know about this,” was the sentiment.
And so Tammy got in the habit of asking teachers to complete a simple, two-page quiz.
On one side there is a map of Montana, on which the quiz-taker writes down the name of each Montanan reservation and the name of the tribe(s) within that reservation.
On the other side, teachers are asked four questions:
- What three things are you required to do by MCA 20-1-501?
- List the seven Essential Understandings Regarding Montana Tribes.
- Can you recall the four word summary for the Essential Understandings?
- What does it mean to do something in a “culturally responsive manner?”
After the quiz is completed and teachers grade themselves, the tone of the room is markedly different. The questions that hang in the air are profound:
- How in the world do we think we can deliver on the spirit and letter of the Indian Education for All law if we don’t even know the names of the tribes in our state?
- How do we proceed without the essential understandings of the Montana tribes (e.g., “There is great diversity among individual American Indians as identity is developed, defined and redefined by entities, organizations and people. A continuum of Indian identity, unique to each individual ranges from assimilated to traditional. There is no generic American Indian.”) memorized and reflected upon?
Is it possible to become competent in the skills of Indian Education For All without first mastering the knowledge? No.
And so effective NTMPs will need to develop what Tammy calls “Sets of Knowns” for key areas of the work of the teacher. I recommend that these Sets of Knowns be created by discerning, small, experts-only committees of people (i.e., not “hey is anyone in the district interested in/willing to participate on this committee?”) who work well in teams and are happy to compromise for the sake of clarity and focus.
I recommend that these committees focus on developing knowledge sets for:
- Student motivation – I recommend teachers memorize the five key beliefs, their descriptors, and specific, efficient interventions for affecting each; many of these intervention are laid out in Chapter 2 of These 6 Things, and there are even more explained in the Student Motivation Course.
- Classroom management – I recommend the Plan, Moves, Procedures, and Warmth model explained by Lynsay Fabio and myself in The Classroom Management Course.
- Discipline- or grade-band-specific knowledge – e.g., the four pillars of a successful high school transition; the eight mathematical thinking practices.
- Principles and practices for relating well with adults – e.g., see forthcoming blog article.
- Lesson template(s) – e.g., I recommend the nine moves for teaching with texts for literacy lessons.
- Core strategies – e.g., for pair speaking, Think-Pair-Share; for small group, Conversation Challenge; for whole-class, Pop-Up Debate.
- Their locality – there's room for creative and critical thought here — but the Indian Ed for All knowledge is one set that Montanan educations should have. In your setting, it might be when was our town established? Who were the city’s founders? What hard things has the town been through? What are the town or city or district’s historical points of pride? What’s the school fight song? Or maybe you want to make it more practical, more state-specific: What are the (simplified) requirements for maintaining certification in this state?
In developing these lists, it’s key for committees to keep in view that less is more. Teachers will not remain motivated if they feel that the work is overwhelming (this harms the efficacy belief), and this feeling is largely a function of perspective and focus (meaning that the work is actually always overwhelming for everybody, and what separates the master from the novice is the ability to persistently focus on the work that matters most, not the ability to get all the work done). But it’s the job of NTMPs to facilitate this focusing process by being selective in creating their knowledge sets.
What can they do? Core Competencies
From the focused Knowledge Sets come the list of Core Competencies. If we want new teachers to know the five key beliefs beneath student motivation and how they can be affected, then we want them to be able to demonstrate this knowledge via, say, analyzing a student they are teaching who is currently poorly motivated, acting on that analysis with an informed plan, and analyzing the results of the action.
The same committees that develop the Sets of Knowns ought also to develop the Core Competencies and the means for assessing them.
Finally, a few recommendations regarding this process:
- Demonstration of the Core Competencies should be balanced across the duration of a teacher’s tenure-seeking or “residency” years (2 to 4 is ideal), and a balance should be sought between a district-directed ordering of competency demonstration (e.g., the district will likely want “working well with parents” and “warm-strict classroom management” to be demonstrated earlier, as these form the humane conditions within which the other competencies can be built) and an ordering that suits the interests and preferences of the new teacher (as this will help with their sense of professional autonomy).
- Obviously, you want your new teacher mentors to have demonstrated competencies in all of these areas, and it’s a good idea to invest in your mentors’ PD here so that they can get even better during the duration of their mentorship.
- Because this work is intensive, it is wisest to limit the courseloads of new teachers (e.g., giving a new teacher four preps isn't ideal) and to speak with them about limiting extracurricular commitments (e.g., sponsoring multiple clubs).
Schools Filled with Credible Teachers:
The goal of NTMPs ought to be the production of credible teachers. I know of no other research-supported, wholistic encapsulation of the kinds of teachers we want our schools to be filled with.
Here we are using the technical term “credibility” as found near the top of the effect sizes listed in John Hattie’s Visible Learning meta-analysis. For the sake of clarity and retention, we reduce the factors informing credibility to CCPR (below), and we think of these things as malleable skill constellations rather than fixed traits of personality.
- Able to demonstrate personal care for all students
- Able to demonstrate academic care for all students
- Able to analyze and act on student motivation matters
- Able to manage a classroom
- Able to teach lessons
- Able to deliver (not create) guaranteed, viable curricula
- Able to integrate/balance work and life
- Able to conduct work efficiently and strategically
- Able to articulate and demonstrate passion for content, craft, and kids
- Able to repair inevitable damages to one’s credibility and improve over time
- Able to repair inevitable damages to one’s credibility and improve over time
When a student, collegial, and community consensus about a teacher’s credibility has been established, the teacher has likely grasped the core competencies and is ready to exit the NTMP.
There is no surer way to improve both the productivity and humaneness of our schools than the development of credible educators in every role.
The last goal, then, is to keep these precious people around as long as we can. Teacher turnover is expensive in fiscal, human, and emotional capital. It is also expensive in terms of the school's reputation, as new teachers inevitably take time to get their feet under them.
Our desire should be for our credible teachers — and they all can become this so long as they are engaged in the right work — to make their careers (and, whenever possible, their homes) in the places where they teach.
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