Mentoring Towards Equity

Mentoring is not about telling new teachers what to do. It’s about cultivating their skills early in their career.

Each new teacher I work with sits across from me, contemplating the question I ask them all at some point in our mentoring relationship: “What will it take for this student to be successful?”

Some answer. Some don’t. Some wait until our next meeting to pick up this thought. Such is the nature of mentoring.

My district’s teacher induction program has one goal: to increase student achievement by accelerating new teacher instructional effectiveness. The program, based on the work of the New Teacher Center, currently employs three full-time mentors. Mentors support new teachers through relationships, questioning, suggesting different tools and sharing ideas and resources with new teachers.

It’s not about telling new teachers what to do. It’s about cultivating their skills through a collaborative process and establishing habits of self-reflection early in their careers.

Layered on top of this work is the fact that more than 94 languages are spoken in our district and nearly 50 percent of our students are racial minorities. In contrast, the majority of our new teachers are white and often do not look like the classes they are teaching.

What guidance can we as mentors provide to support new teachers in this diverse environment? What advice can those without mentors reflect upon to improve their practice?

1. Teachers must become the students of their students.

New teacher Laura shares a typical dilemma she’s having with a student who is not completing any work in class.

One of the first questions I always ask is, “Tell me what you know about the student.” If Laura is silent, or responds with little information, I’ll suggest ways to get to know the student, such as talking with the student, digging through files in the office for information, planning activities that allow for student self-expression and disclosure and, most importantly, building a bridge to the family.

Another question I might ask Laura is “How is your relationship with this student?” This surprises Laura because she is expecting to brainstorm some strategies to get the student to complete work, not focus the discussion on herself. Teachers have options for improving their relationships with students: for example, have lunch together, talk about something outside of school or find something they like to do in common. During this conversation, James Comer’s quote always rattles in my head: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

The bottom line: The more you know about your students, the more connection you have to them and the more impact you have.

2. Addressing assumptions changes thinking.
Sometimes, in dialoguing with teachers, you’ll hear words and phrases that slip into the conversation based on assumptions, judgments and even stereotypes. For example, new teacher Ben might use words like “lazy” or “unmotivated” during a conversation about his student.

One powerful question that can inspire a change in thinking is the one mentioned at the start of this post: “What will it take for this student to be successful?”

This seemingly innocent question sets the teacher on a new course—from assuming deficit to assuming success. This gives Ben a new platform—one from which to create support plans for his students rather than trying to “fix” them.

Another possible cause for student indifference is the irrelevance of the curriculum to their lives. Ben’s student may not see how what she’s learning connects to her life. Together, Ben and I will discuss ways to connect lessons to future life goals and to the student’s family and community life. We will also discuss teaching students to make those connections themselves. The more his students see themselves in what they’re learning, the more meaningful it will be.

3. Be the voice of the student.

Mentors act as advocates for new teachers—both at the school and district level—to ensure their views are represented in conversations and discussions. It is equally critical that mentors act as a voice for students.
Sometimes students are ignored, overlooked, forgotten or dismissed in classrooms and by school systems. The mentor’s role is to notice all students and speak up for them when meeting with their teachers.

Mentors may collect and share classroom data with the new teacher or examine student work collaboratively. This allows mentors to identify patterns of behavior or expectations and support instructional planning that meets the needs of all students.

The nature of mentoring work is beautifully complex. Mentors strive to support reflective practitioners who remain committed to the teaching profession for years to come. This can happen if new teachers see evidence that they are making a positive difference in the learning lives of their students. Mentors can provide that critical bridge between possibility and reality.

Hiller is a mentor to first- and second-year teachers in Oregon and a member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board.

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