We all probably have a story of a person who we might call a mentor. That is, a person who took the time to give helpful advice, served as the role model of the teacher we aspired to be, or encouraged us through a tough time until we came out stronger and more knowledgeable in the end. This is professional development with ‘staying power.’
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in creating more formalized mentoring relationships. The key word here is “relationships.” The real learning happens when there is a trusting relationship between a learning teacher and a mentor. Programs experience success and at the same time discover a new pathway of leadership for teachers when they match those willing to serve as mentors to those who are less experienced or skillful. Other programs choose to work with mentors from outside of their programs. For both models, an investment of time is required to build a relationship between a learning teacher and a skilled mentor.
I believe that there are three powerful parallels between our work with children and the success of mentoring as a way to grow teacher competence.
First is the concept of relationships. We know this to be the key to unlocking curiosity and an eagerness to learn in children. It’s the same for adults. If we trust that someone really cares about who we are, what we think and how we learn, then we aim to please!
Second is the concept of developmentally appropriate practice. We know from our work with children that if we take the time to figure out just where the child is on the learning curve, we can craft a plan suited to him or her. We figure out the next step and build upon small successes so the challenges don’t seem overwhelming. Mentoring embodies this “one-to-one” approach.
The third parallel is the concept of reflective practice. Our work with children teaches us to question why and to seek answers. For example, “Why is this transition so difficult for the children and how can I change it?” When it comes to professional development, often the learning teacher knows what she wants to change in her practice, but doesn’t know how or maybe even why. Having a mentor to help sort through the questions and attune to the teacher’s goals may be exactly what it takes. For the person who is also engaged in formal education, mentoring can be the bridge between taking what one learns in a classroom and through textbooks and actually putting that learning into practice – a process that requires a great deal of reflection.
Mentoring is about supporting teachers as learners through their everyday practice. Mentoring can intentionally implemented as part of a professional development plan. Mentoring thrives when we create the kinds of work environments that allow teachers to grow on the job into lifelong learners.