Six years ago, when I was starting my first year in the classroom, I called my dad crying. “None of the kids grew on the test,” I sobbed. “I’m terrible at my job.” Almost all my fourth graders’ reading scores had stayed the same or declined after taking their first monthly assessment. “I’m sure it’s not that bad, Mad,” my dad answered, trying to comfort me.
During that first year, my mentor teacher was my teammate, and although she helped me through that pivotal time, she was not given the tools or resources to be a true mentor. She was a sounding board for my ideas, an empathetic ear, and showed me how to do things like book field trips or request a guest teacher. However, because she was never trained to be a mentor and taught different subjects than I did, we didn’t have routine meetings to focus on my professional goals. The leadership team at my school observed me twice and only gave feedback on my instruction once. It was not enough for me to grow authentically as a teacher.
As a result, I felt like a failure every time I had to ask for help during my first year. For a while, I kept up the charade of being OK. I stayed up late each night planning, I mimicked what other teachers did when discussing their student data, and I continued to use Google as my curriculum enrichment companion.
It was only after that first reading assessment that I started actively seeking help. My mentor gave me ideas for classroom management strategies. I went and observed seasoned teachers during my lunch hour. I asked my students for honest feedback. I also read various books like “The Morning Meeting Book” by Roxann Kriete and Carol Davis in an attempt to establish effective rituals and routines.
My experience highlights that new teachers need strong mentors — especially now, given the chronic uncertainty COVID has unleashed. Yet, teacher mentorship in Colorado varies drastically depending on the preparation program, residency program, school district, and school. Such inconsistency will no longer cut it.
In 2019, Colorado passed the “Growing Great Teachers Act,” which awarded grants to establish training for mentor teachers. The teachers selected for such programs should have adequate experience, positive references, and an incentive to enter the world of mentoring. This effort was stunted in 2020 when experienced and new educators alike were thrust into remote and hybrid learning models with little or no training.
As we find our equilibrium once again, these teacher mentoring efforts must resume without delay. They must begin by identifying and recruiting experienced, empathetic mentors and making sure they have the necessary training and time to be successful. That’s because simply having a mentor does not guarantee new teachers the feedback they need.
Teacher mentorship in Colorado varies drastically depending on the preparation program, residency program, school district, and school.
One way to recruit high-quality mentor teachers is to establish prestigious programs for which school leaders recommend their strongest candidates. Louisiana’s IGNITE Jefferson Teacher Leader Program, for instance, is a competitive teacher fellowship offering an array of leadership roles, including those of mentor and master teachers. Accepted educators receive training in evaluation and leadership, are paid for additional days outside of their regular work hours, and are given ample opportunities to invest in their own development as instructional leaders.
Mentors are meant to support, connect, and nurture the potential of new educators, especially in times of unrest. This cannot happen in the absence of time and expertise.
Giving mentor teachers an additional stipend to provide guidance to mentees is a great start. It does not, however, resolve the struggle of time scarcity in an already demanding profession. A 2010 survey of new teachers in three states found that only half of the teachers who reported having a mentor had at least three conversations with them, and just 41% had a mentor who observed their teaching at least once. Carving out common, consistent collaboration time (outside of lunch breaks and prep periods) is key to establishing trust and effective feedback routines.
We cannot forget that mentors, too, need opportunities to collaborate. If teachers are consistently cultivating a growth mindset in their students — expressing the idea that ‘there’s always more to learn or you haven’t mastered that yet’ — then districts must create a network of master teachers who can learn together. The Colorado Department of Education could also provide opportunities for cross-district collaboration to identify best practices for preparing new teachers and maintain a database of effective teacher mentoring programs.
As I’ve matured in my career and learned from other educators, I’ve understood that “getting it right” with my students is so much more important than “being right.” As a new teacher, I was terrified of not being the right type of teacher, not teaching the curriculum right, and not pushing myself in the right ways. If my school had had an effective mentorship program, I could have opened myself up to someone trained in bolstering first-year teachers. I could have asked for strategies to push me towards “getting it right.” I could have flourished sooner with the help of a trusted partner who had the tools to help me succeed.
Madison Stockton teaches third grade literacy at Southmoor Elementary School in Denver. She is a 2021-22 Teach Plus Colorado Policy Fellow.