Teacher Mentoring: A Critical Review. ERIC Digest.
by Feiman-Nemser, Sharon
Mentoring is a critical topic in education today and a favored strategy
in U.S. policy initiatives focused on teacher induction. Besides creating
new career opportunities for veteran teachers, assigning mentors to work
with beginning teachers represents an improvement over the abrupt and unassisted
entry into teaching that characterizes the experience of many novices.
Still, the promise of mentoring goes beyond helping novices survive their
first year of teaching. If mentoring is to function as a strategy of reform,
it must be linked to a vision of good teaching, guided by an understanding
of teacher learning, and supported by a professional culture that favors
collaboration and inquiry. This Digest examines the spread of mentoring
in the United States, obstacles to realizing the potential of mentoring
as a vehicle of reform, needed research, and selected issues of policy
THE SPREAD OF MENTORING
Since the early l980s, when mentoring burst onto the educational scene
as part of a broad movement aimed at improving education, policymakers
and educational leaders have pinned high hopes on mentoring as a vehicle
for reforming teaching and teacher education. Concerned about the rate
of attrition during the first 3 years of teaching and aware of the problems
faced by beginning teachers, policymakers saw the logic of providing on-site
support and assistance to novices during their first year of teaching (Little,
l990). The scale of mentoring has increased rapidly, with over 30 states
mandating some form of mentored support for beginning teachers.
The mentoring idea has also been extended to the preservice level. Proposals
for the redesign of teacher preparation (e.g., Holmes Group, l990) call
for teacher candidates to work closely with experienced teachers in internship
sites and restructured school settings such as professional development
schools. The hope is that experienced teachers will serve as mentors and
models, helping novices learn new pedagogies and socializing them to new
professional norms. This vision of mentoring depends on school-university
partnerships that support professional development for both mentors and
A CAUTIONARY NOTE
Enthusiasm for mentoring has not been matched by clarity about the purposes
of mentoring. Nor have claims about mentoring been subjected to rigorous
empirical scrutiny. The education community understands that mentors have
a positive affect on teacher retention, but that leaves open the question
of what mentors should do, what they actually do, and what novices learn
as a result. Just as research on student teaching highlights the conservative
influence of cooperating teachers and school cultures on novices practice,
so some studies show that mentors promote conventional norms and practices,
thus limiting reform (e.g., Feiman-Nemser, Parker, & Zeichner, l993).
These findings should not surprise us. Mentor teachers have little experience
with the core activities of mentoring--observing and discussing teaching
with colleagues. Most teachers work alone, in the privacy of their classroom,
protected by norms of autonomy and noninterference. Nor does the culture
of teaching encourage distinctions among teachers based on expertise. The
persistence of privacy, the lack of opportunities to observe and discuss
each other's practice, and the tendency to treat all teachers as equal
limits what mentors can do, even when working with novices (Little, l990).
In addition, few mentor teachers practice the kind of conceptually oriented,
learner-centered teaching advocated by reformers (Cohen, McLaughlin, &
Talbert, l993). If we want mentors to help novices learn the ways of thinking
and acting associated with new kinds of teaching, then we have to place
them with mentors who are already reformers in their schools and classrooms
(Cochran-Smith, l991), or develop collaborative contexts where mentors
and novices can explore new approaches together.
Before l990, the literature on mentoring consisted mainly of program
descriptions, survey-based evaluations, definitions of mentoring, and general
discussions of mentors roles and responsibilities. Researchers did not
conceptualize mentors work in relation to novices learning or study the
practice of mentoring directly. Reviewing the literature, Little (l990)
found few comprehensive studies well-informed by theory and designed to
examine in depth the context, content and consequences of mentoring (p.
Since l990, some researchers have begun to fill in those gaps. In one
comparison of two beginning teacher programs, researchers documented striking
differences in the way mentor teachers conceived of and carried out their
work with novices. They linked these differences in mentors perspectives
and practices to differences in role expectations, working conditions,
program orientations, and mentor preparation (Feiman-Nemser & Parker,
l993). In a reform-oriented preservice program, Cochran-Smith (l991) studied
the conversations of student teachers and experienced teachers in weekly,
school-site meetings at four urban schools. She shows how these conversations,
occasions for group mentoring, expose novices to broad themes of reform
through discussions of highly contextualized problems of practice. Between
l991-95, researchers at the National Center for Research on Teacher Learning
at Michigan State carried out a comparative, cross-cultural study of mentoring
in selected sites in the United States, England, and China. The study sought
insights about learning to teach, mentoring practices, and the conditions
that enable novices and mentors to work together in productive ways. Preliminary
findings underscore the influence of mentors beliefs about learning to
teach, the challenges of learning to teach for understanding, and the impact
of different contextual factors (e.g., school culture, national policies)
on mentors practice and novices learning.
To inform mentoring policy and practice, we need more direct studies
of mentoring and its affects on teaching and teacher retention, especially
in urban settings where turnover is high. We also need to know more about
how mentors learn to work with novices in productive ways, what structures
and resources enable that work, and how mentoring fits into broader frameworks
of professional development and accountability.
THORNY ISSUES OF POLICY AND PRACTICE
According to conventional wisdom, mentors should assist not assess on
the grounds that novices are more likely to share problems and ask for
help if mentors do not evaluate them. The issue is not so straightforward.
Some state-level programs use a team approach in which mentor teachers
fulfill the support function while others (e.g., a principal or professor)
judge the novice's performance for purposes of employment or certification.
Other programs give mentor teachers a prominent role in these gatekeeping
decisions on the grounds of professionalism and accountability. Clearly
different ways of resolving the assistance vs. assessment issue involve
different costs and benefits for mentors and novices, for states and districts,
and for the profession of teaching.
A second issue is whether something as personal as a mentoring relationship
can be formalized in a program. Should mentors be chosen or assigned? Skeptics
might consider the possibility that what a novice learns from a mentor
depends as much on what they do together as it does on the affective quality
of their relationship (Tharp & Gallimore, l988). Still, mentoring relationships
are bound to be unpredictable. Program developers may be wise to focus
on creating optimal conditions rather than trying to make optimal matches
A third issue is time--time to mentor and time to learn to mentor. Some
programs hire retired teachers. Others release mentor teachers from some
or all of their classroom responsibilities. Still others expect mentors
to combine mentoring with full-time teaching. Besides sending different
messages about the purposes of mentoring, these arrangements create different
situations in which mentors can learn and apply their skills. Most mentoring
programs provide some orientation or training. Common topics include clinical
supervision, research on effective teaching, beginning teacher concerns,
and theories of adult learning. Less common but no less important are opportunities
for mentors to analyze their own beliefs about learning to teach and to
articulate their practical knowledge of teaching. While training usually
occurs before mentors take up their new responsibilities, mentors are more
likely to develop their practice as mentors if they also have opportunities
to discuss questions and problems that arise in the course of their work
By promoting observation and conversation about teaching, mentoring
can help teachers develop tools for continuous improvement. If learning
to teach in reform-minded ways is the focus of this joint work, mentoring
will also fulfill its promise as an instrument of reform. Unfortunately
budget shortfalls in the l990s may be leading districts and states to eliminate
mentoring programs before this possibility is realized.
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