Mentoring: A Key to Teacher Retention

The proverbial seven year itch often applies to teachers’ relationship with their profession. Outstanding classroom teachers who leave the classroom but remain in schools frequently move on to become administrators. Some do so not because that is where their passions lie, but because the need for change is so great. In order to retain our best teachers, schools need to consider multiple pathways for their growth. Mentoring is one such path. Preparing the mentee to become a reflective practitioner who is beneficial to our schools has merit in and of itself. Additionally, the act of mentoring serves to nurture and enhance the mentor in a profound way.

The teachers who begin mentoring solely with the mentee’s needs in mind are likely to continue to mentor because the act of mentoring serves them well. After they’ve taught for many years, they often experience the need to keep intellectually challenged by the profession. While each school year brings the routine yet complex challenges involved in teaching, like meeting individual learner’s needs and executing new plans and projects, master teachers who remain in the same grade have a decreasing number of challenges in that their content knowledge, understanding of the developmental psychology of the given age of their learners, and the number of tools in their teaching toolkit are all quite high. Many need the intellectual stimulation that closely examining one’s practice and helping a novice grow into a beginning teacher provide. To remain in the field, to stay teaching in a day school, teachers desperately need this increased intellectual stimulation.

Mentoring helps to keep teachers engaged with the profession of teaching. The excitement of wrestling with philosophy and practice that teachers did in teacher preparation programs becomes a distant memory for many experienced teachers. Mentoring entails frequently revisiting one’s beliefs about teaching and making the connection from philosophy to practice a fluid one. Since mentors must serve as models of best practices for their interns, mentors must have strong teaching stances and solid teaching pedagogies. They must be able to clearly articulate pedagogical reasons for their teaching moves. This is what mentors learn and master while serving as mentors for beginning teachers.

In order to model best teaching practices, mentors must stay current on new and emerging teaching research. Ideally, all teachers should, but mentoring makes one feel truly invested and thus engaged. The act of returning to one’s roots of being a teacher who learns about the field is an engaging process. Mentees in quality teaching preparation programs are on the forefront of cutting edge research about the field, and mentors have a much greater exposure to the work in education that is coming out of universities.

Mentoring challenges one both personally and professionally, and thus leads to significant personal and professional growth. Being a reflective practitioner is challenging work. Dewey teaches, “We do not learn from experiences … we learn from reflecting on experiences.” In turn, the act of reflecting on our experiences leads to growth. In addition to modeling (or attempting to model) best practices, mentors need to be able to clearly unpack and explain every teaching move that they make. The act of looking at one’s self so closely, at understanding one’s own practice on the meta-level, requires one to look through lenses of both the personal and the professional.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer explains that we cannot separate the personal from the professional. “We teach who we are.” Mentoring means reflecting on one’s professional self and how it’s intricately woven into the fabric of one’s own self. If, according to Palmer, “Teaching holds a mirror to the soul,” then mentoring demands the magnitude of that mirror to be increased. That can feel daunting, to say the least, to a new mentor, and it can make even a master teacher feel uncomfortable in that she or he may feel put under a microscope. Mentoring, ideally, lead teachers to yearn to be put under microscopes!

Mentoring teaches an educator to be comfortable being closely observed and examined, not because master teachers are confident that every move they make is the right one, but because they are confident that teaching is one of the most complicated acts, that perfection is an impossibility, and therefore the more we can dissect, the more we can improve, which in turn will result in the improvement of learning that takes place in the classroom. The beautiful symbiosis here is that the challenges involved in and the growth gained from mentoring keep teachers teaching. The ways in which our mentors grow ultimately advance the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.

Mentoring provides multiple intellectual challenges, which help retain teachers who thrive on challenge and who, conversely, grow disinterested in a stagnant culture. Experienced and master teachers are often left alone in their classrooms, with administrators putting their attention on novice teachers. The challenges of novice teachers are great, which helps keep teaching fresh and exciting. One needs to feel stimulated to want to stay in the game. And the teachers who need and want intellectual stimulation to remain in our schools are precisely the teachers our schools both need and should want to keep.

The intellectual stimulation comes in many forms and looks different depending on the mentor and mentee. On any given day and for any given mentor the intellectual challenges might involve any of the following: learning how to make the mentor’s teaching moves explicit to the mentee, essentially letting the mentee glimpse inside the teacher’s thought processes throughout the day; learning how to restructure the classroom to best utilize the strengths of the mentee; understanding the mentee as a learner and adjusting the ways one mentors to be most effective; learning how to manage and balance one’s time in relation to the needs of both the students and the mentee; managing the needs of both the students and the mentee in a way the honors each individual as a learner; navigating a new professional relationship and the communication skills it entails; deconstructing each aspect of the teaching process in an effort to explain it at the appropriate time for the mentee. Each of these has the potential to provide an immense intellectual challenge for the mentor and an opportunity to shine.

Teachers who don’t serve as mentors can gain some of the benefits mentoring brings by adapting aspects of the mentoring mindset. Admittedly, the idea of always being watched would scare many classroom teachers. In this still closed-door profession, many teachers would be content to know in advance the two times their administrators plan to come for a formal observation. While that’s changing slowly in small pockets, for teachers who want and try and need to break down their own doors, who invite others in, and often, the radical shift can only be one of immense added value in our schools.

What if, instead of talking about our weekends, we also talked openly about our teaching practice, about our problems, with our colleagues? What if we didn’t see observation as a time to model perfection, but as an opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves and our practices? For teachers who are in a place where the school culture feels too oppressive to even begin to think realistically about being a door-taker-down-kind-of change agent, it’s time to think in metaphors.

Teachers can imagine themselves being watched. Picture one’s self in a lab school. How would one’s practice change if the teacher imagined thoughtful curious educators were observing? What moves would teachers do more of and which ones might be abandoned altogether if teachers had the goal of modeling solid teaching pedagogy? Mentors or not, let’s invite other teachers to open their doors, to ease into making their practices, and their thinking, more public. By allowing ourselves to become vulnerable in this way, we also model for our students the essence of what it means to be a learner.

Mentoring is one important means of retaining our best teachers. By serving in a position that honors their expertise, mentor teachers feel valued and respected by their school communities, which leads, in part, to a desire to remain present in that particular environment. Because of all the personal and professional gains for the mentor, remaining in the classroom feels like an innate decision.♦

Jamie Faith Woods serves as teacher leader (grades 2-5), leads a professional learning community (PLC) and teaches fifth graders at the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, while also serving as a mentor for Brandeis University’s DeLeT Program.

Jamie Faith Woods
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership