HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

School-based Mentoring: Principles to Live By

by Deborah Court Issue: Teacher Retention & Development

A “mentor” is defined by most dictionaries as “a wise and trusted counselor or guide, especially in occupational areas.” “Tutor” and “coach” are usually listed as synonyms, but there are some subtle differences between the three terms. A tutor is generally a private teacher whose job is to give individualized instruction in a specific area like French or chemistry. A coach may also be a kind of private tutor, someone who prepares a student for an academic examination or an athlete for a sports competition, and of course the common understanding of a sports coach involves the ongoing preparation and training of a team for sports competitions. In the last twenty years the term ‘peer coaching’ has gained popularity in education and business. Charles Slater and David Simmons (“The Design and Implementation of a Peer Coaching Program”) define peer coaching as “a confidential process through which two or more professional colleagues work together to review current practices; expand, refine, and build new skills; share ideas; teach one another; conduct classroom research; solve problems in the workplace.” Peer coaching is clearly different from mentoring in that peer coaching involves a relationship of equals, learning from and with each other.

Mentoring carries with it the idea of a (perhaps) older, more experienced person who is wise in the ways of the field in which the mentoring will take place.

Mentoring, on the other hand, carries with it the idea of a (perhaps) older, more experienced person who is wise in the ways of the field in which the mentoring will take place. “Mentoring” is a robust conception, less narrowly focused than tutoring or coaching, less equal a relationship than peer coaching, arguably the richest and most complex of all these related enterprises. In school settings we can talk about more senior school staff members mentoring new teachers and new administrators. It is also quite legitimate to talk about mentoring senior teachers and administrators as they take on new roles and acquire new knowledge. In these cases it is often appropriate to find high level mentors outside the school.

Mentoring in the Lookstein Principals’ Program

The Lookstein Center Principals’ Program is a year-long professional development program for day school leaders. While the program is multi-faceted, it centers on the planning and execution of an action research project through which participants undertake a change initiative in their schools, collect data from different stakeholder groups during the project, adjust the plan according to what the data tells them, and examine and reflect on their own leadership and the ways in which their acting and interacting affects the progress of change. This process is guided by a Lookstein mentor. Our mentors work with participants during a ten-day summer seminar in Israel to plan the action research project. They maintain twice-monthly phone and e-mail contact with their mentees, and they make two site visits to mentees’ schools, meeting staff, board members, and the rest of the administrative team, offering practical guidance on data collection and analysis, understanding school culture, working with stakeholders, and moving the change initiative forward in the light of information gathered.

The mentors go over drafts of the interim and final action research reports that participants submit to Lookstein, offering guidance on how best to present this information. Our mentors have spent considerable time fleshing out a shared conception of what mentoring means, what it means in our particular context, and what ethical and practical guidelines need to be developed and shared with mentees so that everyone is “on the same page” about the nature of the mentor-mentee relationship and the work to be done. From our experience, it is important that in every mentoring situation the context, goals, ethical guidelines, and boundaries of the mentoring be developed, articulated, and shared between mentor and mentee.

Mentoring: Principles to Live by

1. Define the Goal(s) and Boundaries of the Mentoring

Sometimes an experienced teacher may become a kind of lifetime mentor, or at least a long term mentor, to a new teacher. Sometimes an experienced principal may become a long term mentor to a young administrator coming up through the ranks. These are usually informal relationships, developed through the experienced person’s perception of the younger person’s need or the younger person’s turning to the “wise elder.” Such relationships may have few boundaries and no well defined goal. The mentor serves as a sounding board and giver of advice in all professional (and sometimes personal) situations. These relationships are built on a good shared chemistry and mutual respect.

If, however, mentoring is to take place in some formal capacity, for instance, the assignment of mentors to new teachers, the goals and boundaries of that relationship need to be defined. Is this relationship to last a year? Two years? Is the mentor available at every time of day or night? Will he or she help with personal areas such as a clash with another staff member, or even problems at home, or is this relationship strictly about helping the new teacher develop good instructional strategies and effective classroom management? There will be fewer misunderstandings and a more productive experience for both parties if these issues are thought through, discussed, written down and agreed upon.

2. Define the Rules of Engagement

What are both the mentor and the mentee taking on as obligations? Are there specific tasks the mentee is to accomplish and/or report on, at specific times? Are there specific kinds of help and feedback that the mentor will give, in specific areas, at specific times or intervals? What are the consequences of either party failing to meet his or her obligations? How often should the parties meet and talk? Whose obligation is to initiate contact? If there are problems with the relationship that cannot be worked through together, who is the responsible person to whom the mentor or mentee can turn?

3. Define the Ethical Parameters of the Relationship

The most important ethical basis for any mentoring relationship is confidentiality (see Lois Zachary’s excellent book The Mentor’s Guide for a full discussion of confidentiality in mentoring). Both parties, but especially the mentor, must commit to keeping confidential any information that is shared. The mentor and mentee need to define together what confidentiality means for them, and what its boundaries are. What, for example, if an instance of child abuse is shared by the mentee? The mentor has an ethical obligation to report this. Are there other possible competing ethical frameworks that may arise? Try to plan for these as much as possible. What qualities should pervade the relationship? Honesty, respect, support, encouragement? When honesty might be painful, should it override encouragement? Of course it is impossible to predict what will happen as the mentor and mentee work together, but discussing and writing down some general ethical principles will provide a framework within which to solve problems that may arise.

4. Once You Begin, Be Wholehearted

The mentor-mentee relationship, like any meaningful relationship, will not always be an easy road. There may be misunderstandings, hurt feelings, periods of poor communication. Deal with these, and forge ahead. The mentor-mentee relationship offers rich opportunities for learning by both parties, and a chance for the mentor to apply his or her knowledge and experience in a whole new way, not as a practitioner, but as a counselor and guide. Plunge in; be wholehearted; talk, ask, discuss and advise. Think together. The sum of two people’s deliberations really is greater than its parts. This is not only a chance for two people to learn and grow, it is a substantive contribution to education, a real way to make schools better. The mentor-mentee relationship can touch the best of what it means to be educators, to be professionals and to be human. ♦

Deborah Court is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and is the director of the Joseph H. Lookstein Center’s Principals’ Program. She can be reached at debcourt@inter.net.il.

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Teacher Retention & Development

Teachers are the most precious resource of any school. The measure of a great school is its ability to recruit and retain great teachers who know their subject and craft, care deeply about all their students, and are passionately committed to their own development and the school as a community. Here, find guidance for finding, preparing and evaluating teachers, and keeping them happy and productive stakeholders.

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