By Catherine López, M.A., M.Ed., LDT, CALT, Certified Academic Language Therapist and Bilingual Content Interventionist working for the Austin Independent School District
Quality mentoring programs are more necessary than ever. Attracting and retaining new teachers has gone from being a serious problem to an acute crisis. Districts that seek to curb attrition rates in their ranks need structured programs that can help fledgling teachers during the first two to three years of their career.
I did not have a mentor when I was a novice teacher and struggled mightily, so during my seventh year as a teacher when asked to mentor a first-year teacher I agreed, not wanting anyone to unnecessarily suffer like I did. I have been mentoring novice teachers ever since. Mentoring during pre-pandemic years included meeting with novice teachers to instruct them on concepts crucial to their success in the classroom, such as the basics of classroom management and the components of a strong academic lesson. I helped with identifying students that may have needed evaluation for special services such as Special Education or Gifted and Talented enrichment and navigating the often-labyrinthine bureaucracy related to those responsibilities.
COVID-19 erased 20 years of mentoring experience in the blink of an eye. The pandemic made us all novices again. I no longer had as many answers as I once did. I could be a sounding board for ideas and a sympathetic ear. But could I help them create a dynamic lesson on Canvas? Could I help them get the most out of Seesaw? No. Did anybody know how to slay the monster that was “simultaneous teaching” (teaching in-person and virtual students at the same time)? I felt like I couldn’t help at all. I was scrambling to figure out the basics alongside the novice teachers and everyone else. I know now that mentoring conversations will cover the same topics as they did before, however, now I must also include strategizing with mentees on how to cope with being overwhelmed and their mental health, while taking my own advice. This comes in the way of helping mentees set small, attainable goals, prioritizing tasks, as well as coaching them and modeling how to set boundaries at work. I also recognize that pandemic mentoring has been more mutually beneficial than before.
It is no secret that first or second career teachers, traditional or alternatively certified teachers, or foreign educated teachers are all expected to perform on target immediately. Successful mentoring programs pair new teachers with a veteran teacher in a matching field/grade that can provide frequent, long-term coaching. A vital part of successful mentoring is protected dedicated time and class coverage, so the mentor teacher may observe the mentee teaching to engage in a recursive process of inquiry and reflection. It’s also important that mentors are paid for their indispensable service and in amounts that recognize their expertise in teaching and coaching. These actions can increase not only instructional quality in mentees’ classrooms, but the likelihood that the mentee will return the following year or make teaching a life-long career. Districts should value their teaching staff and the charge of educating students enough to assume the responsibility for formally training mentors. The crucible of COVID-19 will forever change the American educational system. Creating or bolstering mentoring programs should be the keystone to reform efforts. After all, if the teachers are okay, then the kids will be okay.