Coach approach to K12 teacher professional development

School mentoring programs work best when experienced educators grow alongside new teachers
By: | Issue: February, 2019
January 11, 2019
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRESS: The one-on-one coaching model can serve as a boot camp for new teachers and a reboot for veterans. ( pma2010)

Today’s mentoring programs in teacher professional development go beyond the basics of helping educators acclimate to the classroom. Mentors must differentiate coaching based on a mentee’s needs, such as help with lesson planning, instructional strategies or classroom management. New teachers credit the programs for boosting morale, while the veterans benefit when programs result in their growth as well.

The one-on-one coaching model can serve as a boot camp for new teachers and a reboot for veterans, says Michelle Lemons, coordinator for The Mentor Program, a partnership between Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation.

Sidebar: 9 keys to mentoring in teacher PD

Serving as a mentor can also be an attractive prospect when a teacher thinks about the end of their career, Lemons adds.

“I think a lot of teachers reach a point where they want to give back—they want to make a deposit on their legacy,” she says. “It also fills their cup back up. They really need to carve out some time to replenish their own learning and their own skills.”

Evaluation-free professional development

Albuquerque does not tie mentorship sessions to teacher evaluations. This allows mentors and the beginning teachers to work openly, without fear of consequences. “They need to learn how to be a teacher in a nonthreatening environment,” says Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. “When I was a beginning teacher, if I thought my principal knew about every mistake I made, I would have freaked out.”

Albuquerque’s approach also promotes strategies that help new teachers adapt emotionally to the profession. During the required weekly meetings, mentors look beyond professional goals and may ask about a mentee’s mental and emotional health. “A new teacher could be telling everyone they’re fine, but the look on their face says something else,” Lemons says. “We want to make sure that the mentors are putting eyes on their beginning teachers as opposed to relying on email or text.”

More resources: Online resources for teacher PD programs

Experienced teachers must apply, interview and receive recommendations before entering into the mentor pool. The district then pairs mentors with beginning teachers by subject or grade. “I remember when I started at a new school, and I didn’t know where to go to get paper or didn’t know how the copy machine worked, and having a buddy helped,” Bernstein says. “Those kinds of things are important, but mentorship has to go beyond that and meet the developmental pace of every beginning teacher.”

Because Albuquerque’s teacher mentors still teach their own classes, they are paired with mentees in the same school. “We wanted somebody on site who could make a difference in the moment,” Bernstein says.

Bringing in substitutes allows the pair to watch one another teach and then deconstruct a lesson to better understand how well it was taught and what could be improved.

Districts also must provide professional development for mentors. Albuquerque’s mentors participate in orientation and training sessions to examine research on how beginning teachers develop. In regular workshops led by senior educators, mentors also learn how to collect evidence, provide actionable feedback, and guide themselves and their mentees through self-reflection.

On Albuquerque’s perception surveys, mentors, beginning teachers and principals consistently report “high satisfaction” and that the mentorship program “makes a huge difference,” says Bernstein.

Powwow as professional development

Mentoring is boosting teacher retention in South Dakota, where some high-needs districts may experience 100 percent faculty turnover in a year. Communities, meanwhile, have experienced high unemployment rates and increasing reports of suicide, says Sharla Steever, a learning specialist in the Technology and Innovation in Education (TIE) division of the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative, a multidistrict support agency.

Read more: Implementing PD equity in education

The WoLakota Project, a partnership between the South Dakota Department of Education and TIE, supports new teachers in these districts through mentoring, networking, and retreats that are held four times per year.

The teachers invited to participate are from tribal districts and high-needs schools with significant Native American enrollment, Steever says. Often, teachers are unfamiliar with reservation communications; some relocate to the district from outside the state or other school systems, she says.

The weekend getaways help teachers “remember who they are” through self-reflective exercises and sessions with their mentors, Steever says. “New teachers work in some of our toughest districts,” she adds. “The retreats are meant to be for rest and reflection, and are a time for networking with other teachers who are in very similar situations, so that they don’t feel alone.”

Each mentor has three mentees who may work in other schools or districts. In between retreats, mentors have weekly online, phone or in-person discussions with their mentees, Steever says.

New teachers learn culturally responsive teaching methods and lesson planning to improve Native American student achievement. Mentors guide mentees in finding ways to infuse culture and native languages into instruction, she says.

To help a new teacher strengthen their ties to the community, mentors also connect them with Native American elders who offer guidance and who invite them to powwows and other social gatherings. These connections play a critical role in helping new teachers settle into their surroundings, she says.

“Some of these areas are so remote—tiny communities that don’t even have gas stations,” Steever says.

Beyond in-person PD

The Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program, a collaboration between the University of South Florida and Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools, leverages video coaching to support preservice teachers in the classroom. Teachers record themselves; then the mentor watches the video and offers content coaching in literacy, math or science.

“The goal would be to physically observe our residents teaching, but that’s not always possible,” says Karl Jung, an assistant professor of K8 science education at the university’s Department of Teaching and Learning, which runs the residency program.

Upon completion of the two-year program, residents are guaranteed a teaching position in Hillsborough. “The intention is to provide a very clinically rich experience for residents—having them out in the field, working with master teachers for an extended period of time, linking theory and practice,” Jung says. “You can’t learn about teaching through a methods course and a short field experience.”

Since mentors are usually other teachers, district leaders should give mentors dedicated and protected time to engage in mentoring activities and attend training sessions, says Aman Dhanda, senior fellow for educator engagement at ASCD’s Office of Integrated Services, Programs and Partnerships.

In the Teach to Lead program—a partnership between the U.S. Department of Education, ASCD and Teach Plus—outside partners pair up with teams of teachers to solve a problem of practice, says Dhanda.

“Be flexible in what the mentoring looks like,” says Dhanda, who co-manages the Teach to Lead program. “Ask the teachers what they need, and give them the time and space to come up with solutions.”

Emily Ann Brown is associate editor.