“Empowering” Instead of “Crushing an Idea”: One Student Teacher/Mentor Teacher Pair’s Story of Learning and Growin

July - September, 2020

Source: The New Educator, 16:3, 265-278

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The context
This story follows a mentor teacher (Renee) and her student teacher (Heather) from 2015–2016 while Heather completed a year-long student teaching experience in Renee’s third-grade classroom.
Their class in a K-4 school in a rural Midwest town was composed of 26 students, of whom 38% received free or reduced meals and 27% were pupils of color.
In addition to the author’s role as a researcher, she was Heather’s university supervisor and facilitated monthly professional development focused on mentoring practices with Renee.
These roles allowed her to be in their classroom about once a week and become immersed in the experiences of both participants.

Data sources
With permission from the Institutional Review Board and consent from both participants, the author collected “rich data” to provide “a full and revealing picture” of Heather and Renee’s relationship (Maxwell, 2013, p. 126).
Collected data includes: interviews (two with Renee, one with Heather), written reflections (six from Renee, 26 from Heather), and recorded conversations (six between Renee and Heather, six of Renee in mentor professional development).
Interviews and recorded conversations were transcribed.

Telling this story
The author draws on the words of Heather and Renee to retell their story. In some places, she provides ongoing commentary and interpretation of Heather and Renee’s relationship.
In other words, she utilizes italics to denote the precise language they used.
There were other powerful examples of educative mentoring that occurred during the year (emerging through data analysis), but she focuses on telling one story, a story of changing desks, to showcase the intricacies of the mentor/ mentee relationship and the real value of reciprocal learning.
While research often focuses either on the experiences of the mentor (i.e., Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Langdon & Ward, 2015; Searby, 2014; Stanulis et al., 2019) or experiences of the novice (i.e., Garza, Duchaine, & Reynosa, 2014; Sayeski & Paulsen, 2012), this article provides what many others lack, the perspectives of both the novice and mentor teacher as they navigate their complicated, extremely impactful relationship.

Implications for practice

A general commentary
The story of Renee and Heather is meant to provide an inside look at the complex relationship of mentor and novice. When research presents findings from one group of participants only (i.e., only mentors or only novices), the story is incomplete and often simplified.
It can be easy to identify problems and generate solutions based on one group or person’s experiences.
But in fact, relationships are much more complicated than this, so it is necessary to look at the same events from the perspective of both sides of a relationship to understand ways to support all members.
Renee and Heather demonstrate that learning and growing from educative mentoring is not always easy and it is a balancing act; yet, by Renee providing the Heather opportunities to experiment and Renee herself being open to learning from practice, the relationship resulted in mutual growth.

It is not always easy
It is hard to be a mentor and it is hard to be a new teacher.
For Heather, it was hard to ask for permission to do something different.
For Renee, it was difficult to push herself beyond her tried and true instructional practices.
During the year of data collection, the author was privy to flowing tears from both Heather and Renee at different times.
Even when the mentor/novice relationship clicks, spending all day with an individual during times of exhaustion and stress can lead to relational strain.
Acknowledging the challenge inherent in the mentor/novice relationship is an important place to begin.
Through frequent, honest communication, Heather and Renee worked through the stressful points in their relationship and in the end, both benefited from the experience.

Suggestions for mentor teachers
The experiences of Renee and Heather can support the relationships of other mentor/novice pairs.
Specific ideas for ways to provide novices an opportunity to experiment and ways for mentors to model learning from practice are shared below.

Ways to provide novices the opportunity to experiment
As mentor teachers, the primary goal is to provide novice teachers growth-producing learning experiences (Dewey, 1938; Feiman-Nemser, 1998).
This includes providing an environment where the novice teacher feels safe to experiment.
Being under the guidance of an experienced teacher is the ideal time to try instructional strategies, behavior management techniques, organizational structures, etc. that the novice teacher may have read about in his/her teacher preparation courses, observed during field observations, or remembered from his/her time as pupils.
To support the novice as he/she experiments, it is helpful for the mentor to ask questions that encourage the novice teacher to dig deeper into what new practices they hope to do, why they want to engage in the practices, and how enacting the practices may be challenging.
Providing novice teachers the opportunity to experiment is not a free-for- all.
It does not mean they should continue with a practice that is unsuccessful; pupil learning is the priority.
It is also not about walking to the teachers’ lounge and giving the novice teacher free reign of the classroom; it is about supporting the novice teacher as he/she experiments with new practices, helping him/her problem solve, process, and reflect.

Suggestions for mentor teachers to model learning from practice
Educative mentors continue to learn in and from their own practice (Rowley, 1999).
They are lifelong learners who continually strive to be better.
Renee stated, I’m learning that you can learn new things.
This may include revising lesson plans from day to day, introducing new technology, implementing ideas from professional learning, joining, or leading a lunchtime book club, or re-teaching unsuccessful lessons. Additionally, there is much to learn from working with novice teachers.
Novice teachers bring research on current best practices into the classroom as they work to put the theory from their teacher preparation coursework into action.
Novice teachers are eager to experiment and recognize failure is part of the learning process.
As a mentor teacher, this provides many opportunities to learn both from and alongside them (Weasmer & Woods, 2003).
Beyond specific instructional practices, mentor teachers may learn other things from new teachers.
Hosting a student teacher can increase the amount of reflection-on-practice in which the experienced teacher engages (Weasmer & Woods, 2003).
As a mentor teacher, explaining the what, why, and how of instructional decisions to a novice teacher encourages oneself to reconsider reasoning.
In the process of sharing pedagogy, the planning process, reasons for assessing, and classroom management strategies to a novice teacher, mentor teachers may find themselves reflecting on the rationale and effectiveness of these practices.
When mentors are open to their own growth, they help model for novice teachers the importance of continual learning in and from practice (Feiman-Nemser, 1998).

Closing thoughts
Working with educative mentors can make a difference in the instructional practices of novice teachers (Wexler, 2019).
The modeling by the mentor that the novice sees, the opportunities the novice has during student teaching to enact practices he/she deems central to his/her vision of teaching, and his/her understanding of the continual process of learning and growing as an educator all are important to novice development.
For mentors, there is much to gain from working with novice teachers; it encourages reflection on practice, implementation of different instructional ideas, and introduction to new/emerging theories.
To both novices and mentors, this study highlights the continuous nature of learning and growing embedded in being an educator.

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Updated: Sep. 15, 2020