“Becoming” a mentor between reflective and evaluative discourses: A case study of identity development

November 2020

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education, Volume 96

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This case study focused on Susan (all names are pseudonyms), a fourth-grade teacher who was serving as a mentor to Lindsey, a preservice teacher, during a year-long student teaching assignment in a U.S. public school.
In opposition to institutional and authoritative forces that dominated her school context, Susan used an appreciative stance (Johnston, 2004) in both her classroom and in her role as a mentor.
Susan’s model of mentorship included putting Lindsey at ease by creating a space of co-learning that was free of harsh judgment and punitive evaluation.
Susan “just didn’t do” a model of mentorship that focused on fixing another teacher.
Instead, her practices were based in reflection, critical thinking, and community building, as she coached toward innovation rather than coaching for compliance.
The research team all knew Susan prior to the study through university, school district, and community involvement.
Together, the authors began exploring Susan’s thinking and experiences while she participated in a professional development opportunity.
This experience encouraged pedagogical reflection, critical thinking about the socio-political context of educational systems, and extending one’s network of colleagues (Wetzel, Hoffman, & Maloch, 2017).
From their different vantage points, they selected Susan and Lindsey’s holistic case (Yin, 2014) to see “why” and “how” a reflective mentoring model allowed them to build practices together and improve their literacy instruction as responsive educators.
In the current study, the authors asked:
In what ways is Susan’s teacher identity constructed through her mentoring practices and within the context of a professional development program focused on reflective coaching and pedagogy?
And, how did Susan draw on her teacher identity to enact reflective coaching practices and pedagogies as a form of resistance against an existing teacher evaluation model?
The authors’ theoretical framework suggests that learning to teach, coach, and mentor is a process of identity construction facilitated by the learner’s engagement with and appropriation of different models.
The present study expands on three areas of literature: mentoring and coaching, teacher evaluation, and teacher identity, by considering Susan’s identity as she coached a preservice teacher using a reflective model that stands in contrast to her schools’ model of evaluation.
Susan’s case illuminated the way a teacher can make conscious decisions about how she positions herself as a cooperating teacher in the context of the highly evaluative U.S. schooling system.

Methodology and methods

Context: positionality and participants
Susan, a white veteran teacher with seventeen years of experience, was in her fourth year teaching at a small elementary school in Texas.
When the study began, Lindsey had recently been placed by the university in Susan’s classroom for a year-long internship and student teaching.
Lindsey was a white undergraduate student in a generalist EC-6 certification program and was also earning an English as a Second Language (ESL) endorsement.
She spent two full days and taught approximately four formal lessons per week in Susan’s classroom in the fall semester and was present full-time in the spring semester.
The authors consider Susan a master teacher.
Despite her disdain for standardized testing, Susan’s students’ average for passing the state reading assessment was 10% above the district average and equivalent to the state average.
More importantly, Susan was widely recognized by her peers as creating a classroom with a love of literacy through purposeful planning and workshop pedagogy that enables students to engage with rich texts and write for authentic audiences.

Data sources and analysis
The authors used qualitative research methods (Creswell, 2013) to build the case study (Yin, 2014).
Since there was significant interaction between them, their case was bounded in terms of the pair: Susan and Lindsey.
Across the year, Authors 1 and 2 conducted three semi-structured interviews: two with Susan and one with Lindsey.
Between the interviews, all three authors met as a research team to discuss emergent themes and adjusted their interview protocols accordingly.
Additionally, Author 2 conducted three announced classroom observations that occurred while Susan and Lindsey were co-teaching.
Author 3 observed Susan monthly as she participated in ten professional development sessions.
Each session varied in structure, though all involved exploring the conceptual underpinnings of the coaching model (e.g., discussing the value of pre-teaching conferences in which preservice teachers could actively request reflective support in specific areas) as well as practicalities (e.g., how often to hold pre-teaching conferences and for how long).
Sessions also involved Retrospective Coaching Analysis (RCA) (Wetzel, Maloch, & Hoffman, 2017), which relied on the collaborative analysis of videos of coaching conversations between cooperating and preservice teachers, and the completion of a written exit ticket.
Between sessions, participants read the mentoring handbook (Wetzel, Hoffman, & Maloch, 2017) and reacted on a virtual discussion board as they reflected on their experiences as students, teachers, mentors, and mentees.
Susan and Lindsey also submitted fourteen coaching videos that documented five coaching cycles. In addition, each author used research memos to provide evidence of their unstructured reflective conversations with Susan.

Findings and discussion
Susan’s work helps us understand how identities and discourses are central to the roles of educators and mentors.
In Susan’s case, tensions arose between two distinct methods of evaluation for educators -- a state-adopted model that felt like a “gotcha,” and a reflective model that she preferred.
Susan’s identity allowed for a space in which resistance to the status-quo was challenged through her partnership with Lindsey.
They “became” more adept professional literacy teachers together.
Susan worked across communities (the university-based coaching community and her campus) as well as across roles (evaluator and mentor), and in doing so, she consistently chose to center a reflective approach despite the various pulls, pushes, and perspectives she encountered.
Susan’s participation in professional development that enhanced her understanding of reflective coaching was yet another space in which she could engage in “becoming.”
By noticing and naming the tensions and conflicts in evaluation models, Susan actively chose to coach with reflection and appreciation against the pressures of the evaluation models widespread in schools across the U.S. today.
Susan articulated and validated her own teaching identity and practices through her self-selected participation in professional development programs that ultimately created a community of educators who supported Susan’s practices.
She then began to step toward an agentic role in her own school to quietly disrupt existing practices of evaluation, mentorship, and literacy education.
The authors echo Susan’s call for a focus on reflection during coaching interactions, particularly since “the coaching model we advocate is very much in line with a teacher who values thoughtfully adaptive teaching in her own practices” (Wetzel, Hoffman, & Maloch, 2017, p. 14).
Furthermore, they look to Susan and other educators across international settings (e.g., Darling-Hammond, 2014; Lasky, 2005; Timperley, 2001) who are working to disrupt models of evaluation and teaching that isolate professionals rather than allow them to come together as a community of thoughtful, informed, and valued members of the educational system.
Susan and her colleagues reflected on the evaluation models used in education today, which helped them express a need for change and therefore come prepared to make changes in their own practice.
This study’s implications speak to university teacher educators who are designing and planning university-based coaching professional development (or any university-based professional development for in-service teachers).
The case study suggests that teacher educators might ask teachers to reflect on the existing models of supervision and teacher learning they have experienced and the ways the reflective model challenges current practices and models.
This work might take time. However, teachers could be encouraged to develop inquiry projects that allow them to build identities as agentic teacher-leaders.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2014). One piece of the whole: Teacher evaluation as part of a comprehensive system for teaching and learning. American Educator, 38(1), 4e13, 44.
Johnston, P. H. (2004). Choice words: How our language affects children’s learning. New York, NY: Stenhouse Publishers.
Lasky, S. (2005). Sociocultural approach to understanding teacher identity, agency and professional vulnerability in a context of school reform. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21, 899e916.
Timperley, H. (2001). Mentoring conversations designed to promote student teacher learning. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 29(2), 111e123.
Wetzel, M. M., Hoffman, J. V., & Maloch, B. (2017). Mentoring preservice teachers through practice: A framework for coaching with CARE. New York, NY: Routledge.
Wetzel, M. M., Maloch, B., & Hoffman, J. V. (2017). Retrospective video analysis: A reflective tool for teachers and teacher educators. The Reading Teacher, 70(5), 533e542.
Yin, R. K. (2014). Case study research: Design and methods (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021