It’s no secret that the countries renowned for their education system owe this mostly to their pre-service teacher education strategies (Sahlberg, 2010) and generous support for teacher professional development (OECD, 2005). Following this tradition, many countries are now spending huge sums of resources to ensure high quality in teacher education. Despite the increased focus on the role of teachers, many teachers are leaving the profession after a couple of years of teaching (Cooper & Alvarado, 2006; Ingersoll, 2003; Lindqvist, Nordänger, & Carlsson, 2014). Among the factors that contribute most to high dropout rates are lack of pedagogical support (Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016), difficulty in adjusting to job conditions (Dupriez, Delvaux, & Lothaire, 2016), and the perceived complexity of the assignments they are faced with (Borman & Dowling, 2008). This is a loud and clear message showing that teachers need professional support especially in the initial stages of their career. The literature indicates that more experienced colleagues at the same institution are the best candidates for offering this support under a mentorship scheme (Malderez, 2009).
Such professional support can help the newcomers in several ways. To begin with, a mentor teacher can help the new recruits by easing their acceptance into the professional community and make them feel welcome. In addition, experienced mentors can help novice teachers make informed decisions regarding their classroom practices. Because novice teachers have only little experience in real-classroom settings, most of their practices are based on what they took up as good practices from their own teachers or the theories they became familiar with as prospective teachers (Singh & Richards, 2009). However, because each classroom has distinct needs based on their dynamic nature and characteristics, teachers need to be able to construct their own approach considering the student profile, institutional policies, and instructional goals. Having a mentor can help the novice teacher identify the kind of approach that is more likely to work in a given contextual setting through mentor-mentee conversations and observations. Moreover, a constructive mentorship scheme can create opportunities for reflection and professional growth. Reflective practice and collaboration encourage teachers to increase their knowledge of available teaching practices, promote their awareness of the nature of their profession, and self-evaluate themselves thinking critically about the role of their practices (Brookfield, 1995; Burton, 2009), which are all important steps in their journey towards teacher expertise (Tsui, 2009).
Although the benefits are strongly supported by the existing body of literature, there are a few considerations that are pivotal in mentorship. The first issue concerns the role of the mentor as being supportive in the transformation of the mentees and their situating themselves in a new professional community. This role is different from that of a supervisor, who is traditionally more concerned with ensuring individuals act in accordance with institutional practices (Malderez, 2009). Therefore, for a successful mentorship process, it is very important for mentors to act as a professional facilitator, rather than an inspecting and restricting body. In relation to this, it should be noted that mentoring requires a unique set of skills that cannot be acquired only through experience in teaching for which mentors need support in both preparation and implementation stages. Some of the issues that should be negotiated in mentor preparation include the criteria that will be used in matching the mentors with mentees, the type of mentorship approach that mentors can employ, the language that will be used in mentor-mentee conversations, a shared vision for good teaching, emotional breakdowns that might occur during the process, handling conflicts between the mentor and mentee, and what to do with the information gained by observing or listening to the mentee. Another requirement for an effective mentorship scheme is support from the institution. Studies have shown that when the administration and the teaching staff are supportive of the mentorship program, the results are likely to be more satisfying for all the parties involved (Mcnally & Martin, 1998). This support can be offered by creating opportunities for the mentor and mentee in which they can engage in collaborative professional practices. For example, the mentor and mentee can be partners in the same class and they can take part in marking sessions together to make reflection on instructional practices more meaningful for both parties.
Because teaching is an inherently social profession requiring constant interaction with other individuals, all teachers experience problems and breakdowns, especially early in their career, no matter how knowledgeable they are. Just like a disciple needs the desire and wisdom of the guru, novice teachers need mentors to see they will never walk alone.
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* This article was published in TESOL in Turkey Professional ELT Magazine, Issue 1.