Ask the Mentor of Mentors:
A Collection Of Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
© 2004, Barry Sweeny
What's the Difference Between a Quality Program and an Effective Program?
There are some critical distinctions. They are critical because they are fundamental to the way you improve your program and practices.
QUALITY is a condition that must exist relative to something else:
Given this definition, the effort to become a higher QUALITY mentoring program will require some mentoring program standards. The effort to promote QUALITY mentoring requires standards of mentoring as a professional practice. I have recently been giving this considerable attention.
EFFECTIVENESS is a condition that also must exist relative to something else. In this case, the something else is a purpose or set of goals. In other words, a program is deemed "effective" if is is successful in accomplishing what it was designed to do. This is helpful from the perspective of continually improving a program, sustaining the resources that support it, and accomplishing important and valued things. However, this is not as simple as it would seem.
FOR EXAMPLE: A program that has as its sole purpose to "orient new teachers to their new job", may assign a mentor to help accomplish that purpose. It could then be said that this is an effective mentoring program if all new teachers feel "well oriented". However, placed against a set of program standards, or compared to another program with additional purposes (such as the improvement of instruction and student learning, the orientation program seems of less quality and to be less effective than those which accomplish more. This suggests that there is a consensus that such peer support programs as mentoring and peer coaching should at least address improving instruction.
What should be the most basic goals of a quality induction program?
Quality induction programs might address as many as a dozen goals, but there are three fundamental goals I recommend:
1. Orientation to the work setting, job expectations and responsibilities, the organization, key people, organizational culture and philosophies, and the specific tasks, and expectations of the job assignment.
2. Induction to the profession, including making a commitment to the organization and the job, and the development of skills necessary to function at least at the performance level of typical employees
3. Induction into the shared vision for the profession and organization. - Every profession and organization has a vision of what it is trying to become that exceeds what it currently is capable of doing. New employees need to enlist in the journey of continual improvement, the development of the skills which are needed by the desired employee and team member of the future, and the development of the work environment, culture and organization which is sought for the future. In other words, an excellent mentoring program must answer the question, "how shall we induct a new person into this organization and profession when we are just in the middle of redefining ourselves?"
I assert that it is only when mentoring addresses all three of these purposes that a mentoring program can be expected to increase an organization's performance.
What is "Induction"?
Basically, induction is the process of joining a profession, learning the specialized knowledge and skills expected of members of that profession, and being accepted as a professional.
Literally, in teaching, that often means nothing more than signing a contract and then "poof", you are a "professional" teacher. I think many feel that this narrow definition lacks some of the richness and complexity that we assign to our profession. If a professional is more than someone whose living is earned by doing a paying job, then induction to a profession must be more than signing up for the career.
Induction could also be a longer process of up to several years, which is needed to reach some level of competence, worthy of being called "professional". When that level of competence is achieved and you are a "professional", your induction process is completed. The trick here is determining what level of competence is enough to be called a "professional". Given what has been happening with educator certification in most states, the most reasonable way to determine when a novice teacher becomes a professional is when (s)he attains the Standard (sometimes called the "professional") Teaching Certificate. That level of certification is earned because they have demonstrated a level of competence based on their state's teaching standards. In that sense then, the "induction period" would be the number of years needed to earn the Standard certificate.
What are the essential components of a quality induction program?
Since induction programs can have a range of goals, the components needed to attain those different goals will vary considerably. However, for a program intent on BOTH helping new teachers into the profession AND promoting improved teaching and student learning, I have concluded that:
Information about this list and each component is available in Item #1 on my Publications List elsewhere on the web site.
What is "Mentoring"?
Mentoring is an age old method that we find in business, education, and all areas of life, with adults and with youth. For our purposes mentoring is for adults in education. However, that is still too broad a field of study, because in that sense, mentoring is a process that can both precede and follow induction, and also occur during induction. Mentoring can occur any time someone seeks to learn from someone else who has experience in the topic for learning. That means that preservice, novice, and experienced teachers can all have mentors. Mentoring during induction is the focus of our conversation. Therefore...
Mentoring is the complex and developmental process which mentors use to support and guide their protege through the necessary early career transitions which are a part of learning how to be an effective, reflective educator and a career-long learner.
How is coaching different from mentoring?
Mentoring is the all-inclusive description of everything done to support protege orientation and professional development. Coaching is one of the sets of strategies which mentors must learn and effectively use.
Coaching is the support for learning provided by a colleague who uses observation, data collection and descriptive, non-judgmental reporting on specific requested behaviors and technical skills. The colleague also must use open-ended questions to help the other teacher more objectively see their own patterns of behavior and to prompt reflection, goal-setting, and action to increase the desired results.
Why don't all excellent teachers also make excellent mentors?
This is a very real and pervasive phenomena in mentoring today. The answer to this question is probably your biggest opportunity to make your mentoring program a highly valued component of your district's program.
When I was originally trained as a new staff developer (1985) One of the training components was a review of the "Principles of Adult Learning". In fact, this topic is still an essential aspect of staff development and mentoring today. It is very interesting to me, however, that a comparison of "adult learning" principles and "engaged learning" principles (another hot topic today) shows that they are one and the same principles.
Let's consider an example. Adult learning theory states that we need to respect the experience and prior knowledge of adult learners and build on that strength in designing staff development for them. Seems logical, right? We need to do that for adult learners, right? But NOT for student learners??! Amazing! The principles of engaged learning (which we learn in technology staff development) state the same thing, but for kids!
That is why I assert that if a mentor is effective in working with another adult learner, they are so because they have applied the principles of "Adult/Engaged Learning" to that process, whether they label it or think of it that way or not.
What's happening here ?! This issue is surfacing everywhere because our profession is in the midst of redefining what excellence in teaching is. That is why not all "good" teachers (by an older definition) make good mentors (by a newer definition). That is also why the opposite IS true. Great mentors are also automatically great teachers. In fact, when I examine truly effective mentoring, I find that it is the same thing as effective teaching as we are coming to know it. This is quite important, as it clearly indicates that learning to be an effective mentor is exactly the practice we need for learning how to better teach our students.
My experience shows this concept to be the hidden potential of effective mentoring and one which very few mentors or mentor leaders understand. Resolving this issue has been a big focus of mine for at least 8 years and it is what I mean when I use the term "high impact" mentoring. It is teaching mentors HOW to mentor so it promotes growth.
Why do mentors in some programs seem incapable of providing quality mentoring?
It is true that many mentors do not provide the quality of relationship or guidance we might wish to see provided. It is also true, in a small fraction of mentoring cases, that the mentor should probably not have been selected as a mentor.
Program leaders often must work to improve mentoring but they sometimes get the cause of the problem and the problem mixed up. In other words, you must be sure to get the "cart and the horse" in the right order so you are focused on something that will improve mentoring practices.
I place the success of mentoring squarely at the "feet" of the mentoring programs in which the mentors work. Teaching students does not sufficiently prepare one to be a mentor. Nor can we assume that life prepares one to be an effective mentor. Even though there are some of us who might agree that we were mentored (by some definition of that word) how would we know how to be an effective mentor if we never had a model of such effectiveness to observe ourselves? This is why I strongly urge mentoring programs to provide a Mentor of Mentors.
It is the mentoring program that needs to improve if it does not clearly define mentor roles and tasks, the mentoring relationship, the mentoring process, and if it does not adequately prepare, support, AND provide excellent models for the mentors to help them accomplish what we ask of them.
What evaluation questions should an existing mentor program be asking itself?
Here are some questions that I frequently find I must ask when people wonder about what they are accomplishing in mentoring. Perhaps these questions will help you to "turn over" the issues involved in induction program improvement so you can see them and your own program from a new perspective.
The critical questions to ask are:
Almost always, mentoring programs do not have sufficient data to answer these questions with any certainty. Often we respond that we are too busy doing mentoring to evaluate what we are doing. Yet, these do seem to be very critical questions that mentoring programs would want to be able to answer, and even to address! Take the time at some point to ask and answer these questions yourself.
When I hear this question, I wonder,
When asked questions such as, "How do you know if your program is OK?" the response is usually, "We get very few complaints", or "Everyone seems to think things are fine". My response to these statements may seem to be a bit out of "left field", but I often find it to be very appropriate. I respond, "Shouldn't there be some complaints?"
If there are few concerns and few issues surfacing, then there is good reason to believe that mentoring is only accomplishing a tiny part of its potential. In addition to reducing the stress for novice teachers, orientation to curriculum, etc. mentoring is also one of the best tools there is to promote the creation of better norms of collegiality and collaboration, to press for finding more time for job-embedded staff development, increasing openness to professional feed back, learning the power of seeing oneself through another person's eyes, creating a relentless focus on improving instruction, and consistently improving student learning.
If there are no complaints, there are probably few of these things occurring, little challenge to the status quo, little growth, and little professional stretching of roles, relationships, school culture, etc. If there are few complaints, almost always that is good reason to be concerned about the effectiveness of the mentor program.
If there are reasons to be concerned about the program's effectiveness, then there are also good reasons to be concerned about your ability to sustain the program in the future. Mentoring is invisible to everyone outside the mentoring relationship. That suggests that there are many decision makers in a school district who may have little or no reason to value mentoring, and that suggests that these decision makers will someday call into question the value of the program. Think about it. What complaints SHOULD you expect to hear given your program's goals?
What are the Financial Benefits of Mentoring? - The Cost of Teacher Attrition:
The benefits of mentoring can be shown as financial and non-financial costs. This answer is focused on the former. There are a number of ways to illustrate that there are many hidden costs already in the budget which are the current costs of NOT providing support to new teachers. In fact, the cost of teacher attrition is MORE than the cost of an effective induction program because it can save the district money which was an existing and hidden cost. When you show this "Return on Investment" (ROI) the program will be perceived as more "cost effective" and "worth it" than the approach of not supporting new teachers.
Here are some things to consider that demonstrate clear financial costs.
What is the cost to the district when a new teacher leaves teaching or is not rehired? What you want to identify are your district's costs for:
Collect this data and figure it out as a cost for each individual teacher. Then compare that to the cost of induction per teacher. In many districts, you will be thousands of dollars ahead by doing the right thing.
The Non-Financial Benefits in Attracting New Quality Teachers -
A very common interview question now days is "Will I be assigned a mentor?" Your district's ability to answer that question affirmatively, AND to describe the quality of support you provide, is a critical lever for attracting and hiring the best teachers available. Even when you may not have the best salary to offer, you can compete for the best when you treat professionals like a professional. The power of mentoring and induction programs to improve the ability of a district to attract the best new teachers and to dramatically increase retention is very well documented. Increased attraction is critical because:
What are the Non-Financial Costs of Teacher Attrition?
Even though decision makers seem most interested in financial costs related to induction, there are many very significant "costs" which impact big time on the quality of education we deliver. These non-financial costs need to be clearly presented as well. Here are some ideas about those costs.
This has been a tricky issue because many organizations worry that if they build up the capacity of employees, the employees may leave and take that investment with them. However, what we have been learning about the factors that cause employee attrition and retention refutes that old argument. Refer to the answer to the question about employee retention for more on this.
Helping employees to set career goals is not simple. Here's where to start.
- 1. Helping others set and attain career goals is essentially a process of skill building and attitude adjustment. Your purpose is primarily to give folks a sense of self-efficacy, that they can influence, to an increasing extent, what happens to them during their lives.
- 2. Define what your organization is willing to do to help folks attain their career goals. Frame it within an understanding of what retains quality employees.
- 3.Define what the organization cannot do.
- 4. Establish a mentoring program so that all the following "help" occurs within a long-term, collaborative program. For most people collaboration is practically a requirement for reflection and self-assessment. Without collaboration, the will and time for reflection is overwhelmed by the daily work.
- 5. Help the employees to define what their ideal career looks like (set a standard for comparison)
- 6. Help them to create, show them where to find, or provide them with self-assessment tools which compare where they perceive themselves to be relative to where they WANT to be.
- 7. Help them learn how to set reasonable goals and intermediate objectives to move their skills and knowledge from where they are toward where they want to be.
- 8. Help them learn how to define action plans that will be reasonable, yet challenging, and that will give them gradual progress toward their goals.
- 9. Help them identify the resources, knowledge, time, and skills they will need to attain their objectives and ultimate goals.
- 10. Help them learn how to measure and monitor implementation of their intentions and plans, and then, to celebrate progress when they achieve an intermediate objective.
- 11. Finally, help them learn how to help others through this same process by becoming a mentor. Do this all along throughout the entire process by periodically having the mentor ask them to answer three questions:
- What have you just learned? (Of course, ask this after a mentoring discussion.)
- What did I do as your mentor that helped you to learn that? (You'd like feed back about the effectiveness of your mentoring, right?)
- Is there any way you can use that knowledge to improve your effectiveness? (Sometimes the answer to #3 is not clear. It depends on what was learned.)
Why should we hire you as a consultant to help us? We were all new teachers once & should know what to do.
I agree this seems so logical. to some extent you can trust your intuition as a teacher about what new teachers need. However, I caution you that developing a high impact program is not always as obvious as it seems. This is largely because the profession of teaching has changed so dramatically. Necessarily, our goals for mentoring have changed as well and what it takes to deliver high impact mentoring is not so apparent.
I have worked with hundreds of induction and mentoring programs and trained thousands of mentors and I have found that most peoples' educational intuition and common sense are NOT SUFFICIENT to guide them in developing mentoring programs, especially those that have a high impact on teaching and student learning. If that is YOUR purpose, I am not just the best person with which you can work, I am the ONLY person who can help you attain that kind of program.
I have specialized in mentoring and induction of new teachers since 1985 and have tried to become an expert in all aspects of it, from program development, to training, to problem solving. I have especially worked to understand what makes a mentoring and induction program achieve major results in improved teaching and student learning. That knowledge base is the focus of all my current training and consultation.
Since this work is my only means of support, I pay very close attention to my competitors and I make sure that what I provide is unique in the field. Believe me, IT IS UNIQUE.
I know that many people can provide you with some level of help, often because they have a mentor program in their own district. Sometimes just seeing how others do something is all the help, you need. However, the problem with this is that almost all of these people know a small segment of the knowledge base about new teacher mentoring and induction because they have to focus all their time on teaching kids, or managing buildings or programs. They do not have the time to gain expertise based on a broad experience base, across many kinds of settings. They can help but that help is often narrowly focused, and sometimes, even misleading. Whether their help is what YOU need depends entirely on what your program's purposes are. If your purposes include transforming teaching and improving student achievement, you can start accessing my expertise by buying the information thatt is available in on my "Publications List" elsewhere on the web site. However, I KNOW that at some point you and I will probably need to work together in some depth.
Your attendance at my unique mentoring conference would be a big first step, but it is likely that before or after that conference you will want more individual and in-depth assistance.
I do not mean to sound haughty or arrogant. In fact, I am not that way. I just have worked so much in mentoring that I know what else is available out there in terms of resources, web sites, books, consultants, trainers, program models, etc. etc. Lots of it is good, but I have created and I have provided the kind of help I do EXACTLY BECAUSE it is NOT already available anywhere else! It is UNIQUE!
Blessings on you and your vital work on behalf of new teachers and their students.
Remember, I am the "Mentor of Mentors". Let me know when I can help any further.
You have my permission to duplicate this information as long as you:
© 2000, by Barry Sweeny, Best Practice Resources, 26 W 413 Grand Ave. Wheaton, IL 60187
630-668-2605, email and web site at <http://www.teachermentors.com>.