Mentoring teachers

iStock_000016934184XSmallEditor’s Note: In a recent “Voices Inside Schools” article from the Harvard Educational Review, Robert H. Bell, a long-time professor at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, discusses five years’ experience mentoring new teachers at the college level. His thoughts seem pertinent for K-12 schools as well.

Bell describes his own teaching style as pragmatic rather than dogmatic and remembers that when he began teaching more than 25 years ago, his colleagues were eager mentors. They visited his classes as well as “edited my essays, prodded, reprimanded, exhorted, corrected, and civilized the energetic, bumptious newcomer.” It was clear to him that his senior colleagues cared about his progress and fate. All members of his department taught the entry-level English course, and they met weekly to plan the syllabus, devise assignments, compare grading practices, and debate tactics for teaching specific pieces of literature.

Bell realized five years ago that this mentoring was no longer available to new teachers at his school. For a variety of reasons, it had declined since the 1970’s. Although Williams College hires outstanding candidates in their subject areas, most have little or no training as teachers. In discussions with younger colleagues, Bell found that they were eager for a time and place where they could talk about common problems and goals. In response to this need, Bell established the Project for Effective Teaching (PET).

After five years, PET has three components — pedagogic, social and individual. The main activity of the program is a regular lunch meeting devoted to pedagogy, where first-, second-, and third-year faculty discuss teaching and learning issues with a sympathetic, enthusiastic veteran and, even more importantly, with each other. The lunch is provided free, and teachers may come and go as their schedules and inclinations dictate. Topics are suggested and agreed upon by the participants and someone briefly introduces each day’s topic. These lunches provide a confidential place for new faculty to share their classroom triumphs and good ideas, and to ask questions, air concerns and voice their anxieties. Teachers talk about their own mistakes. These discussions appear to be both cathartic and educational. Laughter and ideas about how to handle a situation better in the future transform humiliation into growing knowledge and power. Teachers try out lecture and questioning strategies. The focus is on clarity of ideas, effective summaries at the beginning and end of each class, and commitment and enthusiasm for teaching.

These PET conversations are meant to encourage and support as well as to instruct. Bell believes that good teaching always does both. Discussions are usually concrete, practical, and focused on immediate problems that teachers confront daily. Teaching, in Bell’s view, involves an ongoing process of testing, revision and self-examination, balancing many competing goals. He stresses that students take their cue from teachers about the value of the material.

While the main purpose of PET is to be useful to new teachers, another high priority is to promote collegiality, camaraderie and community. Bell believes we need to nourish new teachers. Therefore, the social component of the program is crucial. It enables people to make friends and develop close relationships outside of their departments.

The third component of the project is individual advising and mentoring. Bell sees new teachers individually, developing a personal relationship, so when they need particular advice, they have someone to whom they can turn. He visits their classes and analyzes videotapes of their teaching. Because of his role as a mentor, he must inspire trust; strict confidentiality is vital. Bell is not eligible for any position that deals with evaluation or promotion.

“On Becoming a Teacher of Teachers” Harvard Educational Review Volume 69, Number 4, Winter 1999 pp. 447-455.

Published in ERN March 2000 Volume 13 Number 3

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)