Every position I have ever held, aside from my university teaching and my first job, has required me to have a mentor. Mentor programs vary along with other things from district to district, ranging from an intensive program with weekly instructional meetings and conferred hours/certificates to casual breakfasts you can choose to go to.
When I began my career in a very rural school district I was in charge of the entire music program from Kindergarten through 12th grade.The only experience I had with teaching was the requisite student teaching experience overseen by an experienced teacher, and while I had plenty of freedom to experiment with lesson plans and behavior management, there were may aspects of the program that were never placed in my hands. I was immediately overwhelmed, the high school students completely rejected me, students were coming to my rental house and throwing rocks, I had no idea how to organize this entire program all by myself. A mentor would have been useful: someone to bring questions to and to ask for guidance. No such person existed. I resigned from the position after 6 months, having been run out of town by most of the older students. It came to my attention later that the teacher’s union had already had the principal and superintendent in line for the chopping block, and my situation gave them more fuel for the fire. It’s a shame that I had to be a victim in the situation, but that decision was for the best. Despite what happened, I am not entirely convinced that a mentor would have significantly improved my experience, but maybe I could have survived the full year before making a change.
Any teacher’s first position is the only time when I would advocate a mentor. Maybe even within the first two years of teaching if you change positions, but brand new teachers need guidance. There is so much more than lesson plans and record keeping (read: politics and bullshit) that new teachers don’t even know is coming until it happens.
So when I took my new position in the southwest halfway through my first year teaching, having a mentor wasn’t so bad. It kind of sucked that my mentor was 68 years old and getting ready to retire and so bridging the gap between her generation and mine was often a challenge. In addition to mentor meetings and availability, mentees were required to attend weekly, 3 hour seminars on different topics related to teaching (lesson planning, classroom management, stress management, etc.) and complete papers and worksheets related to the content. We were not reimbursed for this time. For those of us who just left college this was all repetitive, and for people who were required to be a part of the program because it was their first year in the district kept rolling their eyes because some had been teaching 5 years or more.
Which leads me to why I think the mentor program idea is taken too far: people who have been teaching FOREVER are forced into it if it is their first year in a new district no matter how long they have been teaching. It is currently my ninth year of teaching, and I am a mentee this year in my new district. Last year I was in a different district and I was a mentee too after 8 years of teaching. And it’s not that what they are trying to teach isn’t relevant or important, it’s that there is no filter. Everyone goes in one big pot with no recognition of strengths, weaknesses, experience, or interests. There is no filter. So every new employee, every new district, every new job holds the possibility that you will be hammered into a program that may or may not suit your needs. If we view teachers as the keystone of public school success, this is a waste of resources of the highest order.
This is an area of professional development that requires reform which would move us towards quality rather than quantity, effectiveness rather than efficiency, and a system that might celebrate experience and improvement rather than simply logging those in-service hours to prove the district is “implementing” the mentoring requirement.