Talented, caring staff can be found in every early childhood program. But how do you find such good teachers? How do they learn all they need to know to be nurturing and caring and employ developmentally appropriate practice?

MENTORING - AN IMPORTANT REFORM

Recent research suggests that even teachers who learn the most current methods revert to what they experienced from their own teachers. Since most of today's teachers did not have preschool experiences, they look back to the earliest classroom experiences they can recall. Most of these models include a teacher talking to a group of quiet students sitting at their desks.

Because this model doesn't work in a classroom of young children, mentoring offers a promising reform in education. The use of mentoring can counteract these "old memories" and help teachers teach in more relaxed, innovative, and developmentally appropriate ways. Research focused on the practice of mentoring suggests that such a program can benefit our profession by cutting the dropout rate as much as 35%. The same research documented that those teachers who receive the least mentoring leave the field much more quickly than others.

Mentoring helps a new teacher evaluate her own experiences and grapple with the emotional side of teaching. Teaching can be emotionally draining when teachers get caught up in the lives of the children and parents, mentoring can help them maintain a healthy objectivity, while continuing to be supportive and working toward established goals. Mentoring also supports teachers by providing clear, specific advice about how to do something better or differently the next time.

MENTORING THROUGHOUT YOUR PROGRAM

Mentoring can influence and impact your program in many arenas. Use mentoring in areas such as setting standards and best practices across the curriculum and during interactions with parents, and for implementing curriculum planning, room arrangement, positive guidance and discipline. Mentoring can also be an integral part of new-teacher orientation, and planning school events including fundraisers and parent/teacher conferences.

TRAINING MENTORS FOR SUCCESS

it's important to understand that the job of a mentor is to offer guidance and support in specific areas rather than completely altering a teacher's teaching style. Discuss this with each mentor before they start to be sure they take on the job with respect and caring for the teacher with whom they will work.

Respecting each person's abilities is the basis for success. The mentor must help the teacher recognize and be proud of her skills, using them as a foundation for growth and development. With this foundation, teachers can add new abilities, methods, and resources that will support their ability to become better teachers.

REFLECTIVE AND SENSITIVE PROCESS

Whether you are supervising mentors or coaching teachers yourself, the task requires a high degree of sensitivity and care. The following tips will help keep you on the right track for both of these roles:

Be sensitive to the teacher's pace of learning. Adults learn at different rates. Tailor your work to the ability of the individual to absorb and understand. Remember, you are trying to change behaviors that have been learned and developed over time. It will take time and practice to unlearn or relearn methods.

Expect high-quality work and response. Respond to even the smallest positive changes and discuss every effort. When it is right, you will both know it. Don't give in to the temptation to settle for less than the expected high standard. If the behavior or practice doesn't yet meet the expectation, keep working in a positive mode until you are there.

Ask open-ended questions. When you discuss their changes, ask questions that require more than a one-word answer. You will be modeling how teachers should interact with children as well as helping them reflect on their own progress.

Use reflection and repetition. The role of an early childhood teacher is to learn, reflect, and do. Help teachers watch each child; reflect on that child's knowledge, skills, and dispositions; and then act as a catalyst to stimulate growth in these areas.

When you see consistent changes, celebrate! Little accomplishments mean a lot to a teacher who is trying to grow and improve.

ESTABLISHING THE PROGRAM

Start by discussing a mentoring program with the staff. Describe why you feel it will benefit your program and how it will begin. Ask for volunteers to mentor and discuss those areas where they feel strong enough to support a colleague's growth.

Observe each teacher. You must start by observing each teacher in her classroom for at least an hour as a way of determining who might be effective mentors. Be careful not to assume that you know all about their teaching styles unless you have done this in the last month. Document their strong areas as well as those areas the volunteers haven't included that can be an important part of your mentoring program.

Use a simple self-assessment. This will help teachers identify their own strengths, interests and areas for growth. Ask questions such as:

  • In what curriculum areas do you specifically enjoy planning and working?
  • In what curriculum areas do you feel you need more resources and ideas?
  • What are the children's favorite learning centers in your room? Ask children why they like these areas.

Identify strengths and areas for growth. Involve each teacher in this process. Ask each to list strengths and growth areas separately and compare your lists.

Select one area to work on at a time. Your list can be any length but tackle only one item at a time. It is better to focus on a single area for growth and succeed quickly than to be frustrated or overwhelmed by too many expectations.

Pair teachers with a specific strength with others who want to improve in that area. Try to watch for personalities that support and complement each other. Expect an atmosphere of warm, responsive teamwork. If conflicts arise, handle them quickly and in a matter-of-fact manner without blame or repercussions.

We know that some skills are learned while other skills are instinctive. Good teachers are a result of a combination of their own caring, nurturing personalities and education in the area of child development and appropriate early childhood practice. Your coaching and mentoring can make a significant difference in the life of a teacher-and in the life of the children in her care.

This article originally appeared in the November, 2001 issue of Early Childhood Today.