Opinion

How can master teachers find the time to help their first-year colleagues stay on track?

The life of effective — and busy — mentors

Dr. Stephanie Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

As more public and private funders attempt to transform teacher preparation via investment, they often look to create a corps of master teachers to oversee induction and ensure success among first-year and early-career teachers.

A master teacher could be a curriculum and lesson planning partner, a critical friend, or a coach.

The impact of mentoring on novice-teacher retention is well known. Beginning teachers who receive mentors report a deeper commitment to remaining in the profession than their peers who are not supported, and programs that include extensive mentoring often see retention rates of 80 percent or more.

Related: The first year of teaching can feel like a fraternity hazing

The benefits within school communities, while less tangible, are also evident: As many schools strive to create a mutually supportive environment in which all members of the learning community seek to develop and grow, it is not lost on students and parents that school leaders and teachers, too, are demonstrating their commitment to learn from each other, and to keep learning. What’s more, studies indicate greater satisfaction among veteran teachers who are recognized and given authority as mentors and leaders.

But how to establish this network? As any school leader knows, teacher leaders who are the likely suspects for the master teacher role will be the least likely to have time: the day is full, shared planning time is nonexistent, professional development is an afterthought, and carrying out the basic job of a teacher with integrity leaves little room for the quality of interaction that is appropriate for a mentoring role.

Simply put, the best school people are the busiest.

Stipends fail as the incentive and the means to compensate these efforts, because what is sorely needed is not additional pay — although the work should be fairly compensated — but rather time to do the work in ways that will yield results.

Related: The exhausting life of a first-year teacher

Improving schools’ current practices in mentoring by master teachers will require a three-part approach: First, schools must learn to value the work of mentoring as they value a teacher’s instructional time.

As teachers are evaluated, student outcomes are only a part of the equation. A master teacher contributes to the overall well-being of the school by improving teacher recruitment and retention, raising the quality of student/teacher and parent/teacher interactions, and ensuring the transmission of the highest pedagogical and cultural standards.

These contributions must be seen as central to a master teacher’s work, with these teachers evaluated and compensated accordingly.

Second, schools need an established system for identifying and developing master teachers and evaluating their fitness to serve as mentors, including training, clear standards of practice, and a means of evaluating and improving practice. Master teachers’ professional development remains every bit as important as that of novice teachers, and their development opportunities must be treated as investments in the school’s overall effectiveness.

Related: What happens when teachers spend more time in a classroom — before teaching?

Finally, schools must make time for the work, not just offer additional pay to an already overburdened teacher. Making time might consist of building co-teaching into the teaching schedule so that a master teacher can spend time in the classroom of the novice teacher and vice-versa.

It might mean allowing the work of supporting a novice teacher to count as a teaching assignment toward a full load; this way, a valuable master teacher could work with a cadre of novices — both in and out of his/her discipline — bringing enormous benefit to the school.

It might even mean offering compensatory time to master teachers who agree to arrive a couple of days before classes begin to help new teachers ease into their routines, or who stay after a term’s grades are submitted in order to debrief and decompress with their newer colleagues.

Related: How can states better support and keep new teachers?

Whatever the mechanism, the funding that supports the creation of a corps of master teachers will be best used when all of these aspects converge: the best and busiest teachers will see their knowledge and skills honored, and the contributions they make will strengthen schools considerably.

For all of these reasons, funders’ investments in master teachers should include not only dollars, but also guidelines for the kind of mentoring they are committed to, as well as the means to assess the outcomes and disseminate what they learn.

In this way, creating a corps of master teachers will truly become a lasting and influential contribution to teacher recruitment, preparation, and retention.

Dr. Stephanie Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

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Stephanie Hull

Dr. Stephanie Hull is executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. See Archive