The Teacher Coach: Qualities of an Effective Mentor

When people inquire about our teacher-training program, I often tell them that the heart of our experience-focused model is the co-teaching relationship between the Apprentice and the mentor teacher.  Apprentices, working to develop and refine their teaching practice over two years, depend on countless hours spent with a mentor teacher—planning, sharing and reflecting on each school day.  Given the importance of a strong teaching coach who is also responsible for a classroom of young students, what do we expect and hope for from our mentoring faculty at Arbor School?

First, it is important to know that while our six Apprentices spend most of their time within one or two classroom settings at Arbor, we see the entire faculty as engaged in a mentoring role.  For example, recess conversation in support of a struggling student often occurs with teachers outside his or her primary classroom context.   During her “free” period, our Spanish teacher comes to observe 8th-grade Science, using her well-honed assessment skills to collect and share incisive observations about the quality and quantity of student participation during an Apprentice’s lesson.  Apprentices’ presentations for faculty meetings invite the advice and perspective of all Arbor teachers, who willingly add their questions and ideas to assessment “experiments” or lists of what is essential in reading.

Despite this shared approach to mentorship, every member of our faculty also strives toward a set of individual aims.  This helps define our approach to supporting beginning teachers in addition to moving our own professional practices forward.  Teachers with particular strengths in one area may assist others to grow in that realm through discussion, advice and coaching.  Observing in each other’s classrooms is always refreshing, sparking admiration for our colleagues’ skill and new ideas for our own practices, and our co-teaching model allows the flexibility to step away from our own students on occasion to seek a different perspective on our craft.

Central within our definition of effective mentorship is a focus on attitude and character—threads that weave themselves through Arbor School in general.  In this case, we hope for mentor teachers to exhibit a strong commitment to and optimism about the teaching profession.  In the face of the pressures and tensions that exist in teaching, our mentor teachers must demonstrate how to leverage these realities as a healthy impetus toward balance and clarifying foundational purposes for schooling.  Relatedly, our mentors desire to be role models to their Apprentices, committing themselves to mentoring with the clear understanding that this requires energy, time and effort.  They also believe that mentorship and collaboration in action research and reflection will improve and refine their own instructional practice.  Sometimes this means being open to new and possibly untested ideas and approaches posed by their Apprentices.  Other times mentors lead the way forward by offering their ideas and insights. The discernment to choose when to follow and when to lead for the benefit of the students as well as the Apprentice must be honed through experience.

People often say that it takes an excellent teacher to be an excellent mentor.  This is certainly true.  Mentoring faculty must have strong knowledge of pedagogy, subject matter, and classroom management skills.  They must be willing to be observed and to subject their practice to scrutiny and study.  They must use the assessment/planning research cycle to adapt their curriculum to the needs and understandings of current students even as they clarify central purposes and imagine students’ culminating performances that will guide their planning.  It is upon such excellent practices that the further requirements of mentoring a beginning teacher depend.

Within a collaborative, co-teaching structure, communication and interpersonal skills are also essential for strong mentors.  In order to maintain trusting professional relationships, mentors must be approachable, patient and clear.  Equally important is empathy for beginning teachers’ struggles, efforts and development.  Remembering what it was like at the beginning of their own careers, mentors communicate hope and enthusiasm as well as the belief that a person is capable of transcending present challenges to strive toward future accomplishments.  Active and attentive listening, asking questions that prompt reflection, and offering critiques in positive and productive ways are daily practices for our teacher coaches.

While many strong teachers have opportunities to develop their communication skills, few are asked to coach other teachers.  Effective coaching requires clear articulation of classroom values, expectations and pedagogical approaches while remaining open to the questions and input of an Apprentice/co-teacher.  With this base established, mentors must then learn to observe and support Apprentices as they plan and teach to these aims themselves.  As mentors work with a series of Apprentices over time, they also have to adjust their communication and coaching to the needs of each person—just as they do with children.  They must provide support through “in the midst” and reflective discussions, and through review of written work and plans.

Mentorship, like collaborative teaching in general, requires a mixture of careful forethought and responsiveness to the ever-changing needs, possibilities and delights afforded by each new set of students and, indeed, each new day.  Teaching Apprentices to savor this dynamic is one way that we hope to develop teachers who remain in the profession and continue to grow throughout their careers.

In order for our mentorship program to thrive and evolve, institutional support is also necessary.  Our school’s director makes mentorship the focus of faculty meetings throughout the year and sees the development of strong mentor teachers as a positive avenue toward professional development in general.  As teachers identify their own strengths and areas for growth within our aims for mentorship, we construct professional partnerships, discussions, observations and coaching opportunities throughout our faculty.  In the process, we hope to refine and develop our own teaching and coaching practices as fully and intentionally as possible.

Annmarie Chesebro, ACT Coordinator