A Match Made in Cyberspace: The Next Generation of Teachers Will Seek Virtual Support
Online mentoring supports new teachers and rejuvenates veterans.
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Credit: Wesley Bedrosian
The newest generations of teachers, like their students, have always connected digitally. As tech-savvy learners and communicators, they look online for inspiration and support. In the not-so-distant future, educators will seek and find personal and professional support through online portals where mentors will offer time, energy, and advice to their less seasoned colleagues.
These online mentors, functioning as colleagues and friends, will help weave another web of relationships to keep new teachers in the profession. The novice in an urban school with high turnover and budget challenges will benefit from a veteran's advice about the school's political landscape. A new teacher with a classroom-behavior emergency will find help a few clicks away.
At the already established eMentoring for Student Success (eMSS) program, sponsored by the University of California at Santa Cruz's New Teacher Center and its partners, new science and math teachers connect regularly with experienced teachers in their subject area. On the site, users will find a debate about whether to teach middle school or high school alongside a discussion labeled "Heavy Topic: Suicide," in which a mentor provides a sounding board for a teacher who has lost a student. There's also a destination called Mentor Place, where facilitators help mentors enhance their work with the new teachers. In Our Place, the experienced mentors support beginning teachers.
These online relationships are structured around guided discussions (called inquiries) in which new teachers, in small groups, select a topic and work with mentors and a facilitator to explore classroom issues. At a recent diversity inquiry, the math mentor started the dialogue with a reflection on cultural backgrounds. From the start, this online discussion thread involved information that wouldn't be appropriate for hallway chatter. The mentor described how a transient childhood made her empathetic to students starting a new school. One new teacher expressed how her mixed-race marriage influenced her everyday teaching and heightened her sensitivity to students' hurtful comments.
These personal stories built an understanding between the teachers, and they next worked on a specific problem related to diversity. "Please help," wrote a new teacher who was grappling with how to teach the subject of differences in an ethnically homogenous classroom. The mentor suggested looking at other forms of diversity. Together, the teachers determined a plan for the new teacher's math class that would incorporate gender diversity into a factoring assignment. Then the mentor wrote what new teachers always need to hear: "Great work."
This virtual environment allows teachers to explore their fears and learn from mistakes without being judged by the teachers they work with every day at their school. Statistics show that new teachers are at risk for leaving the profession. These online exchanges can give guidance to such teachers, keeping them in the field. They can also rejuvenate experienced teachers who are looking for some motivation.
Aaron Mathieu, a biology teacher at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, in Acton, Massachusetts, and an eMSS mentor, says, "As a mentor, I have had to reflect much more on what I do and how I do it in order to be successful. This has allowed me to identify strengths in what I do, but most important, it has made me reflect on areas where I could better teach my students."
The next step in online mentoring will be to stream live video from classrooms, making it possible for teachers to see one another in action. Early online-mentoring adopters also note that, in the future, networking will become more powerful and sophisticated.
Judi Harris, who has directed K-12 telementoring at the Electronic Emissary Web site since 1992, envisions a successful online mentoring program as a "cafeteria of alternatives." Protégés will be able to select a mentor relationship from a range of services that can be configured to meet their needs. Gradations of support will range from simple forums featuring question-and-answer services to long-term, sustained individual guidance to various types of online collaboration.
Teachers, in growing numbers, are likely to continue to reach through their computers to offer one another a helping hand. And when they connect, they'll start factories of new ideas that, ultimately, should have a great impact on learning.