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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

A Match Made in Cyberspace: The Next Generation of Teachers Will Seek Virtual Support

Online mentoring supports new teachers and rejuvenates veterans.
Malaika Costello-Dougherty
Former senior editor at Edutopia.

See our tips on building trust online below.

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.

Malaika Costello-Dougherty is senior editor for Edutopia.

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kate Walsh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Scholastic has some great support for New Teachers on their website. They have a veteran teacher, Ruth Manna, who answers questions for new teachers. Add to that the great free resources and tools on the site and you have some solid support for new teachers. Our district recommends this site to all of our new teachers--and to the seasoned vets as well!
http://teacher.scholastic.com/newteacher/

Barnett Berry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Indeed today's online mentoring, as described in this issue of Edutopia, is on the cusp of the wave of the future. But online mentoring is not online community - and building trust is not just a matter of following a check-list of what to do or not. Check out the Teacher Leaders Network for a glimpse of what might be when virtual teacher mentoring translates into community organizing!

Alyson Mike's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

e-Mentoring [eMSS] as described in this article, is an online community and
is not a series of checklists. eMSS provide subject and grade level
specific mentoring and provides mentees with the opportunity to select
content specific professional development designed to directly affect their
classroom practice. Independent research has shown eMSS has had a significant impact on beginning teachers preparedness to teach challenging courses and curricula, ability to teach content,preparedness in basic teaching and classroom management skills, and
teacher satisfaction.

Ms. M.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi,

I tried to be a teacher, but it was hard. I wish that I had had your online support to help me.

It's like you say, I was afraid to ask for help because I didn't want to be thought of as incompetent (i.e. judged by others). It was difficult having what was supposed to be my co-worker as my "mentor" -- I felt like she was my boss and that I had to do what she said. I would have preferred to have her as a friend--I could share stories with to relieve tension as opposed to her being a source of tension.

I didn't know how much I should have stood my ground and taught the way I am able to teach (i.e. maintain who I am) vs. just "do what I was told." My mentor and I were opposites. I wanted to embrace and teach with technology, she didn't. I thought that I was supposed to use the teaching materials I was provided (since they are what the state authorized and they were there for me to use). But, I think I was supposed to show more creativity. I was over-thinking things too much and then I got stressed out...and did not want to go back this school year. Now, I'm unemployed.

Please continue to develop and promote online support systems. I hope that you can help other teachers stay in the profession.

Dawn Oliver's picture

HI! I am an old teacher (60 years) and I still have my problems in the classroom. I think the story above must be happening everywhere in the world. This is so sad. I am learning new technologies and though tiring it is enjoyable. I am also studying online 'Mentoring' with Ed Queensland, Australia, where I am a relief teacher. Teaching is a difficult job. I think online mentoring is a fantastic idea and if possible it could be done more locally so that mentor and mentee can meet each other. Ms M I hope you have gone back to teaching. And your comments are very kind considering what happened in your situation.

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