George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Collaboration

Mentoring the Mentor

Experienced teachers can be wonderful mentors for novices, but it’s important to also give them support when they need it.

September 15, 2022
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

Since the onset of Covid-19, veteran and novice teachers experienced increased stress, upheavals, and challenges in their daily teaching life. The induction program mentors at my school expressed new frustrations and feelings of helplessness when attempting to support their novice teachers. In response, our induction team focused on the cognitive coaching cycle and piloted a “mentor coaching cycle,” a promising support system that helps our mentor teachers become more metacognitively aware of—and more intentional in—their own mentoring practices.

Beginning teachers enter one of the few professions that demand that the novice perform at the same level as a veteran of many years. An induction program with job-embedded mentoring can support novice teachers to grow in their instructional practices and positively impact student achievement.

In our induction program developed at my school, mentors are selected from a pool of veteran teachers. They participate in a robust mentoring program so that they can support novice teachers to become reflective practitioners.

The Cognitive Coaching Model Supports Teacher Efficacy

The cornerstone of our induction program is the cognitive coaching model. It has been repeatedly proven to be a powerful tool to increase teacher efficacy through professional dialogue and self-reflection. While cognitive coaching evolved from teacher evaluation practices, it is entirely nonevaluative with the goal of developing self-reflective, autonomous teachers rather than evaluating teachers’ current practices. Cognitive coaching is a three-step process during which teachers explore the invisible thinking behind their practices with the support of a mentor, coach, or peer.

The process includes a planning conversation, an observation, and a reflection conversation. At every step, the mentor maintains a nonjudgmental stance and avoids inserting their own thoughts into the conversation while guiding the teacher to critically assess their practices. Cognitive coaching supports teacher metacognition, builds on their existing strengths, and allows them to explore and deepen their capacities.

Our induction mentors receive training and practice in cognitive coaching at the beginning of every academic year. Throughout the year, they are provided with opportunities to deepen their understanding of cognitive coaching and practice their coaching conversation skills. Induction mentors engage in at least one cognitive coaching cycle with their novice teachers. 

What’s Involved in the Mentor Coaching Cycle? 

This process places the mentor in the role of the “coachee.” The cognitive coach can be a peer, a mentor leader, or an instructional coach. In our induction program, we have several teachers who support mentors and novice teachers as induction specialists. The induction specialists act as cognitive coaches and lead mentors through the coaching cycle.

The mentor coaching cycle mirrors the cognitive coaching cycle, with a focus on veteran teachers’ mentoring practices, rather than on instructional practices.

These are the three steps we’ve implemented to provide support and help ensure success for our our mentors.

1. The planning conversation: In the first step of the mentor coaching cycle, the induction specialist meets with the mentor to create a plan for how to support their novice teacher in an upcoming mentoring meeting or conversation. Often, this planning conversation revolves around how the mentor intends to carry out a sensitive reflective conversation, how to guide the novice teacher through analyzing student work, or how to help them problem-solve a tricky mentoring situation.

Focused questioning during the planning conversation helps the mentor to do the following:

  • Set specific goals for their novice teacher
  • Anticipate any barriers or pushbacks
  • Define the criteria for what a successful mentoring conversation would look and sound like

The mentor is also guided to consider the strategies that they might use in the mentoring conversation, such as which questions they might ask, how to paraphrase, or how to build trust with their novice teachers.

2. The mentoring: In this phase of cognitive coaching, the coach observes the teacher mentor implementing the lesson or instructional strategies after the planning conversation.

Last year, our induction team determined that being observed during a mentoring conversation could be intimidating to the mentor, the novice teacher, or both. As a result of that finding, we asked the mentors to jot down notes and observations as objectively as possible immediately after the mentoring experience. The notes included questions that the mentor asked, the novice teacher’s verbal responses, and notes of the teacher’s physical reactions and perceived emotional responses. The notes can be used to support the mentor during the next phase of the mentor coaching cycle.

3. The reflecting conversation: In this part of the cycle, the mentor is guided to examine their mentoring practices as objectively as possible and compare them with their plan and success criteria. Rather than thinking about goals and next steps for their novice teacher, the mentor reflects on and sets goals and next steps for their own learning in order to grow as a mentor. The purpose is for them to build a deeper understanding of their own mentoring practices. 

At the conclusion of the reflecting conversation, the mentor is asked what our team believes to be the most important question: “How might you incorporate this process into your own thinking?” This question makes space for the mentor to take ownership of the mentor coaching cycle and internalize the process. This question is specifically tailored to help mentors self-monitor, self-analyze, and self-evaluate in future mentoring situations.

Seek Feedback From Mentors

Reflecting on the previous year, one change that our program will make to the mentor coaching cycle is to ask our mentors to record the conversations (depending on the novice teacher’s comfort/permission). We felt that our mentors’ notes weren’t always able to capture the nuances of the coaching conversations, and that might affect the quality of the reflective conversations.

Mentors who participated in mentor cognitive coaching cycles provided positive feedback about the experience. They reported that they felt supported, were able to focus on their questioning skills, and were able to better support their teachers without feeling as if they had to know all the answers. Most important, the participating mentors felt that they were able to improve their own coaching skills because they were able to experience cognitive coaching as both the coach and the coachee.

Cognitive coaching supports building independent, reflective teachers. Teacher mentors can also benefit from this method, particularly under difficult mentoring situations.

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