Professional Learning

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

Online mentoring supports new teachers and rejuvenates veterans.

August 13, 2008

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.

Advice for Advising: How to Make It Work

Online mentoring can cost money. Beginning operations with a $7.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, eMentoring for Student Success charges school districts $1,000 annually per beginning teacher to pay a $1,800 stipend to mentors who work with two teachers, but the cost will soon double. Judi Harris, who has directed Electronic Emissary K-12 Telementoring since 1992, advises districts and schools of education to add online and face-to-face mentoring programs as a line item in their budgets as soon as possible.

Mentors can work with one or more protégés, depending on needs. Two advantages of a mentor advising groups of mentored teachers are that peers can provide additional support to each other and that, if a new teacher drops out, a mentor will still have others to advise.

Timing also matters in creating a relationship that will continue. Harris says the most popular time to connect a new teacher with a mentor is two to four weeks before school starts.

Occasional face-to-face interaction between mentors and protégés who usually communicate online helps build trust. Often, the two can meet at a conference, in restaurants, or at schools to flesh out their relationship. -- MCD

Guiding Principles: Tips on Building Trust Online

Without the visual cues and chance encounters people use to build rapport, it can be harder for mentors and protégés to establish a relationship online. But it can be done. Here are some tips:

  • Start with a simple introduction.
  • Spend time up front agreeing on what's needed to meet each other's expectations.
  • Be careful of dead time online, when a response to a message is delayed. Try to reply to any email within forty-eight hours (sooner is better), and let your correspondent know if you'll be gone or busy.
  • Communicate enthusiasm. Don't wait to be contacted with a problem, and share successes and offer praise.
  • Make effective use of email subject lines by changing them when a discussion shifts focus.
  • Be prepared for technical difficulties; establish backup plans.
  • Create a stable, transparent identity by sharing your name, hometown, and school district, and possibly your phone number.
  • Be open about what is best by recommending external resources.

-- MCD

Malaika Costello-Dougherty is senior editor for Edutopia.

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