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Action research: Examining mentor teacher needs

Xernona Thomas

May 1, 2017

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As principal of Judia Jackson Harris Elementary, I began the process of exploring the needs of our mentor teachers as part of my doctoral research. I had engaged in many conversations with Bob Capuozzo, our professor-in-residence, and others about how to address concerns expressed by mentor teachers.

Throughout the course of our PDS relationship with the University of Georgia, teachers have talked about the benefits as well as the frustrations of hosting pre-service candidates. As an administrative team, we had made many assumptions regarding ways to improve our structure in order to better support mentors. However, we had not engaged in a formalized process to capture the voices of mentors and to work collaboratively to identify ways to improve our work. The opportunity to initiate an action research project aimed at improving mentor commitment and efficacy was an exciting option for our administrative team.

Judia Jackson Harris teachers and administrators and UGA faculty chose to collaborate on an action research case study designed to improve mentoring experiences of teachers by examining correlations between mentor teacher efficacy and mentor preparation and engagement. Despite the many benefits of hosting pre-service candidates, classroom teachers are sometimes apprehensive regarding student placements due to challenges that they face. School and university leaders are cognizant of this potential reluctance to mentor and recognize that it can negatively impact teachers' commitment to the PDS partnership.

Sixteen mentor teachers participated in focus groups to identify benefits and barriers to mentoring and to explore effective supports for their role. The action research planning team examined mentor teacher responses in order to ascertain what professional learning was needed to increase efficacy for mentoring. Based on our findings, the team decided on a blended model of support which combined a day-long seminar and additional monthly community of practice sessions during 2016-17.

The summer 2016 seminar, led by UGA professors Ronald Cervero, Janna Dresden and Kathy Thompson, addressed the roles and responsibilities of mentors, instructional supervision and principles of adult learning. The subsequent four monthly sessions were facilitated by Jim Garrett and were designed to increase teacher comfort with courageous conversations.

Teachers reported high levels of satisfaction with the professional learning that they received. A significant learning expressed by all participants related to an understanding of the continuum of professional growth. Cervero and Dresden presented literature on the novice to expert continuum and encouraged participants to frame pre-service candidates as "adults in waiting." This new knowledge was not only enlightening for participants, but also served as the impetus for future conversations focused on how to establish reasonable expectations for performance.

One of the participants captured the importance of the adult learning session by saying, "Essentially you think, oh, the teacher candidates have been through these classes. They know something…I failed to realize at times, wait, no, they're just at the beginning stages of their career, which I knew, but it's like that was more apparent. So then you craft your constructive feedback to meet them where they are."

The community of practice model of professional learning provided teachers with a safe space to share best practices and challenges in the area of mentoring. Participants referred to the sessions as "therapeutic" and welcomed the opportunity to learn vicariously from each other. Garrett's direct yet supportive prompts challenged teachers to be reflective about their roles and responsibilities as mentors.

As members of the action research team, teachers and administrators were able to engage in the collective process of inquiry as a tool to improve practice and to strengthen the PDS partnership.

Other study findings from the research were that mentoring instills a sense of professional accountability to exemplary practice and reflection; a mentor's lack of confidence with having critical conversations can hinder mentoring relationships; mentors need a foundational understanding of principles of teaching adults in order to effectively enact their roles; and the communities of practice model supports the collective sharing of needs, experiences, and resources.