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Why mentoring for teachers and school leaders matters more than ever

Marcus Garrett  |  Follow posts on LinkedIn

How well are early career teachers, new school leaders or staff teaching ‘out of area’ really supported in schools? 

Evidence points to the fact that a lack of mentoring and coaching support for new career teachers leads to higher rates of turnover and, as a result, poorer learning and welfare outcomes for students. In 2015, a national longitudinal study by the US Department of Education found that 86 percent of new teachers with first-year mentors were still teaching, compared with 71 percent without mentors (Brenneman 2015; US Dept Education 2015).

The data on new teacher retention rates in Australia is variable across studies, ranging anywhere between 5% and 50%. However, several studies have consistently found that the personal fulfilment of teaching and the support received in the early years of teaching were in fact higher motivations for staying in teaching than other factors (Howes & Goodman-Delahunty 2015; (Buchanan et al. 2013; cited in Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, 2016, p.10).

More work needs to be done to examine this nexus in Australia, to help inform policy makers responsible for a teaching workforce that is increasingly under pressure from higher community expectations, slimmer professional learning budgets and critical shortages in some areas (see, for example, AMSI 2018).

High levels of burnout for school executive are equally problematic. The national Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey in 2017 showed that almost half of respondents had been threatened with violence at work, and that “Principals reported higher levels of burnout than the general population, twice as much difficulty sleeping as a result of stress and were at higher risk of depression.” (Robinson, N. 2018). A key cause of these levels of professional distress were a sense of isolation from colleagues and peers, and a perceived lack of support from regional or departmental managers.

One off ‘training’ or ‘professional development’ – which usually occurs either in a training facility removed from workplace reality, or in the socially isolated realm of an ‘online learning’ course – rarely has a significant impact on the learning needs of teachers and leaders. This is firstly because authentic learning is ideally social in nature; we learn most effectively from other people we know and to whom we can relate.

Secondly, effective learning requires practice or application in a ‘real world’ setting to truly consolidate and to change practice.

Research by Olivero, Bane, and Kopelman back in 1997 examined the impact on executive managers’ performance of conventional ‘training’ compared with coaching. It showed that ‘one-off’ types of professional development resulted in just over 22% gain in productivity and effectiveness, while coaching increased productivity and effectiveness by 88% (Olivero et al 1997, cited in ACER 2016, p.7). Mentoring and coaching models – when structured intentionally and implemented well – support staff over a sustained period of time and ensure professional learning is embedded into actual practice.

So, how can senior teachers and executive in busy schools ensure that young staff, or staff new to leadership roles, be adequately supported by intentional and carefully implemented mentoring programs?

According to the UK Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (2008), there are a few ‘must haves’ when establishing a successful mentoring or coaching procedure in organisations. Here are a few that jump out as particularly relevant to schools:

  • Organisations (schools) and their leaders need to be clear about the objectives of the mentoring or coaching. What does it aim to achieve… for the mentoree? The mentor? The organisation (or school) and its clients (the students)? The end point of the mentoring program should be a clear professional outcome for new teachers or leaders (such as attaining ‘Proficient’ status against AITSL standards) and for students and their parents (such as improved learning outcomes in numeracy and literacy, or a more settled learning environment for all students).
  • A clear, transparent process to support the mentoring or coaching programmes is essential. For example, who will cover the mentoree’s or the mentor’s teaching load while they are being mentored or coached? How is mentoring intentionally supported by relevant and, where necessary, accredited professional development and upskilling? Both mentors and mentorees should be able to follow a recorded process with specific timelines, practical support mechanisms (such as scheduled classroom release times for planning or observation), explicit professional learning requirements and appropriate feedback and reporting mechanisms.
  • Evaluation and feedback mechanisms need to be established. Mentorees need to receive honest, constructive and supportive feedback on their performance as well as the opportunity to voice their concerns, fears, challenges and triumphs as they tackle new situations and learn new skills.

Quality experiential learning and mentoring for teachers should not suddenly cease at the conclusion of teacher education practicum programs. Ensuring new teachers and school leaders have access to well-managed systems of mentoring and coaching support may well play an important role in reducing the expensive and damaging rates of professional turnover. However, schools also pride themselves on their role as learning communities and so investing authentically in the learning of their staff must be an essential part of this brief.

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (2016), Spotlight – What do we know about early career teacher attrition rates in Australia? August 2016. Page 10. Online publication, available at https://www.aitsl.edu.au/docs/default-source/research-evidence/spotlight/spotlight—attrition.pdf?sfvrsn=40d1ed3c_0. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership : Melbourne, Australia. Accessed 27 November, 2018.

Australian Council for Educational Research (2016), A Guide to Support Coaching and Mentoring for School Improvement, p.7. ACER : Camberwell, Australia. Available at https://research.acer.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1012&context=professional_dev. Accessed 27 November, 2018.

Brenneman, R. (2015), Teachers Without Mentors Leave the Profession Much Faster, Study Finds. In Education Week Teacher, April 2015 (online publication, available at http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/teaching_now/2015/04/new-teacher-attrition-and-retention-data.html. Accessed 27 November, 2018.

Michael, A. (2008), Mentoring and Coaching – Topic Gateway Series No. 50, p.8. The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants : London, UK.

Prince, G and O’Connor, M. (2018), AMSI Occasional Paper 1 Crunching the Numbers on Out of Field Teaching. Online publication, available at https://amsi.org.au/2018/11/26/crunching-the-numbers-on-out-of-field-teaching/. Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute : Melbourne, Australia. Accessed 27 November, 2018.

Robinson, N. (2018), School principals at higher risk of burnout, depression due to workplace stress, survey finds. Article reported on ABC News, available at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-21/principals-overwhelmed-by-workplace-stress-acu-survey-finds/9468078. Australian Broadcasting Corporation : Melbourne, Australia. Accessed 27 November, 2018.

US Department of Education (2015), Public School Teacher Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years: Results From the First Through Fifth Waves of the 2007–08 Beginning Teacher Longitudinal Study. National Centre for Education Statistics : Washington DC.