The power of mentoring

UW initiative elevates the practice of future and veteran educators


What makes a mentor great?

The College’s five teacher education programs work together to uncover—and share—the practices of successful mentors

At West Seattle’s Arbor Heights Elementary, teacher candidate Emma Cornwell is delivering a small-group math lesson in the classroom of her mentor, veteran teacher Cate Simmers. Earlier, Cornwell watched as Simmers delivered the same lesson—followed by a brief session where Simmers explained the thinking behind her approach. Now Cornwell works with a new group of kids, using the teaching techniques Simmers just shared.

Simmers created this mentoring strategy, called “repeated teaching,” which was recorded on video by UW College of Education instructor Adrian Cunard. Cunard has been watching experienced mentors in action, looking for effective strategies like this. Since very few researchers focus on how the best mentors actually do their work in the classroom, Cunard said, novel and useful techniques like this don’t often get widely shared.

And while many novice teachers, like Cornwell, report that their mentoring experience is one of the most impactful parts of their teacher training, most universities and alternative teacher training pathways offer little or no actual training for mentors in effective practices—in part because of the lack of research about what those effective practices are.

That’s changing, Cunard said, thanks to the Mentor Labs Project, an innovative venture led by UW research scientist Sarah Schneider Kavanagh. The project is a partnership across all five College of Education teacher training programs.

“We’ve shown up in spaces, we’ve got people working together, we’ve tried things on,” Kavanagh said. “Because we’ve had a mindset of experimentation, of learning from teachers in classrooms, we’ve been able to create bounded activities that other mentors can learn and try—and do it with a culture of playfulness and experimentation that feels great.”

Five programs, one goal

“About two years ago, we had conversations with the leadership of all five teacher education programs about what would you want to work on together,” said Kara Jackson, an associate professor who directs the College’s Ackerley Partner School Network. “Everyone said, how do we do a better job of supporting our mentors? We want to help mentors see themselves as teacher educators—as real partners with the University in working on this problem.”

“We’re trying to take mentoring practices out of the realm of ‘I know it when I see it,’” said Patrick Sexton, assistant dean of teacher education programs. “We’re co-creating with mentors, conceptualizing practices that other mentors can work on, learn and use. And we’re using our work with mentors to reach the aim we already had of getting all our teacher education programs to collaborate on something that’s important to every program.

“We also see this as a way of giving back to our partner schools. We think offering these new types of professional development helps elevate teacher professionalism in significant ways—while improving our service to our teacher candidates. We want to position the College of Education as a national leader in providing support for mentors.”

Learning from great mentors

When mentoring techniques like Simmers’ repeated teaching are identified, the goal is to share them as widely as possible. An important vehicle for trying things out is the UW’s Seattle Teacher Residency, which often includes the findings of College researchers in monthly professional development trainings for its approximately two dozen mentors.

Within the College, there’s also a small cohort of mentor fellows—experienced mentors who videorecord their own work, meet weekly to discuss practice, and share what they learn with the College’s five teacher preparation programs. In addition, Cunard, Kavanagh and Jackson created a structure for Mentor Labs, which have been held at Arbor Heights Elementary, Madison Middle School, Cleveland High School, and Roxhill Elementary, along with schools that partner with the Seattle Teacher Residency.

In the case of repeated teaching, “we wrote up a protocol and asked other mentors to try it,” Cunard said. She said special education mentors found the technique especially helpful, since so much of their day consists of working with small groups. And Cunard said special education teachers had already shared a technique of their own called charting that has proven very useful to general education mentors.

“Research on mentoring has tended to be either about the identity and disposition of mentors or conversations outside of instructional time,” Kavanagh said. “What we’ve been working on that’s new is what does mentorship look like for the seven hours a day that mentors and novice teachers are sitting together in a classroom with students?” Kavanagh said that what really makes the work most exciting is not naming practices. “I don’t want us to say, ‘we’ve named a bunch of techniques. Now go do them.’ Because the more exciting part of the work is getting mentor teachers together so they can learn from each other. We try to create experiences where we get mentor teachers experimenting together, and learning from each other, and learning from the kids—and we’re all excited to see where that leads.”

Context is key

For one novice teacher, a mentor relationship made the UW a clear choice

After Emma Cornwell decided to become an elementary teacher, she gave a lot of thought to the pathways she could take to reach her goal.

“I thought about programs like Teach For America, where you’re sort of dumped into teaching right away,” she said. “But I chose the UW because I knew my training would include having a year-long relationship with a mentor.”

Cornwell said other university programs she considered also didn’t offer much time working with a mentor. “In a lot of teacher prep programs, you’re only with your mentor for six weeks. The time was really important to me. To have an experienced teacher, someone who knows me well, and really knows the kids, to reflect on a lesson right after I teach it—I wouldn’t want to go into teaching without this experience.”

Cornwell, who was paired with mentor teacher Cate Simmers at Seattle’s Arbor Heights Elementary, said her year-long experience with Simmers helped her put what she learned in the classroom at UW into context.

“What we’re learning in our classes is so important—but it would be harder to truly understand its importance if it wasn’t contextualized in the classroom [with students]. Now I have a theoretical background through my coursework, and very practical experience that lasts a whole year.”

The year-long placement also gave school leaders at Arbor Heights a chance to get to know Cornwell, who’s joining the school’s faculty in the fall.

“I feel like I’ll go into teaching with lots of tools and strategies and ideas and support,” Cornwell said. “And I’ll still have Cate to ask questions if I need to.”

  • Mentor teacher Cate Simmers, center, talks with elementary teacher candidate Emma Cornwell.

  • The Mentor Labs Project taps experienced teachers like Cate Simmers, left, in boosting the practice of teacher mentorship.

  • Emma Cornwell was hired to teach at Seattle's Arbor Heights Elementary following her year-long mentorship.

  • For novice teachers like Emma Cornwell, middle, high-quality mentoring is crucial to their preparation.

Elevating the practice

Seattle Teacher Residency is advancing the practices of mentor recruitment, evaluation and training

Marisa Bier, who directs the Seattle Teacher Residency (STR), which works with 20 to 25 mentors at any given time, said she welcomes the UW’s efforts to uncover and share specific practices that great mentors use in their classrooms.

“Many if not most mentor teachers come into it not having done it before,” Bier said. “Without any baseline understanding or tools they just have to figure it out—they wing it. That can work—but it can also be a disaster.”

Bier said STR uses what UW researchers are discovering in its monthly training sessions with mentors. In addition, STR is working to elevate the practice of mentoring by refining the way mentors are recruited, selected and paired with novice teachers.

To become a mentor through STR, candidates are first nominated by a principal, Bier said. Then they fill out an application that outlines their beliefs about mentoring, and explains how their practice aligns with STR’s core practices. Before the selection is final, STR observes prospective mentors in the classroom. And before they’re paired with a novice teacher, prospective mentors and teacher candidates get a chance to meet and indicate their top three choices.

“The best mentors are always the ones who say they want to learn more, and are really energized by the experience, even when it’s hard,” Bier said. “Maybe they have some challenges, because their resident has some challenges, but they continue to want to do it. Because they know it’s good for their students, and they know it’s good for their own practice. They have a belief that the experience has as much to offer them as they have to offer a novice teacher. That learning stance stands out to me.”