Transformative Educational Leadership Journal, ISSUE: May 2017 | TELjournal.ca
During the 2016-2017 school year, I wondered how we could broaden and deepen the impact of teacher mentorship in my school district. Last September I had set out with a plan to make mentorship more inclusive, public, and grounded in instructional practices that would impact student learning.
Seven months into the “Taking Action” phase of my inquiry and I have started a formal Checking process.
How’s it going?
Engaging in a focused inquiry process has been one of the most powerful learning experiences of my career. The Spiral of Inquiry (Halbert and Kaser, 2013) has provided enough space and flexibility for me to try new things while anchoring my ideas to concrete actions. Some of the actions I have taken have proven successful (bi-monthly email updates, monthly blog posts, use of the OECD Principles of Learning, and the nesting process for learning goals) and others have not (“shop talk” meetings for administrators and new-to-building teachers). In both cases, I have gained insight into how to broaden and deepen the impact of mentorship. Our society appreciates Taking Action as a value. A lack of action might suggest a lack of initiative, intelligence or energy. However, when I turn to reflect on the actions I have not yet taken, I realize I have as much to learn from the lack of action as I do the taking of action. First I will share my learning from the action I have taken, then, and perhaps counterintuitively, I will share my learning from my inactions.
Actions That Worked
The actions with the most significant influence on mentoring focus on deepening the impact of mentoring by grounding it in teaching practice. The actions I have identified as successful are still, very much, in progress. It is still too early in the process to fully assess their impact, but in both cases the actions have been well received.
Weaving the Seven Principles of Learning & First Peoples Principles of Learning into our Mentoring Relationships
- Please click here for a PDF of the Weaving Ways organizer pictured here.
I introduced the concept of using the OECD Seven Principles of Learning as a framework for mentorship using the following document that I adapted from an original document created by Delta School District’s Department of Indigenous Education (2016). This document expanded my initial idea to use the Seven Principles to include the First Peoples Principles of Learning (FNESC). Mentors use these Principles as a framework for talking about teaching practice with their protégés and for thinking about their protégés learning.
The alignment of mentorship with both the Seven Principles of Learning and the First Peoples Principles of Learning provides a conduit to connect learning theory with teaching and mentoring practice. Using this common language and foundation for all of the teachers involved means mentors can use this chart to frame their discussions with protégés and help protégés set their own learning goals. This structure provides a framework to ensure that learning goals are connected to what we know to be effective and wise teaching practice.
Set learner goals based on learner need through a nesting process
The goal of this nesting process is simple: to keep student learning at the centre of mentorship. Protégés scan their students, identify learning needs and set professional learning goals based on those needs. Mentors scan their protégés and then plan their mentoring activities and set their own learning goals based on the needs of the protégés. Finally, the Coordinator of Teacher Mentorship scans mentors’ needs and responds accordingly.
Evidence of the success of this process can be found in the meeting plans and reflections of the mentorship teams which show how many mentors have designed learning activities that highlight the importance of scanning one’s learners. Although I have not seen concrete evidence of the effectiveness on every mentor team, I believe the process has had a positive impact.
Regular email update and blog posts
These actions have been the simplest to implement because they are entirely under my control. The feedback I have received from school-based administrators and District leaders is that they appreciate being informed about mentorship on a regular basis. I have not formally measured the impact of these regular updates and posts. When I survey administrators at the end of the year, I am hoping to find an increased understanding about the learning and work of mentors and protégés. My informal observation based on conversations with administrators is that these posts are achieving the goal of making mentorship more public.
Actions That Didn’t Work
“Shop Talks” for Administrators and New-to-Building Teachers
During the scanning phase of my inquiry, I interviewed administrators and discovered that many of them had a desire to connect with teachers who were new to their school. Whether these teachers were new to teaching, new to the District or just new to the building, the principals and vice-principals I spoke with were eager to establish relationships with teachers they didn’t already know. Through these conversations, I developed the idea of hosting meetings for administrators and any teachers they wanted to invite in order to provide a space for them to start conversations about learning and teaching. I expected these “shop talks” to be a well received and often requested service.
This was not the case. There was almost no interest in these meetings. I was asked to host only one and it was poorly attended.
Clearly, “shop talks” did not meet the need I had expected them to. It may have been a matter of administrators and teachers not wanting to attend another meeting or it may have been a lack of understanding about the intention and purpose of these meetings. I need to investigate further to understand the why these meetings were unsuccessful.
Actions I haven’t taken
As I pause to reflect on my work so far, I have two realizations: (1) as I mention above, I haven’t done everything on the list, and (just as the impulse to feel badly about that lack of action was about to hit I noticed that), (2) the actions I have not taken are both connected to opening the mentors’ learning to include others in their learning process:
- inviting administrators to a mentoring learning session and
- hosting mentor learning sessions in a school.
The fact that the two are so closely connected makes me suspect the actions I haven’t taken are probably rich and fertile learning ground.
My first impulse upon realizing that I haven’t opened up mentor learning like I had intended was to tell myself to “just do it”– just book a room in a school and invite administrators to our next learning session! However, when I pause to think about it I begin to wonder if there is something more going on.
Inviting administrators to a mentor learning session:
During my scan, it became clear that many administrators felt disconnected from the mentorship program, even outright excluded from it. This reaction was not all that surprising. The mentorship program is grounded in teacher-to-teacher mentoring relationships; it is specifically non-evaluative and voluntary. Teachers cannot be “referred” to the program by administrators. The program is designed at all levels to create and maintain a sacred space for teachers to open up their teaching practice, to be vulnerable, to share what is working and what is not working. Administrators’ roles as supervisors and evaluators means their presence introduces too much risk and therefore makes them inappropriate participants in this space.
Despite this dynamic, my conversations with administrators made me think about how I could open this space to include them in the process while still maintaining the sanctity of the teacher-to-teacher mentoring relationship. Inviting them to mentor learning sessions had seemed like a good way to do this. I had anticipated that their participation would
- remove the glaring do not enter sign I had placed at the door of mentorship and invite them in.
- showcase the learning and work of the mentors and
- provide a learning opportunity for the administrators.
I had envisioned mentors inviting their principal or vice-principal to a learning session. Our learning would focus on a topic relevant to both mentors and administrators: having difficult conversations, providing feedback on someone’s teaching practice, and navigating conflict for example. This plan seemed like the perfect solution: by including administrators I would highlight the good work of mentors while providing quality professional learning for both mentors and administrators. I saw this as an opportunity to expand the impact of mentorship, to move mentorship from simply a program to a culture of mentorship across the District.
Not so fast.
I knew I couldn’t invite administrators to our learning session in September. It wouldn’t be appropriate because we had a large group of new mentors and we would be building community and trust – the presence of administrators would throw that off. Also, we use that first learning session to build the mentor teams around the learning needs of the protégés. This process is already complex enough, having additional voices in the room would further complicate matters and could potentially violate teachers’ professional autonomy.
Our November learning session would be a better choice as we would be discussing learning conversations. However, as I was planning for that learning session it became clear that the mentors and I needed to take some time to re-establish our agreements of how we work and learn together. Some mentor teams needed time to work these norms out. Also, I was planning on asking mentors to provide some feedback on the program and my leadership. This put me in a vulnerable position and I didn’t feel like I could do that with administrators in the room. November wouldn’t work. I would have to push it to January.
Our January session was to be focused on setting mentor learning goals based on protégé learning goals. As this session was to be a working session there wouldn’t be content appropriate for administrators. I definitely didn’t want to waste their time with a meeting that didn’t offer them some quality professional learning. Furthermore, I was going to be asking mentors to be honest and vulnerable about their own learning goals; January was out.
And now here we are. It’s Spring and I still haven’t found the right time to invite administrators to a learning session. Why not?
My initial thought is still to just commit to doing it (action is always desirable over inaction, right?). April could be the perfect time to invite administrators and plan it around them. As I think that through I realize that this decision would be the equivalent of checking a box. I wouldn’t be modeling wise teaching practice and learning design. I wouldn’t be putting the needs of my learners, the mentors, at the centre. I know I cannot move forward in this way.
Hosting a mentor learning session in a school
In contrast to my lack of action around inviting administrators to a mentor learning session, I have realized that hosting a mentor learning session in a school is, in fact, simply a matter of doing it. There is so much to be gained and nothing to lose. Hosting a learning session in a school is a way to make the mentoring program more visible to teachers not currently involved in the program and it doesn’t impede or harm the learning of those who are.
I am not sure why I haven’t taken this action yet. I think maybe I just sort of forgot about it, that it slipped from the forefront of my mind as I focused on the other actions I identified. In fact, it was when I started to write this piece that I realized I hadn’t fulfilled this action. I cannot think of one good reason not to host a mentor learning session in a school and I am committed to doing so for our next learning session.
What can I learn from the actions I haven’t taken?
- Sometimes it is just a matter of doing something. If there is no good reason not to try something and several good reasons to try something, just go for it! Having a formal checking process is important in ensuring that you haven’t strayed too far from your intent.
- There can be unexpected implications for actions and working in isolation makes it more difficult to surface these implications. I had the worthy intention of opening up mentor learning but I hadn’t considered the potential repercussions of doing so. There are several actions I could have taken to avoid this misdirection:
- Talking to the mentors about opening the learning sessions before I actually planned to do it. Just as I would talk to my students before making a drastic change to their learning environment, I needed to talk to the mentors and seek their feedback about my well-intentioned plan.
- Collaboration! I am typically a very collaborative person but I planned much of my new action in isolation. Most of the other phases of my inquiry were quite collaborative and it would have been helpful to seek feedback on my proposed actions while I was still in the planning phase.
- When planning for and taking new action in service of change, it is important to keep the main goal or intention at the heart of the work and not to allow the new action to pull the work too far in another direction. Our mentorship program is grounded in the question, How can we best support our peers so they embrace and model wise practice? Our focus is creating a culture of learning for and among teachers. What I had not considered when planning my actions was the impact the plan of inviting administrators into mentorship sessions would have had on the foundational goal of supporting teachers. When shifting focus or adding another layer, it is important not to lose sight of the main intention. A new question I am considering is this: how can I open up mentorship to be more inclusive while still maintaining the integrity of teacher-to-teacher-learning? I have started exploring this question through some actions that I hadn’t planned on taking.
Actions I Took but Hadn’t Anticipated
During this school year, I have been invited to work with two other learning communities within our District. Although the teachers and administrators in these groups are not necessarily part of the mentorship program, they act as facilitators of learning for their teaching colleagues in other capacities. As a function of their roles, these teachers need sharp facilitation skills. In particular, I have worked with these groups on the skills required to lead learning conversations such as paraphrasing, questioning, transitioning, inviting thinking. My participation in these learning communities has further embedded mentorship skills to teachers not involved in our formal mentorship program, thereby spreading the culture of mentorship more broadly across the District.
I have realized there are many different ways to achieve a goal. My purpose in opening mentor learning sessions was to broaden the impact of mentorship by making it more inclusive and public. This goal can be achieved in ways other than the actions I identified. I have discovered this reality through actions that were not part of my initial plan.
More Scanning and Developing More Hunches
Now is a time to slow down. As I continue to work towards deepening and broadening the impact of mentorship for the remainder of the school year I am shifting from the hectic activity of taking new action to pausing, reflecting, scanning, focusing and hunching about the progress I have already made. This phase will occur mainly in the form of seeking feedback from mentors, protégés and colleagues. In particular, I will be seeking their perspectives on whether or not the actions I have taken this year have broadened and deepened the impact of mentorship. This may take the form of surveys and discussions based around these questions: What’s working? What’s not working? What should we do differently? I will use this feedback as part of my new scanning, focusing and hunching as I plan for the 2017-2018 school year.
It is important for me to continue to reflect on the impact my actions are having through conversation and writing. I plan to continue setting aside and protecting time to engage in these scanning, focusing and hunching activities.
As I reflect on my experience of this inquiry, I am reminded that “learning takes patience and time” and that transformative change is an interminable process. My goal of broadening and deepening the impact of mentorship is in service of the much larger and nebulous goal of nurturing and expanding a culture of learning for all educators in the school District.
I am struck by the importance of balance. I need to balance taking action and moving forward with slowing down and reflecting on the repercussions of those actions. I need to balance my own thinking with the thinking of others. I need to balance my desire to change a system with my role of supporting a particular group of educators.
First Nations Education Steering Committee. (n.d.). First Peoples principles of learning [Pamphlet]. Retrieved from http://www.fnesc.ca/learningfirstpeoples/
Dumont, H., Istance, D., & Benavides, F. (2010). Transversal conclusions on learning [Executive Summary]. In Educational research and innovation: The nature of learning Using research to inspire practice (pp. 13-18). Paris: OECD.