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Professional Learning

Allison Cunningham.

The Value of Mentoring

By Laura Bickle
Photo courtesy of Allison Cunningham

The province's mandate stipulating that new teachers are paired with experienced teacher mentors is key to new teacher success, says Allison Cunningham, an instructional co-ordinator for the New Teacher Induction Program with the Peel District School Board. "The induction program has four goals: teacher confidence, professional knowledge, efficacy and commitment to ongoing learning. If we want to achieve those goals, working alongside an experienced colleague to help support that is critical."

Cunningham, who taught elementary grades for 14 years prior to going into curriculum, credits her own mentors for fuelling her ongoing passion for learning. "Having their guidance and support has built my confidence and offered new perspectives." Cunningham shares why mentoring is invaluable for the professional learning of both mentees and mentors — and how innovative thinking to meet the challenges of the pandemic may have changed her board's mentoring approach for the better.

How does mentoring benefit both parties?

It's a mutually beneficial relationship whereby each person provides new perspectives and has the opportunity to learn from the other's skills and knowledge. It also creates a culture of professional learning and discourse — goal setting, learning and actioning in support of student success.

What makes an effective mentor?

Years of experience alone does not make a mentor. Being a mentor isn't just imparting your knowledge. Mentors have to be equity minded, actively engaged in anti-oppressive practices, and committed to ongoing learning. We offer voluntary mentor training where we work on skills such as how to ask a good question and how to listen. We can see a significant difference between those who have taken our courses and those who have not in terms of the mentor-mentee relationship.

How did the pandemic affect your board's mentoring program?

Our new teachers were really feeling overwhelmed and isolated because of the pandemic. We created teams of mentors and sent new teachers a schedule of Google Hangouts and their themes, such as math, general elementary, online teaching, dismantling anti-Black racism and anti-oppressive practices. The mentors would welcome the new teachers and take the lead, and sometimes they would go to breakout rooms. We created a directory with mentors' names and contact information, grade levels, subject areas and areas of interest. Mentees can select a name and connect virtually. For some, it might be just one meeting. Others have ongoing relationships. We've received a lot of positive feedback, including one new teacher who wrote of an experienced teacher she connected with: "Her kindness has been a lifeline that will support me through the rest of the school year. I was in search of a mentor and I'm fast realizing I found a friend."

Do you think this experience will impact your board's approach to mentoring?

Yes. It's just more equitable and accessible to be able to offer virtual mentoring in addition to face-to-face. Mentors and mentees do not have to work at the same school. Geography doesn't matter.

Having access to multiple mentors is more enriching. As a new teacher I might have a variety of needs in terms of program planning, assessment, resources and procedures. Their needs may go beyond the scope of one singular mentor. Providing multiple mentor networks is the key to helping new teachers.