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Sharing wisdom

The power of teacher mentorship

By Jennifer Lewington
Photos: Matthew Liteplo

Photo of Shivam Patel, OCT, and Kelly Murray, OCT.
Shivam Patel, OCT, and Kelly Murray, OCT.

When Shivam Patel, OCT, landed a full-time, permanent position last year with the York Region District School Board, she was assigned a Grade 4/5 class at Blue Willow Public School in Woodbridge, Ont. One parent, uneasy that her child would lose ground in a split grade, expressed concerns to Patel.

Keen to communicate effectively with a parent, the new teacher turned for advice to her mentor Kelly Murray, OCT, a 27-year veteran who teaches Grade 5 at the school.

Murray coached Patel on how to talk about the child’s progress with the Grade 5 curriculum and where to draw the line on matters beyond the teacher’s control, such as student placement. By referring the parent to school officials, those responsible for split grade enrolment, Patel kept her focus on what mattered most to her and the parent: the child’s academic progress.

“You have to navigate in a way that is professional,” says Patel. “Kelly had really good ways to approach parent communication.”

The professional learning relationship between Murray and Patel — that of a seasoned practitioner sharing experience- infused insights with a classroom newcomer — is a central theme of the New Teacher Induction Program (NTIP). Introduced in 2006 and now a requirement for all those who enter the profession, the provincially financed but locally delivered mentorship initiative provides a classroom setting for experienced teachers to support those in their first year or two of practice.

In Patel’s case, as she prepared for two performance appraisals required of teachers in their first 12 months in the classroom, she picked up tips from Murray on presenting well-organized lesson plans that would be reviewed by the principal. Even before becoming a mentor to Patel, Murray demonstrated her own philosophy of collaboration by inviting the new teacher to visit her classroom any time.

Murray says a meaningful mentorship relationship fosters an exchange of knowledge. “[New teachers] have a lot of background information, and Shivam has lots of resources that she gets online and shares with me,” she says.

Murray’s collaborative approach reminds young teachers they are not alone, says Cathy Bruce, OCT, dean of the school of education and professional learning at Trent University. “That [knowledge] is critical as part of getting people onto a path of understanding that teaching is a learning profession.”

She adds: “It is about fostering a habit of mind of mentorship that when we collaborate we work together, and we don’t operate in silos in the classroom.”

Through workshops, online learning and one-to-one sessions with an experienced teacher, those new to the classroom deepen their knowledge of effective practices and model professional conduct. Done well, mentoring creates a safe, collaborative learning space to share wisdom.

The mentorship program, which is currently supported by annual funding of $13.7-million from the Ministry of Education, assists about 8,000 new hires (permanent and long-term occasional) a year. Since its inception, the program has won praise for its contribution to teacher professional development. In 2015, a Ministry of Education-funded external evaluation of NTIP over the previous three-year period found that new teachers “experienced sustained professional growth” in four key areas: confidence, efficacy, instructional practice and commitment to continuous learning.

Those pillars of professionalism align with the Ethical Standards for the Teaching Profession (care, respect, trust and integrity) and the Standards of Practice for the Teaching Profession (commitment to students, leadership and professional knowledge, practice and ongoing learning) set out by the Ontario College of Teachers.

“One can have an excellent grasp of a subject area, have a wonderful understanding of instructional strategies and how to assess and evaluate, but if the area of professional presence, professional relationships and boundaries goes astray, then a career can end overnight,” says the College’s Deputy Registrar Joe Jamieson, OCT.

A strong mentoring relationship helps new teachers see what “an appropriate relationship with a student looks like and what an appropriate social presence as a professional in a position of trust and authority looks like,” he says. For example, a teacher who overshares personal information with students, texts excessively with them or spends too much time alone with one student after school is at risk of blurring professional boundaries.

Photo of Tanya Akai, OCT.
“A lot of new teachers get very intimidated and we want to appear like we know what we’re doing. We don’t want to fail and it is hard to open up to someone when you are struggling. [The support from my mentor] was a confidence boost.”
Tanya Akai, OCT, St. Brother André Catholic School, Ottawa

Building positive relationships

Setting professional boundaries was an important lesson for Jenny Pasitkhammanh, OCT, who spent last semester on a long-term occasional contract teaching math and physics at Judith Nyman Secondary School, a Brampton, Ont., vocational high school in the Peel District Board of Education.

Her NTIP mentor, Pomilpreet Sandhu, OCT, a teacher for 13 years, is head of math, science and business studies at the school. “Pomil taught me a lot of the legal things I need to do,” says Pasitkhammanh. “I learned how to speak with students and teachers.” She also co-taught classes with Sandhu, learning strategies on working with vocational students.

Pasitkhammanh says her mentor also taught her to develop “teacher life skills,” such as work-life balance. “She encouraged me to have time for myself because she saw I spent all of my lunches with students and a lot of time out of school lesson planning.”

As a mentor, Sandhu believes trust is the underpinning of a constructive relationship with a beginning teacher. “Without building a relationship you can’t go anywhere,” she says. “You can’t be picky about everything. You have to think back to when you first started as a new teacher.”

The right match

When Tanya Akai, OCT, began her Ontario teaching career at St. Brother André Catholic School in Ottawa three years ago, she was eager but apprehensive

She had taught in Kuwait and Mexico for three years, returned home to a tight Ontario job market and joined the Ottawa Catholic School Board before landing a long-term occasional position at Brother André in 2015.

Before long, she was dropping by a classroom down the hall to ask questions of fellow Grade 4/5 teacher Melanie Chaisson, OCT, who, as Akai put it, was “rocking it in her high-needs class.”

She knew she had found her perfect mentor: an experienced teacher displaying calm, dedication and resourcefulness. Within a year, the two were paired.

“A lot of new teachers get very intimidated and we want to appear like we know what we’re doing,” says Akai. “We don’t want to fail and it is hard to open up to someone when you are struggling.” The support from Chaisson, says Akai, “was a confidence boost.”

After leaving Brother André for a full-time position as a Grade 2/3 teacher at nearby Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School, Akai continued her mentorship relationship with Chaisson, who shared tips on classroom management, technology-enriched curriculum and effective parent-teacher interviews. After a difficult day, Akai says Chaisson offers emotional encouragement.

For her part, Chaisson still warmly remembers the support of her NTIP mentor when embarking on her own career nine years ago. “When you are a new teacher, everything is new and overwhelming; it takes practise,” she says. “It really helps to have someone you trust and can talk to about these things so you can have more confidence to approach it all.”

Photo of Angèle Campeau, OCT,
and Anis Abdelkader, OCT.
Angèle Campeau, OCT, and Anis Abdelkader, OCT

Toward student success

Ideally, says longtime mentor Gregory Ste. Croix, OCT, effective teacher mentoring contributes to student success. “The big thing I have learned [as a teacher] is that when you are confident and passionate, you have fun and enjoy what you are doing, and your students enjoy what they are doing,” says the veteran physical education teacher at Rainy River District School Board’s Fort Frances High School.

In 2014, he mentored Jordan Botsford, OCT, a former student who became a teacher and joined the high school’s physical education department under a long-term occasional contract. During his semester at the school, Botsford says Ste. Croix served as a sounding board who answered questions about how to talk to parents, when to send a student for discipline, and how to rework an unsuccessful lesson plan.

“The teacher I am today evolved out of that first year,” says Botsford, now full time with Seven Generations Education Institute, an Indigenous education institution serving the Treaty 3 communities. He and his former mentor continue to stay in touch.

Despite enthusiasm for mentoring, pairing new and experienced teachers is a challenge in some regions.

“One of the struggles we have at our board is geography,” says Barbara Dennis, OCT, the principal of Mine Centre School and a co-ordinator of the NTIP program for Rainy River District School Board. “For me to be able to match new teachers with a suitable mentor is tough,” she says, with ideal pairings sometimes in different schools miles away and conflicting teacher timetables.

Dennis looks for creative solutions. This year she linked a Grade 1 teacher, experienced in teaching multiple grades, with a rookie teaching Grade 3, 4 and 5. “That was a nice fit,” she says, as the mentor previously taught the students now with the new teacher, was at the same school and had experience teaching Grade 3 and a 4/5 split. She also encourages job shadowing for new teachers to watch exemplary practitioners. In one class, an experienced teacher used a timer to alert students when to rotate to the next activity. The new teachers “took that on as a tried-and-true method,” says Dennis.

Meanwhile, experienced teachers who self-identify as Indigenous have become mentors who share knowledge of their cultural and other practices. Cecilia Person, OCT, a member of the Nipigon-based Red Rock Indian Band, has been a native language teacher with the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board for the past 10 years. Over that time, the board has hired eight native language teachers, including two added last September to meet demand for Ojibwe language instruction from Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

Person, who teaches primary and junior students at St. Ann School, currently mentors two non-Indigenous language teachers at nearby schools. “What prompted me was being able to share my knowledge and my culture,” she says. “I know what I felt like when I started [teaching].”

The mentored teachers visit Person’s class to observe how she incorporates hands-on, activities-based learning into the curriculum to support the learning styles of Indigenous learners. “It’s important for the mentored teachers to see me instead of my just telling them,” says Person. “It is important for them to see how it is done and how the students react.”

Photo of Gregory Ste. Croix, OCT.
“The big thing I have learned [as a teacher] is that when you are confident and passionate, you have fun and enjoy what you are doing, and your students enjoy what they are doing.”
Gregory Ste. Croix, OCT,, Fort Frances High School, Fort Frances, Ont.

Easing the pressure

Choosing to work with a new teacher requires commitment, but it also yields rewards.

Kindergarten teacher Angèle Campeau, OCT, began her career 11 years ago and currently mentors four colleagues at Ottawa’s École élémentaire et secondaire publique Maurice-Lapointe, a K to12 school with the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.

Last fall, she considered joining a study group on oral communication, a topic of professional interest, but decided instead to mentor two colleagues and then added two more. “When someone asks you to be a mentor you think of your first year as a teacher and you remember how grateful you were to have someone there for you that you could rely on,” says Campeau.

Typically she meets the mentored teachers informally at least three times a week, but her open-door philosophy also means they drop by her class as well. Based on her experience, she says mentors must listen to questions and concerns raised by young teachers and encourage their self-reflection on practice. “What I find the hardest is that you have to be honest and constructive,” she says. “It is not always easy to say or to hear, but it is the most important part.”

Anis Abdelkader, OCT, says Campeau’s mentoring has eased the pressure of being a new kindergarten teacher. “It is important to talk to someone I can count on,” he says, citing her willingness to share tips on report card writing and talking to parents. “She helps me when I [encounter challenges] and when I don’t know how to answer parents or how to confront difficult situations.”

For Campeau, one reward of mentoring comes in the “aha” moment when a young teacher, despondent about an unsuccessful lesson plan, is coached to figure out fresh options for the next day’s class. After one such session, she says a young teacher told her “I was going home thinking ‘I am no good I can’t do this. Now I can.’”

Campeau says the greatest reward of mentoring shows up in the classroom. “I hope new teachers know they aren’t alone when facing these challenges,” she says. “I hope they can gain the confidence they need to be the best educator they can be, which can only be beneficial for the students.”

Passing the baton

Mentoring for new administrators

Veteran Durham teacher and principal Michael St. John, OCT, joined the District School Board of Niagara last year as a superintendent of education — his first supervisory officer position. A newcomer in a new job, he credits his transition to support from his director of education at the board, Niagara superintendent colleagues and a mentorship program funded by the Ministry of Education and delivered by supervisory officer associations across the province.

The coaching he received from Mark Joel, OCT, a retired supervisory officer from the Durham District School Board, St. John says, “was a very important influence on my transition into the role.”

Under the province’s Board Leadership Development Strategy, introduced in 2009, new senior administrators (and senior school staff) receive formal professional development on relevant topics and regular access through the year (a second year is optional) to a seasoned supervisory officer from another board, either in person, by phone or email. Annually, about 500 new administrators are eligible for mentoring support.

St. John had known Joel for more than 20 years. “The advice from Mark in my first year was no different than what he gave all along [in Durham],” he says. “That is, the importance of caring about the school communities we were serving.” Early on, sensing St. John’s self-imposed pressure to establish structures and protocols, Joel urged him instead to focus on people, not paperwork.

Investing in young board leaders pays dividends in the classroom, says Joel. “I believe that strong school leaders create strong school teachers who create strong school classrooms, which benefits students,” he says.

Like St. John, Laina Andrews, OCT, was in her first job as a superintendent (with responsibility for human resources and families of schools) when she joined the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board two years ago. Through the provincial supervisory officer association, she was paired with mentor Johanne Messner, OCT, a former Toronto District School Board superintendent who now is the program lead for the Supervisory Officer’s Qualifications Program delivered by the Ontario Principals’ Council with the Ontario Public Supervisory Officers’ Association (OPSOA).

In addition to attending OPSOA workshops on current topics, Andrews developed a personal learning plan that served as the basis for confidential discussions with her mentor, often face-to-face, on wide-ranging professional issues.

“She won’t give me the answers but she will say ‘what are you thinking?’” says Andrews, adding that Messner shared her extensive contacts, especially those knowledgeable about human resources. “I can’t imagine doing it in isolation,” she says of her first months as a superintendent.

Like Joel, she says mentoring a new generation of board leaders should have its greatest impact in the classroom.

Tricia Verreault, OCT, joined the supervisory officer team of Conseil scolaire Viamonde after 20 years in the teaching profession — including as a principal.

She jumped at the chance to join a formal mentoring program for incoming supervisory officers offered by the Association des gestionnaires de l’éducation franco-ontarienne. In addition to participation in formal workshops, the vice-superintendent of education was paired with a mentor for the first year or so of her new professional life. In her case, Verreault sought out someone she knew professionally: Francine Dutrisac-Sodaro, OCT, a retired supervisory officer formerly with the Conseil scolaire catholique MonAvenir.

Over the past year, they jointly attended two days of association-sponsored workshops, met face-to-face a couple of times and talked on the phone about once a month. “She would ask me questions that made me reflect,” says Verreault of the coaching assistance she received. “When you are starting out you look for answers and that is not what mentors do. They will give ideas but it is about [them] helping you use your own resources to find the answer.”