Mentoring Science Teachers

Perhaps one of the most important roles that science teachers play, apart from helping their students become excited about and learn science, is being a mentor to an apprentice or beginning teacher.   My own experience in the mentoring process was as a beginning teacher at Weston High School where I was mentored by Irv Marsden, physics teacher and department head.  Although there was not a formal mentoring process at Weston High, Irv took me under his wing, and created an environment of support and encouragement, and shared his knowledge of science teaching in a way that was open and humanistic.  He was a master-teacher who embraced an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.  He also was a curriculum leader, and played a role  in the development of PSSC Physics and Project Physics, which were developed nearby at MIT and Harvard University, respectively.  As I look back on my career as a teacher and professor, the mentoring that I received from Irv Marsden set me on a course as teacher that led to an inquiry and humanistic approach.

As a professor at Georgia State University, working with mentor teachers with our novice science teachers in various programs over the years engaged us in a process of developing professional relationships with science teachers in the State of Georgia. Anecdotally, we learned that mentors were a crucial link in our science teacher preparation programs, and indeed, we recruited many of our mentors from our graduate science education programs at the Masters, Specialist, and Doctoral programs.  We also were involved alternative science and mathematics teacher education programs (TRIPS (A Research-Practice Program developed by Lovely H. Billups), Alternative Teacher Preparation Program in Foreign Language, Mathematics & Science, and TEEMS), some situated at GSU, and others within the public schools (Atlanta City, and DeKalb County).  In each of these cases, it was the mentor teachers and their schools that played a central role in working with our novice science teachers.  For example, the Atlanta Public Schools believed so strongly in the TRIPS program that they released each of the mentor teachers from one of their assigned courses so that they could devote specific time for mentoring their assigned novice teacher.  In the Alternative Teacher Preparation program, that was funded by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, mentor teachers received special training to work with the novice science teachers in our programs.

Mentoring science teachers was the research topic of a paper published in the November Issue of Science Education.  Authored by Michael Dias, professor at Kennesaw State University (GA), and colleagues at the University of Georgia and Appalachian State University, these researchers set out to understand the cultural tools used by science teachers when learning to mentor and how tool use may lead to the construction of new understandings about mentoring.  Entitled Teacher thinking associated with science-specific mentor preparation, the research team investigated the tools used by mentors trained specifically to work with novice science teachers, as such:

The context of the study was a federally funded, science-specific mentor preparation program. The purpose of the program was to develop a cadre of secondary science teachers (grades 7–12), which hereafter is referred to as science mentors in training (SMIT), with the mentoring skills and understandings needed to support the professional learning of novice science teachers.  This was accomplished through sustained contact with project leaders that included science teacher educators from three recruiting regions of one state located in the southeastern United States.

The researchers describe their training program for mentors, and indicate that there were three cadre groups of mentors who were enrolled in a 50 hr course focusing on the mentoring of science teachers.  During the course of their mentoring experience, mentors were involved in various activities to help them construct knowledge of mentoring including interviews with the researchers, group discussions, cases written by the mentors to generate an environment of reflection, Electronic Bulletin Board posts and online discussions.  The results of these activities provided the sources of data used by the researchers to analyze the interviews, group discussions, cases, and electronic bulletin board postings.  The researchers describe their method as follows:

The transcribed interviews, group discussion documents, electronic bulletin board postings, and cases were analyzed using Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) three stages of data analysis. Two members of the research team independently examined the data to generate codes. At points through the analysis, the two brought codes and data from which the codes were constructed to each other as well as to other members of the research team for examination and revision.

Data were collected across the summer and two academic semesters for each of 3 years. We also collected four different types of data, including transcripts of interviews, group discussion documents, electronic bulletin board postings, and cases, which allowed for triangulation of data and interpretations. In addition, we used standardized, nonidiosyncratic terminology and presented our findings in such a manner that they “can be appropriately traced back through analysis steps to original data…” (Guba & Lincoln, 1982, p.61)

The researchers found that mentors used a variety of tools in the mentoring process including the discourse of science teaching (for example, mentors used their past teaching experiences to offer advice), dilemmas of teaching (including personal, classroom & school), and images (framing mentor thinking about mentoring such as wanting to make the experience successful for the novice teacher).

The study sheds light on the construction of knowledge about mentoring as exhibited by these cadre groups of mentor teachers.  Although the researchers concluded that the mentor training program was successful in that it contributed to the use of some tool use by mentors.  The researchers informed us that there is much to learn about mentoring, and much to know about helping mentor teachers reach beyond the traditional role of mentor teacher.  In this regard, they said:

Nevertheless, tool use by the SMIT mediated their thinking in ways that led them to focus on the immediate needs of novice science teachers and not on their long-term growth as science teaching professionals. In this regard, the mentor preparation program did not necessarily contribute to the SMIT learning to think about mentoring in ways considered most desirable. The tools used by the SMIT to mediate their thinking about science teacher mentoring do not overtly reflect notions of “reform-minded mentoring” described by Wang and Odell (2002) and Feiman-Nemser’s (1998) “educative mentoring.”

What are your experiences with mentoring?  Do you have some reports to share with us?
Koballa, T., Kittleson, J., Bradbury, L., & Dias, M. (2010). Teacher thinking associated with science-specific mentor preparation Science Education, 94 (6), 1072-1091 DOI: 10.1002/sce.20400

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.