Mentor Arithmatic

Daniela C. Wagner-Loera adds up the benefits of mentoring programs for language educators

“The easiest and fastest way to learn is from other people. Without other people, the old wheel must be reinvented again and again and again.” — Anonymous

Today, the demand for language teachers, in particular ESL and EFL educators, is higher than ever. With people constantly migrating, and businesses globalizing, English is the second language of choice for over one billion people worldwide (British Council, 2013). This translates into a high demand for qualified, passionate, and skilled teachers worldwide. In order to select the best instructors, most schools and universities have established strict hiring requirements for language instructors, yet little is done to ensure that teachers stay up-to-date with the constant developments in the field throughout their careers. While there are many professional development opportunities — such as conferences like the International TESOL and ACTFL conventions, webinars like those offered by TESOL’s Electronic Village Online, and many regional development programs — one of the best opportunities is often overlooked: the use of mentoring programs.

The use of mentoring is common in education as well as in professional business settings; however, little documented use of mentoring programs has been made in the ESL community. So the question that comes to mind is: what is mentoring, and how can it benefit teachers?

Management Mentors, a company specializing in mentoring in North America and Europe, defines mentoring as “a professional relationship in which an experienced person (the mentor) assists another (the mentee) in developing specific skills and knowledge that will enhance a less-experienced person’s professional and personal growth.” Therefore, mentoring is more than a buddy system in which a novice faculty member is matched with a senior faculty member to help adjust to the new workplace. Mentoring is the development of deep relationships to foster short-term and long-term professional goals of the mentee, beyond job boundaries and job descriptions.

So how can mentors be matched? In order to create a strong mentoring relationship, senior and junior faculty members should be matched across disciplines. In ESL, senior faculty or superiors (yet not immediate supervisors) could be matched to personally support and shape junior faculty members for an unrestricted amount of time. Another idea is to pair a TESOL instructor with an instructor from a different field or a senior staff member who understands the professional demands on the junior faculty member. It is important to carefully match mentors and mentees by observing the compatibility between them. Mentoring relationships are powerful, emotional, yet professional connections of great importance to both mentee and mentor. Once the experienced faculty member is matched with the novice instructor with compatible interests, one question remains: what are the benefits of this relationship?

1. One of the most important benefits of mentoring is that it helps novice teachers adjust to the demands and requirements of teaching international students. Even though the joys and challenges of teaching are introduced during undergraduate, masters, and certificate programs, practical hands-on experience differs greatly. After completing a degree or certificate, teachers are often on their own, without the guidance of faculty. Therefore, being assigned a mentor can help the mentee settle and build a personal teaching identity, thus creating a better classroom environment. The mentee can ask questions, share ideas and problems, and begin to develop a long-term professional goal with the help of a mentor. In this particular situation, the mentor serves as guide, coach, and friend to positively support the novice teacher.

2. The mentoring relationship can also be useful for experienced faculty who face challenging groups, semesters, materials, or changes within the school or department. Indeed, struggling faculty members need sounding boards as well as support to refocus their energy to their classrooms rather than the worries and problems at hand. In this situation, a mentor can help by listening, reflecting, and advising the struggling faculty member. The mentor’s primary goal is to support the mentee and help him or her to find solutions for the struggles and problems by providing a community-based support system. Knowing that the struggles are of shared interest gives the mentee a feeling of support, which will help boost the confidence needed to overcome the struggles while raising overall morale.

3. Another benefit of the mentoring relationship is the opportunity to share and exchange materials and ideas. The mentee has the opportunity to discuss ideas, strategies, and methods with the mentor and receive feedback, guidance, and assistance. It is noteworthy that the mentoring relationship is reciprocal and offers benefits to both the mentor and mentee. By sharing and
reflecting on materials and methods, both the mentor and mentee will benefit from the relationship.

4. Building professional communities is another benefit of mentoring. Dedicating a certain place for discussion and exchange of materials, problems, worries, and solutions can help decrease stress and negativity amongst faculty members. Often, faculty members — especially younger ones — experience high levels of stress due to classroom interactions, student demands, and competition. Consequently, staffroom discussions and conversations built on a mentoring philosophy can help establish a better sense of community and support for issues and concerns regarding the language classroom and profession.

5. The fifth benefit of mentoring is the development of a professional plan for each faculty member, which can be shared at in-house workshops to encourage inspiration. By offering in-house workshops, junior as well as senior faculty are encouraged to share or present exercises, materials, methods, or other relevant matters to their peers to encourage discussion and community. By sharing special skill sets, faculty will not only come to understand each individual’s interest but remember that each individual instructor has a slightly different skill set, area of expertise, method, and interest. Sharing the complexity of the faculties’ expertise is a great start toward building a unified TESOL community.

6. Once the community sense is awakened and strengthened among faculty members, active sharing needs to be encouraged. This can be accomplished by establishing a database full of rich materials to which every faculty member contributes. Sharing knowledge translates into a well-rounded community and support system for both junior and senior faculty members. Bridging the gap between different teachers will help teachers grow closer and move forward together as a strong entity of support and understanding.

As Eisenman and Thornton (1999) said, “Teachers need support. They need ongoing professional development. They need a sense of belonging, of common cause.” Therefore, creating, fostering, and maintaining mentoring relationships amongst TESOL instructors is beneficial both for the individual teachers and the field at large.

There are several resources available for you to get started. The TESOL organization offers a Leadership Mentoring Program (LMP), which helps underrepresented groups within TESOL become more involved by pairing them with leaders for one year. These relationships formally end after a year, but often informally continue for many years to come. Another option is to become a member of the Electronic Village Online (EVO) community, which is an affiliate of TESOL, created by the Computer-Assisted Language Learning Interest Section. The EVO has connected instructors from all over the world through a mentoring community since 2005. Therefore, thanks to the advanced technology available in the 21st century, mentor-mentee relationships can be based on e-communication, thus forming global connections. Finally, yet importantly, begin to establish a mentor-mentee program for novice teachers at your school as well as to encourage staffroom discussions and in-house workshops to add value not only to your immediate department but to the TESOL community at large. And remember, mentoring is a powerful and inspiring experience that is constantly evolving.

Daniela C. Wagner-Loera is a full-time ESL lecturer at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she teaches in the Intensive English Program at the Maryland English Institute. With an MA in TESOL from Hawai’i Pacific University and a research interest in cognition and instruction, she has focused on efficient classroom strategies and integrating technology to help create a comfortable learning environment. She has also been involved in the EVO mentoring community since 2011. A regular presenter at TESOLand VATESOL, Wagner-Loera is the author and publisher of an ESL learning app, ESL Review.

Illustration by Devin Slatas.