New ways of working: Collaborative professional learning through mentoring in early years' literacy classrooms
In South Australia an innovative program of mentor teachers is providing school-level leadership for a State-wide thrust to improve literacy in the early years. Established in 2005, the mentoring program promotes professional learning and leadership in disadvantaged schools with three or more junior primary classes.
The mentor teacher program is an integral component of the South Australian Early Years Literacy Program (EYLP), a three-year, $35 million Government initiative to support preschool to Year 3 educators in improving literacy engagement and achievement in all schools and preschools. In addition to its mentoring component the EYLP includes professional learning for all P–3 classroom teachers, funding to support early intervention for designated Year 1 children, and a resource for three-year-old Aboriginal children in preschools.
The EYLP is based on five overarching ‘design elements’: professional learning and leadership; working within community; whole-site commitment and focus; effective use of evidence and data; and effective teaching and learning for young children.
The mentors are usually classroom teachers already in the school, who maintain some of their own class responsibilities. In their role as mentors they model effective literacy pedagogy to their peers and play an integral role in developing their school’s individual plan for early years’ literacy. They also work with colleagues in the systematic collection and analysis of performance data at the level of the individual child, the class and the whole school. The school manages funding for release from some of their classroom teaching workload and for professional learning sessions.
The value of a peer mentoring program was supported by the findings of the three-year longitudinal study Teachers Investigate Unequal Literacy Outcomes: Cross-generational perspectives, conducted by Barbara Comber and Barbara Kamler. The EYLP mentor teacher program was also informed by international and national programs, including the Western Australian ‘Getting It Right’ model, in which specialist teachers work alongside classroom colleagues, modelling integrated teaching strategies and supporting the planning and implementation of effective teaching and learning programs. (Cahill 2004, p 23)
Generally the work of the mentor teachers has generated great enthusiasm and a sense of professional renewal. Teachers have relished the opportunity for focused professional dialogue with colleagues. Several schools have provided additional funding to extend the mentor role beyond the early years.
Work around the EYLP and peer mentoring reflects a broader move towards a culture of inquiry across the Department (Reid, 2004). It involves systematic, rigorous and critical reflection on our practices. A cycle of inquiry includes assessing, analysing and developing plans that lead to specific action to improve literacy learning outcomes.
The challenges identified by the mentors have usually related either to the new and different nature of the role, or to the unrealistic expectations about it. Some mentors have also struggled with the demands associated with their release from their classrooms, such as the lack of replacement teachers. Leadership support has been critical where interpersonal issues were a challenge. Younger teachers working in the mentor role have sometimes spoken about perceived resentment from some older colleagues, but they all developed strategies to overcome these attitudes and to establish a connection.
Professional learning for mentors
The EYLP has provided a number of professional learning opportunities at State, district and network levels, for all teachers in preschools and Reception to Year 3 classes. Opportunities have included visits to other sites to extend and share understandings, knowledge and practices in particular aspects of literacy.
Within the EYLP the mentors have had specific professional learning opportunities. The formal aspect of professional learning involves paid release for three days of professional learning during the year at local network, district and State levels. In the first year, 2005, there were 180 teacher mentors in the EYLP. They attended induction days across the State with central office and district personnel working together. School leaders were also invited. A Mentor Teacher pack which was distributed at the induction included information relating to mentoring, processes, planning proformas and other resources.
In August 2005 mentor teachers worked with Professor Peter Freebody from the University of Queensland, who encouraged them to look at inquiry into practice and the potential of the analysis of classroom dialogue. Professor Freebody worked with mentors again in March 2006 in an interactive workshop which enabled mentors and school leaders to revisit processes of inquiry and the analysis of classroom dialogue.
The professional growth of mentor teachers is also a significant achievement. Many have developed or increased their skills through new opportunities and challenges.
District and combined district groups have also met to discuss the work of mentors in relation to schools' Early Years Literacy plans. District mentor groups have been supported by district and central office personnel and university academics and researchers. Continuing mentors are providing valuable support and insights for new mentors through induction processes and network links.
The program is leading the strategy of distributing leadership and building capacity in literacy teaching and learning in South Australian schools and preschools. The support structure within these sites and at district level is a critical aspect in the work and effectiveness of the mentor. Similarly, the school leadership team plays an integral role in nurturing the role of the mentor.
Monitoring and evaluation
An important aspect of the mentoring program is monitoring and evaluating the dialogue and learning that takes place. This evaluation is a two-way process. Mentors evaluate their own success and colleagues monitor their learning outcomes. As educators implement different teaching strategies they will work with the mentor to evaluate their effectiveness. Mentors complete an online survey twice a year. EYLP stakeholders – representing professional associations, parents, sites and district and central-office personnel – provided positive feedback about the mentor program throughout 2005. Of course, the ultimate evaluation of the program will be the differences in the classroom.
One exciting, unexpected outcome has been the number of mentor teachers who have trained as professional learning facilitators in other areas of the EYLP.
The mentor teacher program is being used as a model to develop other components of the EYLP such as the Aboriginal three-year-old resource where educators from ten centres will share their understandings about Aboriginal learners.
Mentoring is a two-way professional collegiate partnership which contributes to the growth and development of both partners. ‘It goes beyond buddying, coaching and counselling and moves towards a deeper partnership in working together creatively for professional growth and personal development.’ (DET Victoria 2003, p 4.)
Cahill, R (2004) Getting It Right – An Improving Model for Improvement. Literacy Learning: the Middle Years, 12.2, 20–27.
Comber, B & Kamler, B (eds) (2005) Turn-around pedagogies. Literacy interventions for at-risk students, PETA, Newtown, NSW.
Cooper, C & Boyd, J (1998) Creating Sustained Professional Growth through Collaborative Reflection. Professional Development for Cooperative Learning, State University of New York Press.
NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education (1999) Creating a Teacher Mentoring Program.
Reid, Alan (2004) Occasional Paper#1, Towards a Culture of Inquiry in DECS, DECS, South Australia.
Semeniuk, A & Worrall, AM (2000) Rereading the Dominant Narrative of Mentoring. Curriculum Inquiry, 30(4), 405–428.
Victorian Department of Education & Training (DET) 2003, Teacher Mentoring Handbook for Mentors and Mentorees.
Key Learning AreasEnglish
Subject HeadingsSouth Australia
English language teaching