Mentors and master teachers – lessons from Shanghai

Schools routinely assign mentors to support beginning and early career teachers.

What if you had a mentor for your entire career? And, what if mentoring others was part of the job description for every teacher?

That's exactly what happens in Shanghai.

Julie Sonnemann is Manager, Education Policy and Research, at Learning First. The research and consultancy organisation has been examining teacher professional learning in four high performing systems - Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and British Colombia.

Mentoring was one of the four common programs found in each of the systems.

'In Shanghai, if you walk into a school every teacher has a mentor, not just a beginning teacher, all teachers,' Sonnemann says.

'It's expected that every teacher learns over the course of their career, and they continue learning from others.

‘Also a large part of their role, as they become more senior, is in developing others. ... [It's expected that] mentors learn through that process of developing others.'

The researcher explains it's a cascading system of mentoring in Shanghai. Beginner teachers are assigned two - one in the same subject discipline and another who acts as a buddy. As well as mentoring between teachers in the same school, senior teachers are mentored by experienced teachers (known as subject leaders) in other schools.

'So, they identify the best teachers across the district and then those districts mentor a whole bunch of senior teachers across many schools. Then, those subject leaders are also mentored by the top one per cent of teachers in the city - and they're called Master Teachers.'

The focus is on student learning in the classroom and the teaching process, with frequent opportunities for feedback. Mentors allow themselves to be observed once a week and they, in turn, observe their mentees every one or two weeks.

'It's this amazingly systematic, structured form of mentoring that is very much based on that idea that everybody can learn, and to actually develop that deep expertise in teaching takes a long time,' Sonnemann says.

'And, it's something that you're expected to do - it's in a teacher's job description. It's very much expected that in order to be promoted you need to be good at not only developing yourself but also other people as well.'

Sonnemann adds that it is this extra layer of accountability - the mentees are also asked to assess how the relationship is going - means the professional learning program is valued as something that should be achieving outcomes for all involved.

The Learning First research project looked at existing evidence around professional learning, what top performing systems do to develop their teachers and what other countries can learn from them. The report is due to be published later in the year.

Sonnemann says that, while the aim is to influence change at a broader policymaking level, there is plenty that schools, principals and teachers can do now to make a difference.

'There's a lot that schools can do. I think there are two forms of leadership that are really important - the first is what a school leader does around setting a culture of professional learning and building it into strategic planning. [Asking questions like] "What do we want?", "What are the key priorities, [and how do they link] to what we want professional learning to be focused on?"'

This includes planning out what mentoring relationships should be focused on and, crucially, what it means for that most precious of school resources ... time.

'Given mentoring is super time intensive, how can you allocate or reallocate resources to make time for that for the teachers in your school? [In our research] there were schools that said they knew it was an expensive policy, but they made trade-offs to make it happen.'

Sonnemann admits that when you examine OECD data for the number of hours spent teaching per week, Shanghai is an outlier (10 to 12 hours, compared to 27 hours in the US, 17 hours in Hong Kong and Singapore, and 19 hours in Australia).

'But, if you look at somewhere like British Columbia (BC), they actually have two more teaching hours than teachers in Australia and the schools in BC were doing a lot [of professional learning] with only one or two periods a week.

'Their school leaders would basically do things like ... take classes on behalf of the teachers so that teachers could have spare time to go and do professional learning and work in learning communities - which is just a really powerful signal that this is actually valued.

'Obviously the principal can only do that in small doses. Once the teachers start to feel the value of it then they can [merge classes], do team teaching for that period and take the spare period free. So, a lot of the innovation actually comes from the teachers themselves. But it's also about the leader creating that culture and saying "This is what I want you to be prioritising".

'The second form of leadership is leadership of professional learning by teachers. In Shanghai and Singapore there was very strong leadership from the teachers themselves. The professional learning coordinators within the school would have a really hands-on role in helping to train the mentors - recognising they're very skilled at giving feedback.

'Sometimes mentors will ... need direction as well on how to help particular mentees, so having somebody in the school that teachers can go to and approach, and have the time that's part of their role (they have a reduced teaching load enabling them to do that), that was the lynchpin really, that was really critical.

'A lot of the teachers that we spoke to, they had had training on mentoring in some form - either from other teachers in school, or just through a training course. You might send one teacher on a training course, then they would come back and teach the other teachers.

'I think the key learning is that you need a bit of support and you also need accountability too. It's kind of two-pronged.'

The final research report will be published at later this year.

As a school leader, how are you making time for staff to participate in professional learning?

Do you assess the success of mentoring relationships in your school?

As a teacher, are you showing leadership in the area of professional learning?