The Role of the Mentor Teacher in (New) Teacher Learning

January 30, 2016

by Julie Bell

School-based mentors of student teachers are in a unique position to teach and learn from another adult on a daily basis in the context of their own classrooms. However, as Thompson, Hagenah, Lohwasser, and Laxton (2015) noted, “Simply being in the company of accomplished mentors is not enough to support the improvement of teachers and teaching” (p. 378). I would extend Thompson and colleagues’ statement in the other direction, as well: Mentors do not automatically learn from student teachers placed in their classrooms. While there is not one guaranteed method for mentors and mentees to get the most out of their relationship, researchers have suggested a number of ways mentoring pairs may increase the chances of mutually benefiting from their time together.

1. Take an educative stance. Dewey (1938/2007) argued that teachers must create educative experiences for their students, or experiences that produce “continuing growth” (n.p.). Feiman-Nemser (2001) applied Dewey’s concept of educative experiences to mentoring and suggested that mentors take an active role in cultivating such experiences for their mentees. In order to construct educative experiences, mentors have to simultaneously be aware of their mentees’ concerns; their own teaching and mentoring practice; and their students’ learning.

2. Discuss and enact a common vision. Based on their study of 23 mentoring partnerships, Thompson and colleagues (2015) suggested those involved with mentoring should “articulate a common vision of quality disciplinary-specific student learning and a complementary set of teaching and mentoring practices” (p. 378). As Hammerness (2006) explained, if beginning teachers experience too large a gap between their vision and the reality of teaching, they may become disenchanted with the profession. Such negative feelings may eventually lead to novices leaving teaching all together. On the other hand, if mentors and mentees follow Thompson and colleagues’ advice to come to a consensus about their vision for teaching and learning, both the beginning teachers and their students stand to learn more.

3. Be open to learning from and with each other. In traditional mentoring relationships, mentors and mentees tend to fall into typical expert and novice roles. Mentors believe they have wisdom and knowledge to bestow upon their mentees, and mentees believe it is their job to soak in this knowledge. While mentors generally have more teaching experience than their mentees, novices still bring important experiences to the partnership. The most productive mentoring relationships are a “two-way street,” in which mentors and mentees learn from each other (Certo, 2005). Some researchers have extended the idea of openness to include the mentoring dyad learning from and with university-based teacher educators to foster an even stronger, more beneficial relationship for all parties (e.g., Anagnostopoulos, Smith, & Basmadjian, 2007; Bullough & Draper, 2004).

4. Reflect on mentoring and teaching experiences. Through their study on student teacher learning, Leeferink, Koopman, Beijaard, and Ketelaar (2015) suggested “student teachers tell and write stories about their experiences” because “interaction seems to be an important condition for learning from practical experiences” (p. 346). Such reflection and interaction is also important for mentors. Teaching is fast-paced and complex. Mentoring adds another layer of complexity, as mentors assume responsibility for teaching both their students and their mentees. Without slowing to reflect, mentors may neither recognize which mentoring practices have the greatest impact, nor take note of their mentees’ teaching practices they would like to try.

When mentor teachers view working with student teachers as “opportunities to work with other educators in professional learning communities rather than in isolation” (Cochran-Smith, 2004, p. 391), mentors open themselves to the possibility of learning alongside their mentees.


Anagnostopoulos, D., Smith, E. R., & Basmadjian, K. G. (2007). Bridging the university-school divide: Horizontal expertise and the “two-worlds pitfall.” Journal of Teacher Education, 58(2), 138–152.

Bullough, R. V., & Draper, R. J. (2004). Making sense of a failed triad: Mentors, university supervisors, and positioning theory. Journal of Teacher Education, 55(5), 407–420.

Certo, J. (2005). Support, challenge, and the two-way street: Perceptions of a beginning second grade teacher and her quality mentor. Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 26(1), 3–21.

Cochran-Smith, M. (2004). Stayers, leavers, lovers, and dreamers: Insights about teacher retention. Journal of Teacher Education, 55(5), 387–392.

Dewey, J. (2007). Experience and education. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). Helping novices learn to teach: Lessons from an exemplary support teacher. Journal of Teacher Education, 52(1), 17–30.

Hammerness, K. (2006). What is teachers’ vision? In Seeing through teachers’ eyes: Professional ideals and classroom practices (pp. 1–9). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Leeferink, H., Koopman, M., Beijaard, D., & Ketelaar, E. (2015). Unraveling the complexity of student teachers’ learning in and from the workplace. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(4), 334-348.

Thompson, J., Hagenah, S., Lohwasser, K., & Laxton, K. (2015). Problems without ceilings: How mentors and novices frame and work on problems-of-practice. Journal of Teacher Education, 66(4), 363–381.

Julie Bell is a PhD candidate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. Her research interests include English education and pre-service teacher mentoring, specifically how the mentor benefits or grows through the relationship. She can be reached at