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The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: mentoring in early childhood education.

"Within the past weeks of mentoring, I noticed a significant difference in the way my mentee worked with the children. I noticed that she showed more confidence in how she managed a group of children and noticed an improved routine of developmentally appropriate practices in the classroom." (Student from the Mentoring in Early Childhood Education class, Spring 2001)

To look at practitioners in the field of early childhood education is to look at a kaleidoscope of education, experience, and practice, from practitioners who are beginning in the field to practitioners who have extensive experience and education and have mastered the art of teaching. This kaleidoscope of practitioners brings into the light a rainbow of practices, and the reality that quality practices are not always guaranteed. Even so, the fact remains that professionals in the field of early childhood education are touching the lives of children daily and are having a profound effect on the development and learning of each child they serve.

The report Taking the Lead states that there is real cause for concern that poor-quality programs are failing to support, and are even damaging, our children. Studies reveal that only 14 percent of center-based care, 12 percent of family childcare and an even lower percentage of infant care can be rated as good to excellent. The remainder is rated mediocre to poor. (Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study Team, 1995, Galinsky, Howes, Kontos, & Shine, 1994, as cited in The Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education, 2000, p. 5)

Being trained in early childhood education does not guarantee quality practices (Hoot, Bartkowiak, & Goupel, 1989; Naber, 1995; Wien, 1995). Personal style and belief can develop from modeled behavior that is experienced over time, becomes habit, and leads to teacher-directed or inappropriate practices, rather than developmentally appropriate practice.

One initiative that has shown promise for promoting and supporting quality practice within early childhood classrooms is mentoring. Mentoring is not new to the field of early childhood education. Professional organizations, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), have worked to develop or promote mentoring programs through publications or at conferences. Over the past decade, the National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force (NCECW) (now known as the Center for the Child Care Workforce) has conducted extensive research and promoted and supported mentoring initiatives in the field of early childhood education. In 1995, NCECW developed the National Early Childhood Mentoring Alliance and has since developed several publications that focus on mentoring in early childhood programs, including those found in the United States.

Just as vital as the issue of quality practice is the problem of retaining a stable and trained work force. The turnover rate of teaching staff in child care centers is very high all over the United States, which can have a profound impact on the quality of care and education. Mentoring, however, can encourage experienced teachers, caregivers, and directors to remain in the field by validating their teaching experience and expertise. NCECW (1996) believes that this validation creates a new pathway on the career ladder and addresses "a serious shortage of on-the-job training by emphasizing excellence in daily practice for young children and their families" (p. 3).

Mentoring also can benefit new teachers or directors, offering them much-needed support and encouragement. Research has documented that new teachers often feel isolated within their own classrooms, leading them to doubt their ability to deal with young children. As Lilian Katz expressed it, their primary concern is "Will I survive?" (Katz, 1972). Mentoring offers educators an opportunity to dialogue with other professionals and can help them feel empowered and successful.

"We engaged in a conversation that made me understand more about the obstacles that new teachers overcome in their first few months of teaching. She told me that it was a very stressful period and when something failed, she felt very inadequate. She wanted to fit in with the other staff members and feel a sense of belonging." (Student participating in the Mentoring in Early Childhood Education class, Spring 2001)

Mentoring Defined

The first concept of a mentor may have come from ancient Greece, when Odysseus was planning for a long journey away from his family. Odysseus felt great concern for his family, especially for his son Telemachus, for it was traditional to provide young males with daily guidance in the virtues of strength and wisdom. Odysseus therefore asked his friend Mentor to provide Telemachus with guidance, teaching him about the world and how to be courageous, strong, and compassionate towards others.

Being a mentor implies being in a relationship with another. An effective mentor in the field of early childhood education is a reflective practitioner who is open to professional development and who has a keen understanding of classroom practice that is effective and supports individual needs. The mentor usually has been practicing in the field for at least five years, and has been trained and educated in mentoring. This mentor then is paired with a first-year teacher, director, or student teacher, and works to build rapport and trust over time. Mentoring is not a supervisory relationship; it is most effective when built on mutual trust and an openness by both parties to grow and learn.

Many programs in the United States encourage specific training in mentoring, often through a college course. Through this training, the mentor learns such skills as active listening, effective observations, reflective conversations, awareness of different learning styles, and adult and teacher/ director development. Mentoring program designs vary. One can find mentoring programs for new directors, new teachers, and even for student teachers in preschools, child care, or family care programs. Many of these programs receive financial support and can offer release time and stipends or college course incentives.

"I have learned how to build a good partnership with a fellow teacher. The techniques and skills that I learned from this class were very helpful in supporting our mentoring relationship. I found reflective practice to be the most valuable tool." (Student participating in the Mentoring in Early Childhood Education class, Spring 2001)

The Community College Experience

In the spring of 2000, the author was hired to coordinate an early childhood teacher preparation grant at a community college in Ohio, and to work with a full-time faculty member who would serve as the curriculum coordinator. Through a grant initiative, the course Mentoring in Early Childhood Education was developed by the curriculum coordinator and taught by the author.

The 15-week-long course was designed for practicing professionals who had at least an associate's degree in early childhood education or a related field. It focused on gaining an understanding of the mentoring relationship and on the role that teacher-mentors and/ or director-mentors played in the early childhood professional development system. The course content included such topics as the role of the mentor, understanding mentoring relationships, guiding principles in early childhood education, stages of new teacher/ director development, learning styles, and mentoring observations and conversation. The course also provided opportunities for each student to develop effective skills and strategies in a mentoring relationship by classroom role-playing, and provided students with 12 weeks of field experience as a student-mentor. Each student sought his or her own "mentee" in a preschool, within or outside of the person's own program. The author suggested that each student-mentor try to find a classroom teacher who was open to the experience and somewhat new to the field. Ten students took the initial offering of the course in the spring of 2001.

Developing Effective Mentors

Since the state-funded grant required some form of qualitative and/or quantitative evaluation, the author developed a pretest and posttest to evaluate the impact of the mentoring course. The tests examined the effectiveness of the course by measuring students' skills and knowledge in 12 areas that would facilitate an effective mentoring relationship. Consultants hired from a local university evaluated the grant and analyzed the results of the pretest and posttest by using a paired t-test. The results demonstrated significant improvements in the following areas:

* Skills that are needed for effective mentoring relationships

* Conversation strategies that promote effective mentoring relationships

* Understanding the role of mentor versus supervisor

* Understanding adult learning styles

* Understanding and experiencing the developmental stages of first-year teachers.

The evaluation consultants noted that areas that had no statistical significant improvement were areas that were rated high prior to the mentoring class. Therefore, "Lack of significance differences between pre- and post-mentoring was due to ceiling effects rate rather than lack of improvement" (Bagaka's & Eichman, 2001, p. 12).

Improving Classroom Practice

The author also developed a survey that was used at the beginning and ending of class by both the mentor and the protege. This survey had a two-fold purpose. First, it helped to promote dialogue between mentor and mentee about classroom practice and areas that the classroom teacher wanted to address. Second, it was used at the end of the semester to help evaluate the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship in promoting growth and development in selected areas.

The mentees could chose from one to three areas out of 10 general categories of classroom practice that they wanted to address during the 12-week period. The general categories included: health and safety, learning environments, child guidance and self-esteem, language and literacy development, curriculum planning, assessment of children's learning, valuing diversity, parent involvement and partnership, staff communications and conflict management, and professional development and advocacy. Each of these 10 categories also had five to seven subcategories (e.g., the general category of learning environments had subcategories of free choice time, learning centers, quiet and active play, transitions, and materials/equipment). The most frequent areas that were addressed during the mentoring relationships included the general categories of: learning environments, 100 percent; child guidance and self-esteem, 80 percent; language and literacy development, 60 percent; curriculum planning, 40 percent; and assessment, 40 percent (Bagaka's & Eichman, 2001).

To measure the levels of effectiveness at the end of the 12 weeks, a five-point Likert scale was used, with 5 indicating highly effective and 1 indicating not effective. In the areas that were identified above, both the mentee and mentor believed that the relationship had a positive impact on practices, particularly in the category of child guidance and self-esteem. Interestingly, the mentee valued the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship more highly than did the mentor, in four out of five areas. This finding correlates to the overwhelmingly positive response that was shared by the mentees at the closing celebration. All of the mentees spoke of benefiting from the relationship, especially in terms of the relationship providing them with encouragement and an increased feeling of efficacy. The mentors' slightly lower scores could have been due to the fact that their expectations of classroom practices were different from those of the mentees. Many of the mentors had been in the field for more than five years and had a good understanding of developmentally appropriate practices. Each of the mentors could have had a greater expectation of change, although mentors were in agreement that the experience had a positive impact on their mentee and that it supported their own professional growth.

Conclusions

This community college experience provided a small snapshot of the positive effect that mentoring can have on classroom practice in the field of early childhood education. Both mentors and mentees grew as professionals through reflective practice; most important, the classroom teachers felt encouraged and increased their own efficacy over the 12-week period. Many of the students and classroom mentees stated that they wanted to continue their relationships and expressed their wishes that the course and the relationship could have lasted longer.

During this period, the author observed professionals renewing their passion for the field and establishing positive, professional relationships that had some degree of positive impact on quality practice for young children. Extended relationships could have had an even greater impact on practice. If we seek to ensure best practices for young children, the field of early childhood education must take seriously the need for mentors. This personal experience has led the author to believe that teacher education by itself will never be enough for quality care and education of young children. What is needed are personal, ongoing relationships that can make a difference and be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Some additional perspectives of several of the students who took the mentoring class in the spring of 2001 offer further insight. Their eloquent, personal reflections speak of the gold to be found at the end of the rainbow and of how mentoring can benefit the field of early childhood education.

"My mentoring experience throughout this semester has been wonderful. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had, and it has given me a chance to share my early childhood background and experiences with my mentee."

"I have gained new insight on how a veteran teacher can be a powerful factor in a new teacher's experience. If there is a lack of support for a new teacher, it can be quite discouraging. I have seen that it is very important to give a new teacher a sense of belonging right from the beginning .... I need to be aware of how the new teacher feels about her experiences and give her encouragement to build up her confidence.

"Through this mentoring experience I was able to grow as a professional.... This opportunity enabled me to reflect and remember how uneasy I was when starting out as a new teacher. In addition, I became more aware of my own work that I do with the children. I believe mentoring takes practice and a lot of understanding, which I feel I have gained by enrolling in this class. I learned that taking someone through the process of change can be very challenging and takes time. For myself, I found the mentoring process to be a very gratifying experience."

"Mentoring relationships within the early childhood profession are a good way to prepare new teachers, encouraging them to grow to their fullest potential."

"I have found that if I continue to be a good listener and respond to my mentee's questions, comments, or non-verbal cues, I am really getting to know her as a person, as well as what her needs are as an early childhood professional."

"I have found out several things about beginning teachers, and have found out more about myself. It was interesting to find out that these correlated to what I have been reading for this mentoring class. I think the phrase 'Quality Care and Education Matters' is true. However, the phrase 'We must first care for the caregiver' is very profound. I cannot think of a single person whom I have met in early childhood, including my mentee, who does not fit this requirement."

References

Bagaka's, J. G., & Eichman, G. T. (2001). Evaluation of the teacher preparation project for the early childhood education program. Unpublished report, submitted to the Ohio Department of Education as part of the Early Childhood Teacher Preparation Grant requirements.

Breunig, G. S., & Bellm, D. (1996). Early childhood mentoring program: A survey of community initiatives. Washington, DC: National Center for the Early Childhood Work Force.

Center for Career Development in Early Care and Education. (2000). Taking the lead: Investing in early childhood leadership for the 21st century. Boston: Wheelock College.

Hoot, J. A., Bartkowiak, E. T., & Goupel, M. A. (1989). Educators" beliefs regarding developmentally appropriate preschool programming. Buffalo, NY: University of New York, Early Childhood Research Center. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 315 179)

Katz, L. G. (1972). Developmental stages of preschool teachers. Elementary School Journal, 73(1), 50-54.

Naber, M. B. (1995). Increasing application of developmentally appropriate practices by childcare and Head Start staff following training. Unpublished doctoral practicum, Nova Southeastern University, Ft. Lauderdale, FL. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 389 465)

Wien, C.A. (1995). Developmentally appropriate practice in "real life": Stories of teacher practical knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Final thanks to the 10 practicing, professional students in the mentoring course, who were willing to share their honest and insightful experiences of mentoring!

Lauren Cummins is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education, Youngstown State University, Youngstown, Ohio.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Association for Childhood Education International
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Author:Cummins, Lauren
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 6, 2004
Words:2699
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