How to be a mentor to teachers – New Educator – College of Education –  Michigan State University


This vignette study examined mentor teachers’ intended direction and intensity to intervene during student teachers’ lessons in Dutch primary education and the triggers for their intervening. Based on Fenstermacher’s (1986) theory of premises leading to actions, we developed vignettes in which we manipulated trigger type, trigger severity, and student teacher experience. 159 mentor teachers indicated whether and how they would intervene. Results showed that mentor teachers prefer teaching values over mentoring values and intend to intervene quite intensely. We suggest that explicitly emphasising towards mentor teachers that their intervening should serve both pupils and student teachers might improve student teachers’ learning.

1. Introduction

Imagine a student teacher (ST) teaching 25 pupils in a primary school classroom. Her mentor teacher (MT) sits at the back of the classroom. After a while, pupils start chatting and are no longer on task. What should this MT do? Intervene forcefully by taking over the lesson? Subtly intervene (e.g., whispering at the ST or the pupils)? or not intervene? This situation illustrates an MTs’ dilemma; on the one hand, MTs are responsible for their pupils, and on the other, for fostering STs’ learning.

During student teaching in primary education in the Netherlands (Jaspers, Meijer, Prins, & Wubbels, 2014), and many other countries (e.g., Clarke, Triggs, & Nielsen, 2014; Glenn, 2006; Kent, 2001; Rajuan, Beijaard, & Verloop, 2007; Weasmer & Woods, 2003) MTs often intervene (cf. Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991; Gardiner, 2017; Post, 2007; Wang, 2010). The direction of MTs’ intervening can be towards the ST or the pupils. Interventions can vary in intensity: the intervention’s degree of disruptiveness. Jaspers, Prins, Meijer, and Wubbels (2018) found that some MTs in primary education intervene frequently primarily by guiding the pupils, and quite disruptively, for example, by taking over the lesson. As mentoring during student teaching has been reported to be an important aspect of teacher training (Ellis, Alonzo, & Nguyen, 2020; Hobson, Ashby, Malderez, & Tomlinson, 2009; Orland-Barak & Wang, 2020), and MTs significantly influence STs development (Beck & Kosnik, 2002; Clarke et al., 2014; Darling-Hammond et al., 2017; Schwille, 2008), understanding why MTs intervene is essential for eventually improving STs’ learning during student teaching.

Whether and how MTs intervene when an ST teaches varies according to the MT and situation. Some MTs tend to interrupt ST’s lessons while others do not (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991). When developing strategies to improve STs’ learning during student teaching, it is helpful to understand why MTs choose to intervene or not and, if they intervene, how intensely and in what direction. Potential predictors for MTs’ intervening are situational characteristics, such as ST’s mistakes (e.g., Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991) or ST’s level of experience (Post, 2007), and MT’s personal characteristics, such as their values (Wang, 2010), beliefs, and personal mentoring and teaching knowledge (Jaspers et al., 2018). Consequences for pupils and ST of MTs’ intervening might depend on the direction and intensity of intervening. To contribute to STs’ development, it might be helpful to actively guide STs during teaching practice because then they can become aware of how to improve their teaching (Maynard, 2000; Schwille, 2008). From other mentoring contexts, such as co-teaching (e.g., Thomson & Schademan, 2019), or educative mentoring (Marciano et al., 2019; Schwille, 2008) in which MT and ST share authority and teach together, we know that STs experience direct feedback, in the moment, as timely and non-evaluative, and that STs appreciate when they are able to act upon it (Thomson & Schademan, 2019). In contrast, when STs independently teach, MTs’ intervening might be detrimental for STs’ learning, when one considers that learning to teach is a matter of practice (Hagger & McIntyre, 2006) and experience (Borko & Mayfield, 1995); when MTs step into STs’ lessons, STs do not have the opportunity to manage the class on their own, which can harm their confidence (Izadinia, 2015; Maynard, 2000) and self-esteem (Wang, 2010).

This study aims to gain insight into when and how MTs intervene and the triggers for their intervening. Vignettes and multilevel analyses were used to investigate 1) MTs’ direction and intensity to intervene, 2) MTs’ values and beliefs about mentoring and teaching, and 3) the relative importance of situational and personal characteristics in MTs’ intervening direction and intensity. By using a set of vignettes (descriptions of imaginary situations), we were able to systematically present classroom situations in which MTs could indicate whether they have the intention to intervene or not. With multilevel analyses we determined the relative contribution of situational and personal characteristics to MTs’ intended intervening direction and intensity.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1. The mentoring process and intervening

Ellis, Alonzo, and Nguyen (2020) stated that what constitutes good mentoring has changed over time and place. Various approaches have been defined (Orland-Barak & Wang, 2020) such as discussion and reflection of ST’s experiences (Schön, 1983), planning, observing, and analysing lessons (e.g., Hobson, 2002), modelling professional practice (Roehrig, Bohn, Turner, & Pressley, 2008), and various forms of mentoring during teaching, such as co-teaching (e.g., Thomson & Schademan, 2019), educative mentoring (Marciano et al., 2019; Stanulis et al., 2019), mentoring inside the action of teaching (Gardiner, 2017; Schwille, 2008), and MTs’ intervening during STs’ teaching (e.g., Glenn, 2006; Jaspers et al., 2014; Kent, 2001; Rajuan et al., 2007; Weasmer & Woods, 2003). The latter concerns the context of the current study, in which STs teach, MTs observe, and afterwards provide feedback. In this context, at times MTs tend to intervene (Gardiner, 2017; Post, 2007; Wang, 2010). Although various articles on mentoring have mentioned MTs’ tendency to intervene during STs’ teaching, few have explicitly examined the characteristics and predictors of MTs’ intervening.

Schwille (2008), based on a study of 26 MT and ST pairs to conceptualise a shared vision of “good mentoring,” contends that MTs’ guidance during the STs’ lessons helps the STs learn to teach. Post (2007) argues that to be effective, MTs should intervene at the very first moment they encounter an ST-pupils incident, and as non-disruptively as possible because, otherwise, MT are likely to miss the opportunity to help the struggling ST. Post described six interventions with increasing disruptiveness, ranging from “ignore,” which means the MT deliberately does not respond, to intervene, interject, interact, interrupt, and “intercept,” which means taking over the lesson. The four intermediate interventions are directed toward STs. Wang (2010), distinguished three categories of interventions: 1) active intervention, including both direct (the MT intervenes in the lesson herself) and indirect (the MT prompts pupils to ask the ST questions); 2) passive intervention (the MT responds to a question by the ST); and 3) no intervention. Contrary to Post (2007), Wang (2010) did not describe the interventions as directed toward the ST. Ben-Peretz and Rumney (1991) found hat MTs corrected not only the ST but also the pupils. Additionally, Jaspers et al. (2018) concluded, based on analyses of MTs’ reasoning for their intervening, that MTs tended to intervene by guiding the pupils rather than by guiding the ST. They also showed that MTs tended to intervene frequently, not always consciously, and sometimes intervened quite disruptively, for example, by taking over the lesson.

In the present study we distinguish MTs’ interventions during STs’ teaching in the direction and in intensity of intervening. The studies conducted to date primarily used observations or interviews to describe how MTs do or might intervene and have been executed in secondary education. It is fruitful to conduct a study on MTs’ intentions to intervene in a set of systematically varying but controlled classroom situations in primary education, which allows for examining factors predicting MTs’ intervening intensity and direction.

2.2. Predictors of MTs’ intervening

The process in which MTs consider whether, when, and how to intervene can be described by applying Fenstermacher’s theory on practical arguments (cf. Fenstermacher, 1986; Jaspers et al., 2018). Practical arguments are post hoc descriptions of practical reasoning that teachers indicate as fair and accurate accounts of actions that explain or justify what they did (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 1993). A practical argument consists of situational, value and empirical premises (Fenstermacher, 1986) contributing to the decision or intention to act. When someone thinks about what he or she did or ought to do in a specific situation, given the commitment to his or her role, this is a case of practical reasoning (Pendlebury, 1990).

In our previous study we described MTs’ practical reasoning regarding their intervening (or abstaining from intervening) in STs’ lessons and found several factors that seemed to be related to MTs’ intensity to intervene, and the direction of intervening either toward the pupils or the ST (Jaspers et al., 2018). MTs (often unconsciously) consider various characteristics of the situation (situational premises) and relate these to their personal values regarding mentoring and teaching (value premises) and their knowledge and beliefs about the effect of intervening on ST’s and pupils’ wellbeing and development (empirical premises).

Situational factors. Situational factors, or situational premises, might impact MTs’ direction and intensity of intervening. The situational premise is a description of the situation or context in which an action takes place (Fenstermacher, 1986). In primary education when an ST teaches the MT’s pupils, MTs may observe situations that trigger them to consider intervening. In the reasoning process about intervening MTs might consider the trigger type, the trigger severity, and the characteristics of the people involved in the situation.

Trigger type. Various triggers may cause MTs to intervene, such as problems concerning teaching strategies (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991), a mistake made by STs in the lesson content (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991; Jaspers et al., 2018; Wang, 2010; Weasmer & Woods, 2003), or STs demonstrating insufficient classroom management skills (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991; Jaspers et al., 2018; Wang, 2010; Weasmer & Woods, 2003). The current study focuses on difficulties with classroom management and mistakes in lesson content because these were the triggers most often mentioned by MTs when reasoning about their intervening (Jaspers et al., 2018). Classroom management refers to teacher actions that are intended to create an environment that supports and facilitates both academic and social-emotional learning (Evertson & Weinstein, 2006). MTs perceive effective classroom management as an important condition for pupil and ST learning (Collison & Edwards, 1994), and they have difficulties in transferring responsibility for the pupils to the ST (Glenn, 2006; Jaspers et al., 2018). Therefore, when MTs perceive STs’ classroom management problems, MTs are likely to intervene. We expect MTs’ intervening to be directed toward the pupils because previous studies have shown such intervening during classroom management problems (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991; Jaspers et al., 2018).

Second, STs’ mistakes in lesson content can be triggers for considering intervening, for example, giving a wrong explanation of a concept. Such mistakes are misleading for pupils and could impair their learning (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991; Wang, 2010). Because MTs want the pupils to learn the right content (Edwards, 1998; Post, 2007), MTs may decide to correct the mistake by correcting STs (Ben-Peretz & Rumney, 1991; Post, 2007). Therefore, we expect MTs’ intended intervening in the case of a mistake in lesson content to be directed toward the ST.

Trigger severity. When perceiving a trigger, intervening depends not only on the type but also on the severity of the trigger (Post, 2007), in particular, the MT’s appraisal of the trigger severity (Jaspers et al., 2018). Research on teacher responses when pupils disturb lessons (Feldmann, 2001) has shown that when teachers fail to address the disruption, pupils may feel authorised to display more misbehaviour. The longer the misbehaviour continues, the more intensely the response will need to be (Feldmann, 2001). Hence, we expect that the more severe the trigger is, the more intensely MTs intend to intervene.

ST characteristics. Third, ST characteristics might impact MTs’ intervening. We focus on ST experience, because MTs most frequently mentioned this when reasoning about intervening (Jaspers et al., 2018). During teacher training STs may experience various teaching contexts and situations (Calderhead, 1991; Edwards, 1998; Nettle, 1998) that makes STs more experienced and probably more competent (Calderhead, 1991; Sugrue, 1997). Less-experienced STs normally have less knowledge, skills, and competence than more-experienced STs (Kagan, 1992; Sugrue, 1997); thus, they will probably have more teaching problems. Because MTs might feel that less-experienced STs need more general help and guidance (Glickman & Gordon, 1987; Post, 2007), we expect that the less experienced the ST is, the more intensely MTs’ intend to intervene and the more they direct intervening toward the pupils.

Personal factors. In addition to situational factors, personal factors can impact MTs’ intended direction and intensity to intervene. When MTs observe situations that do not correspond with their wishes, MTs’ personal values and beliefs might be challenged, and they may feel that the dual loyalty as mentor and teacher is at stake (Edwards, 1998; Orland-Barak, 2001; Rajuan et al., 2007). Whether and how MTs intervene might be influenced by value premises (Jaspers et al., 2018; Wang, 2010) and empirical premises (knowledge of mentoring and teaching (Jaspers et al., 2018)).

Value premises. Value premises are moral and ethical considerations and indicate teachers’ goals or desired conditions (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 1993). Values (implicitly) act as points of reference in decision-making (Halstead, 1996), regulate teacher behaviour (Kagan, 1992; Pajares, 1992), and are reflected in what teachers choose to permit or encourage in the classroom (Wang, 2010). Values of MTs in guiding STs refer to both STs and pupils and the goals MTs want to achieve as mentors do not always correspond with their teaching goals (Edwards, 1998; Jaspers et al., 2018; Rajuan et al., 2007). MTs are likely to experience a conflict between mentoring and teaching values and such a conflict causes MTs to consider intervening (Jaspers et al., 2018). Often, this value conflict results in MTs’ intervening being directed toward the pupils because they consider teaching their most important and mentoring only an additional task (Jaspers et al., 2014; Wang, 2010). In this study, we examine whether MTs prefer teaching values over mentoring values.

Wang (2010) found that MTs who consider STs’ self-esteem and authority the first priority intervene with a low intensity or do not intervene at all. MTs appear to choose less-intrusive intervening behaviour (Post, 2007) when they perceive STs’ authority as necessary to act as teachers (Beck & Kosnik, 2002) and STs’ freedom to explore teaching ideas as critical for professional learning (Patrick, 2013; Rajuan et al., 2007). Therefore, we expect that the more MTs prefer teaching values over mentoring values the more intensely they intervene and mainly directed toward the pupils.

Empirical premises. Empirical premises premises are based on earlier observations that can be tested by new observations (Fenstermacher & Richardson, 1993) and are often referred to as practical knowledge (Fenstermacher, 1994; Gholami & Husu, 2010). This knowledge plays a role in their decision-making (Roehler, Duffy, Herrmann, Conley, & Johnson, 1988) and guides their actions (Zanting, Verloop, & Vermunt, 2001).

In reasoning about intervening, MTs use empirical premises about how intervening (or abstaining from intervening) can positively or negatively affect STs’ and pupils’ wellbeing and development (Jaspers et al., 2018). MTs may believe that learning to teach is just a matter of practice (Hagger & McIntyre, 2006) and experience (Borko & Mayfield, 1995). Therefore, MTs might think that not intervening will help STs learn to teach because they are given the opportunity to solve problems on their own (e.g., Oosterheert & Vermunt, 2001; Van Eekelen, Boshuizen, & Vermunt, 2005), to explore their own teaching styles, and not to feel their authority is undermined (Jaspers et al., 2018; Rajuan et al., 2007). MTs might also think that when they step into STs’ lessons, STs lack freedom to manage the class on their own, which can harm their confidence (Izadinia, 2015; Maynard, 2000), self-esteem (Wang, 2010), and wellbeing (Jaspers et al., 2018). However, MTs also might think that intervening might help STs in learning to teach because the STs will become aware of how they can improve their teaching (Jaspers et al., 2018; Maynard, 2000; Schwille, 2008). Additionally, by intervening, MTs can prevent STs from making mistakes (Post, 2007), can limit or prevent further problems (Wang, 2010), and can restore an orderly classroom atmosphere (Jaspers et al., 2018). MTs might believe that abstaining from intervening will not support STs’ learning and teaching and could be harmful for pupils’ learning and STs’ wellbeing (Jaspers et al., 2018). Given these contradicting expectations, we explore in the current study whether and how MTs’ empirical premises regarding the positive effect of intervening (or abstaining from intervening) on pupil and ST wellbeing and development affect their intended intervening direction and intensity.

3. Research questions

By developing a set of vignettes (descriptions of imaginary situations), in which the three situational factors, trigger type, trigger degree and STs’ competence, were combined, we are able to systematically present classroom situations in which MTs could intervene or not. Four research questions guided the current study: Q1) What value and empirical premises are important to MTs?, Q2) What is the direction and intensity of MTs’ intervening?, Q3) How do situational characteristics (ST experience, trigger type, trigger severity) and personal characteristics (the MT’s value and empirical premises) contribute to an MT’s likelihood of abstaining from intervening, of intervening directed toward pupils, or of intervening directed toward the ST? and Q4) To what degree is variability in intensity to intervene due to situation versus MT, and what is the relative importance of trigger type, trigger severity, ST experience, and value and empirical premises in MTs’ intensity to intervene? To determine the relative contribution of situational and personal characteristics to MTs’ intervening direction and intensity we will use multilevel analyses.

4. Method

4.1. Context and participants

This study was performed in the context of a four-year undergraduate teacher education programme for primary education in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands one teacher teaches all the subjects. In the teacher education program in which this study was conducted STs enrol in university courses and are placed at various schools as part of the programme. The teacher who is responsible for the class in which the ST has been placed, is the MT of the ST and is responsible for guiding and assessing the ST.

For this study we invited 461 MTs who had at least mentored an ST once and 159 MTs (25 males and 132 females; 2 did not indicate their gender) agreed to participate. Most MTs currently mentored STs or had done so in the past six months. Eight MTs had mentored an ST three to six years ago. MTs varied in age from 23 to 70 (M = 42.2 SD = 11.6). The average teaching experience was 17.1 years (SD = 10.6), and the average experience in mentoring was 10.4 years (SD = 8.0).

4.2. Design

A questionnaire measuring MTs’ personal value- and empirical premises was administered. Furthermore, to elicit MTs’ intended intensity and direction of intervening in various situations, we presented the MTs with vignettes involving various teaching situations. Vignettes are descriptions of imaginary situations that can be used to determine which circumstances influence peoples’ attitudes and beliefs and to understand peoples’ actions in specific situations (Schoenberg & Ravdal, 2000). The vignette approach presented the participants with carefully constructed realistic situations and allowed us to manipulate and control situational factors potentially influencing peoples’ intentions and behavior (Aguinis & Bradley, 2014). Besides, by using a vignette approach MTs might have felt less assessed than if they were observed and might have prevented socially desirable answering tendencies (Gould, 1996). By using vignettes, we also aimed for an understanding of MTs’ generic intervening not related to specific STs (Schoenberg & Ravdal, 2000). Finally, the vignette approach enabled us to reach many respondents within a short period of time, strengthening our findings’ representativeness. We created text-based vignettes as authentic situations’ descriptions: 1) representative of what MTs regularly experience during ST lessons, 2) eliciting MTs to consider their intended intervening, and 3) highlighting variations in MTs’ intended actions. The vignettes were created by the first author, who had experience as a primary teacher, and four student assistants who were also STs in primary education. These were based on observed situations, MTs’ reasoning on these situations and their intervening in our previous study (Jaspers et al., 2018). To improve the authenticity of the vignettes, various pilots were performed.

We operationalised ST experience by varying the year of study (i.e., a first-year versus a third-year student). Trigger type was manipulated by distinguishing between lesson content and classroom management problems. Thus, the combination of these two variables led to four types of vignettes (see Table 1). Additionally, trigger severity was included. We designed the vignettes with a variety of trigger severity to determine at which severity level MTs would intervene. Every vignette had three or four versions that differed in severity level: low, medium, medium-high, and high. All other variables, such as the STs’ gender (all female) and pupil characteristics (for example, average competence) were the same for all vignettes. Table 1 gives an overview of the 14 vignettes, and Fig. 1 gives two examples of vignettes.