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Complexities Involved in Mentoring Towards a High-Leverage Practice in the Induction Years

by Randi N. Stanulis & Susan K. Brondyk - 2013

Background/Context: For years mentoring has been promoted as an essential element of effective induction programs. Since research reports of the impact of mentoring have been uneven, it is critical to closely examine the complex aspects that could affect the ways teachers enact ideas into the practice of mentoring. This study is about mentor teacher learning that supports beginning teacher development. This research examines two teachers as they learned to mentor toward a targeted practice of helping novices lead discussions.

Purpose: The purpose of this research is to understand features of complexity that could influence how two induction mentors in the same district, and who participated in the same university-based professional development enacted the ideas and practices in different ways. The mentoring professional development targeted the high-leverage practice of helping beginning teachers learn to lead classroom discussions. Specifically, we examine features of the activity settings that influenced how two mentors enacted their work. We explore the question, why are two mentor teachers, who are experiencing the same professional development and scaffolded learning opportunities, enacting their practice differently?

Research Design: In this longitudinal descriptive case study, data from two mentors’ work with beginning teachers collected over a two-year period, revealed variations in the ways that these mentors talked about and used new ideas. Activity theory provided a lens to examine mentor cases to see how individual and contextual factors related to identity and authority intersected and influenced mentors’ learning and the implementation of a new practice. Key features of activity settings used to analyze data are that they have histories, are goal-oriented, and involve culturally shared language and tools linked to issues of identity and authority.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Understanding ways in which two mentors implemented a new practice in their school context revealed complexities in learning to mentor in ways that may shift the way we think about preparing mentors. We suggest that identity and authority influenced role enactment. Two issues emerge from these cases that have implications for professional development providers, educators and researchers: (a) mentor learning and growing authority in promoting reform-based practices, and (b) preparing mentors for a more powerful role in enacting reform-oriented practices in schools.

For years mentoring has been promoted as an essential element of effective induction programs. Large and small-scale studies report that there is much to consider in learning to mentor in order to impact teacher effectiveness (e.g., Glazerman, Dolfin, Bleeker, Johnson, Isenberg, & Lugo-Gil, 2009; Kapadia, Coca & Easton, 2007; Valencia, Place, Martin & Grossman, 2006). Induction advocates call for a move from “buddy” mentoring to educative mentoring, which places emphasis on engaging beginning teachers in joint inquiry with a mentor, helping novices understand the importance of learning from practice while providing tools useful for studying teaching, including observation, feedback, analysis of student work, and reflection (Allen, 1998; Feiman-Nemser, 2001a; Stanulis & Floden, 2009). This guidance goes beyond sharing instructional tips and places the mentor in a teaching role (Feiman-Nemser, 2001a, 2001b; Villar, 2004).  In this report of research on induction, we study the enactment of a particular form of targeted, educative mentoring.

This study focuses on analysis of two cases of mentors who learned and enacted a particular vision of mentoring within the same school district. These mentors participated in a two-year, university led professional development program that focused on helping novices develop the high-leverage practice (Grossman, Hammerness & McDonald, 2009) of leading classroom discussions in elementary literacy. In response to a critical question of whether well-specified and targeted mentoring can make a difference, this study is about mentor teacher learning that supports beginning teacher development. This research is part of a larger study that showed that these mentor teachers did have a significant impact on beginning teacher gains in teaching effectiveness after one year of mentoring, as compared to a group of novices in the same district who did not receive this targeted mentoring (Stanulis, Little & Wibbens, 2012).  Since research reports of the impact of mentoring have been uneven (e.g. Glazerman, et al, 2009), it is critical to closely examine the complex aspects that could affect the ways teachers enact ideas into the practice of mentoring. In order to have mentor assistance target teaching practices associated with effective teaching, we need to understand more nuances about how and why learners participate in activities in various ways.

The purpose of this study is to examine two teachers as they learned to mentor in order to understand the features of complexity that we think implicate how teachers enact a particular targeted form of mentoring. We wondered why two mentor teachers, who are experiencing the same professional development, enact their practices differently? In order to understand the complex nature of learning to mentor, first we describe why a particular focus was selected for beginning teacher learning. Next, we look at the high-leverage practice of leading discussions. Then, we describe ideas related to factors in professional development that could promote or constrain one’s learning of this practice. Finally, we examine the social contexts of the mentors’ work and describe how we came to conceptualize “activity” during the study as both the research focus and as a way to explain successful enactment of mentoring. In order to address the research question, we provide two individual cases of mentoring and then look across the cases to analyze ways in which the mentors’ experiences are similar and different.


In previous studies we found that part of what mentors need to learn is conceptual (i.e., understanding what it means to embrace a stance as an educative mentor and help a novice learn to teach).  This involves learning specific mentor practices to use in joint work (such as debriefing, co-planning, analysis of student work), enacting certain moves (such as extending thinking, pin-pointing problems) and helping a beginning teacher develop a vision of effective teaching practice (content-specific student- and teacher-talk in the classroom) (Feiman-Nemser 2001b; Helman, 2006; Stanulis; 1994; Stanulis, Campbell & Hicks, 2002; Stanulis & Floden, 2009; Little, Stanulis, Brondyk & Wibbens, 2012). An integral part of the work of a mentor is to help beginning teachers see a specific practice in action and then help them attempt it independently with scaffolded support purposefully constructed for reflection and conversation (Grossman et al., 2009). Mentors are prepared to encourage this form of legitimate peripheral participation, which allows the beginning teachers to take part in experiences that allow for observation, conversation, and enactment (Lave, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Little et al., 2012; Wenger, 1998).

In addition to providing certain social structures of support, mentors were introduced to the idea that an essential task of the induction phase is developing a teaching identity – an image of the kind of teacher one wants to be (Feiman-Nemser, 2001; Hammerness, 2006; Little et al., 2012). Mentors were asked to consider ways to help beginning teachers, who are overwhelmed with the daily responsibilities of a new classroom, develop a vision of teaching (Hammerness, 2006) that matched with features of effective teaching. One aspect of effective teaching is leading classroom discussions. Since management is of primary concern to beginners, developing effectiveness in a core, or high-leverage, practice can help address and connect larger issues like management, into instruction (Grossman et al., 2009). Learning a high-leverage practice can help provide clarity, as “knowledge, skill, and professional identity are developed in the process of learning to practice” (Grossman et al., 2009 p. 274).

A high-leverage practice has several features, one being that it occurs frequently in teaching.  Moreover, it can be enacted across curricula and is something beginning teachers can work to master. A high-leverage practice is also one that is research-based and allows beginning teachers to learn about student understanding, recognize the complexity of teaching, and potentially improve student achievement (e.g., Franke, Grossman, Hatch, Richert, & Schultz, 2006; Kazemi & Hintz, 2008; Kazemi, Lampert, & Ghousseini, 2007; Sleep, Boerst, & Ball, 2007). Learning to lead classroom discussions has been identified as a high-leverage practice, one that beginning teachers should learn in carefully scaffolded conditions (Grossman et al., 2009).  However, it is a practice novices often do not learn, nor practice with frequency, in their beginning years (Stanulis et al., 2012). Therefore, this practice provides a good focus for mentoring.

All teachers engage students in some kind of talk, but few learn to lead the kind of classroom talk that is rigorous, leading to critical thinking (Almasi, 1996). Rigorous discussions (a) are student centered and have students doing most of the meaning making; (b) require students to provide relevant evidence from materials being discussed and/or logical rationale regarding connections (to self or world) they made to class materials; (c) promote student linking in which students agree with, disagree with, and/or extend their peers’ contributions; (d) have the teacher acting as the facilitator, whose main function is to pose initial questions and then make connections between and among student comments; and (c) use rigorous textual materials as a common experience for students.  Rigorous texts are those that allow for interpretation and analysis of complex themes or material (Junker, et al., 2004; Little et al., 2012).

Leading effective discussions necessitates that teachers possess specific knowledge and skills in order to ask questions and pose problems.  They do this as they encourage students to voice ideas and use evidence to support their ideas, listen to others, monitor for rigor, respond to different ideas, and select rigorous texts that have the potential to engage students in critical thinking (Matsumura, Garnier, Correnti, Junker, & Bickel, 2010). Learning to lead effective discussions also involves knowledge of individual students, textual material, and ways of reading and scaffolding participation in order to facilitate these discussions (Jadalla, et al., 2010).  

The mentor professional development associated with this study promoted learning through joint-task activities in a social structure in which mentors helped beginning teachers try out and analyze together the ways the beginning teachers were implementing classroom discussions. In order to help beginners learn to enact this high-leverage practice, mentors needed to learn the features of teaching classroom discussions and how to teach this practice to beginning teachers.


Professional development, in many cases, focuses primarily on activities that are isolated from the complex factors that could constrain or enhance learning, particularly as teachers try to enact the ideas promoted. Opfer and Pedder (2011) argue that teacher learning needs to be conceptualized as a complex system rather than as an event (Collins & Clark, 2008). In this view, various factors interact and influence different people as they make decisions about how they will or can enact specific ideas. Even with features of effective professional development in place, such as having productive tasks, creating collaborative structures for learning, situating the activities in practice, and having regular, frequent interactions around ideas, learning may not occur in the way that professional development providers hope. In order to understand learning, researchers need to consider ways in which aspects such as local knowledge, problems, routines, and personal goals shape individual practices (Opfer & Pedder, 2011). These aspects are apparent in the social context of both the professional development activities and the context of helping beginning teachers learn the complex teaching practice of leading discussions.  Even though “tasks may seem equivalent at the level of external activity” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988, p. 77), we need to understand more about how an individual interprets and brings the task across settings.  

As researchers study professional development, often the focus is on a question of influence—what impact the professional development has on practice. Rather, Kazemi and Hubbard (2008) propose that researchers focus on why and how some teachers transform their practice more than others. They suggest that by examining activity settings that influence teacher learning, we can learn more about the relationship between teachers’ experiences in professional development and practice. We believe that an examination of activity settings helps us understand the social construction of meaning among the mentors as they taught beginning teachers to lead classroom discussions.  


We, the university professional development providers, learned alongside the mentors as we studied their learning, particularly as they scaffolded beginning teachers’ learning in order to lead classroom discussions in elementary literacy. As we analyzed data across two years, a question kept recurring: Why are these mentor teachers, who are experiencing the same professional development and scaffolded learning opportunities, enacting their practice differently? The purpose of this study is to examine two teachers as they learned to mentor in order to understand the features of complexity that we think implicate how teachers enact a particular targeted form of mentoring.  Specifically, we examine features of the activity settings that influenced how two mentors enacted their work.


The two mentors in this study navigated between two activity settings (professional development setting and school setting) as they learned to mentor beginning teachers. Each activity setting had its own histories, ideologies, actions and tools and the mentors acted as brokers, transferring ideas, actions, and tools from the professional development setting into their K-12 contexts, where they supported new teachers (Wenger, 1998).  The mentors were asked to “try on” ways of mentoring proposed by university professional development providers, by using tools grounded in a particular normative view of how teachers learn to teach. This enactment occurred in new settings that did not necessarily share this normative view. The ways in which they enacted this new practice differed, despite the fact that both mentors had access to the same professional development ideas, resources, and support. We suspect this has to do with factors related to the individual mentors and the culture of the two contexts in which they learned to mentor. Activity theory, a sociocultural approach to understanding the teaching and learning of a complex practice in context, helps us examine these factors in order to understand this variation (Cole, 1998).  

Sociocultural theory helps us explore the “intersection between social, cultural, historical and mental aspects of people’s sense-making, interaction and learning” (Lewis, Enciso, & Moje, 2007, p. 2).  Activity theory, situated in a sociocultural perspective, provides a way to examine how cognition and actions of individuals are mediated by social systems. Within this framework, individuals “engage in goal-directed behavior [over a sustained period of time] within a framework of implicit cultural assumptions and expectations” (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988, p. 77; Sarason, 1972). This conceptualization highlights key features of activity settings that are relevant to our study. They


Have Histories. Each member brings their own past histories to the work they do.

They hold particular views based on their experiences and preparation, which they bring to bear on new situations.  In this way, “learning goes beyond the moment of participation to constitute a history and to shape a future act of participating” (Moje & Lewis, 2007, p. 16). These histories also affect how members construe meaning of various aspects of the goals.


Are Goal-oriented. Activity settings are goal-oriented in that members are engaged in joint work, using practices, and tools that support members’ movement toward the goals of the group (Grossman, Smagorinsky, & Valencia, 1999). The goals of the activity setting usually serve as the motivation for members of the group, in that they “encourage and discourage particular ways of thinking and acting” (Grossman et al., 1999, p. 7). This means that certain ideas and practices are given precedence over others in each setting. Conflict can occur when individuals navigate between two contexts with competing goals or when members find themselves at odds with the goals of a particular context. Sociocultural theory provides a way to frame analysis of the complex interactions between the learners (mentors) and the contexts in which they were learning to mentor. In efforts to focus on specific fine-grained aspects related to the constructs of goal-directed behavior and cultural assumptions, role identity, and context provide an analytic lens to study complex features of an activity setting.


Involve Culturally Shared Language and Tools. Activity settings have their own language and tools that members use not only to communicate, but also to negotiate social identities among more and less experienced participants in complex, situated activities.  Language, according to Wenger (1998) “does not necessarily involve a conversation or even direct interaction,” but rather involves “social relations as factors of negotiation” (p. 53). As newcomers learn to use the tools and discourse of their new community, “they enact identities that will be recognized” by members of that community” (Moje & Lewis, 2007, p. 20). Sometimes the perceptions of other members limits what newcomers believe or expect they can learn which shapes their emerging identity in the group (Gee, 2001). In time, members reach agreements regarding the identities of each individual, who each agree to assume certain roles.


Identity can be a powerful factor in a learner’s ability to enact a new practice. The issues are complex because professional identity depends on how learners define themselves and are seen by others (Lasky, 2005; Lave & Wenger, 1991).  When individuals assume new roles, they come with certain capacities and perspectives based on their histories. They have professional self-images based on their experiences and accomplishments and these contribute to their confidence, particularly when they implement new ideas in an unknown context or advocate for their needs. Contributing to this self-image are the perceptions of others, for  “as people move across different . . . communities, they enact identities that will be recognized in particular ways by those communities . . . and those recognitions shape how people see themselves” (Moje & Lewis, 2007, p. 20). Lave and Wenger (1991) define these as “communities of practice,” where the goal is the beginner’s gradual and scaffolded learning of a complex cultural practice. Beginners move from peripheral to central participation in this practice as they participate with the support of more experienced others. In this study, the complex practice is learning to lead classroom discussions.


Sociocultural theorists focus attention on the cultural practices that exist within settings (like schools) that may mediate the practice of individuals. “But activity systems are not benign or neutral. They serve a normative function that determines the parameters of the activity” (Moje & Lewis, 2007, p. 22). By their very nature, social settings have goals and corresponding practices, in which some ideas are privileged more than others. Just because there are established goals and motives, however, does not mean that they will be upheld by or made available to all members of the group. Some members resist or push back against the established goals and that is where mediational factors come into play.

 The social context can also mediate the actions of individuals in various ways. Sometimes mentors do not make the practice fully available to all learners. Tharp and Gallimore (1988) suggest that, “more powerful members provide supplementary motivation for [new members] until they incorporate the values and meanings” (p. 78). Those who hold power within the group can choose to silence or encourage dissenting ideas. They can support or thwart efforts outside the group. Thus, the attitudes and actions of group members can mediate the efforts of individuals who are crossing boundaries from other settings and trying to introduce new ideas and practice.  

These ideas serve as a conceptual lens through which we analyze the practice of the two mentors in this study. They provide a way to think about the motivations and constraints of individuals as they enact complex ideas and practices in the unfamiliar social context of their school placements.


The purpose of this research is to understand features of complexity that could influence the ways in which two induction mentors in the same district and who participated in the same university-based professional development enacted the ideas and practices differently. Data from their work with beginning teachers was collected over a two-year period and revealed variations in the way that these mentors talked about and used new ideas. We wondered what factors might account for this variation. Activity theory provided a lens to examine mentor cases to see how individual and contextual factors, related to identity and authority, intersected and influenced mentors’ learning and the implementation of a new practice.  



This study is a qualitative, longitudinal descriptive case study of two mentor teachers who were part of a two-year, university-based professional development intervention and is designed to learn more about how these mentors enacted a targeted, mentoring practice. It is embedded in a larger study that demonstrated the impact of mentoring on new teacher effectiveness. We chose a case study approach to examine this familiar phenomenon—mentoring—because it allows us “to retain the holistic and meaningful characteristics of real-life events” (Yin, 1994, p. 2) over a period of time, in order to understand features of complexity in enacting the work of mentoring. Recording the work of the mentors as they mentored beginning teachers, corresponded with their university coach, and reflected about their practice allowed us to step back and consider accounts of events—making the complexities of their practice more visible from a distance. Geertz (1973) explains this process: “Cultural analysis is guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guesses” (p. 20).  

We used an interpretivist, multi-case approach, in which we used theory to analyze and explain individual cases. Cases of each mentor were recorded and analyzed through a sociocultural theoretical lens.  Yin (1994) refers to this analytic technique as explanation building because it uses narrative descriptions to explain phenomena and look for causal links. Activity theory helped us to account for events, explain the structures that produced them, and “find individual or social processes, a mechanism, a structure at the core of events that [could] be captured to provide a causal description of the forces at work” (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 4).  This approach involved reading the data continuously, along with outside theoretical materials to push our thinking (Miles & Huberman, 1994).  


As part of a university/school district induction program, seven district-selected full-release mentors worked weekly with beginning teachers to support their teaching. During yearlong professional development, university staff focused the mentors on developing effectiveness in leading classroom discussions for higher-level thinking and incorporating the idea of academic rigor. Support for the mentors provided by the university included (a) monthly three-hour study groups structured as professional learning communities where mentors and university staff were co-learners; (b) monthly coaching between a mentor and university staff member where mentors brought data from their mentoring practice to analyze and discuss; (c) frequent email conversations (when a mentor wanted to talk through a problem, ask for additional information to get ready for a debriefing conversation, or to clarify ideas learned in the study groups); and (d) email communications and agenda exchange to support mentors as teacher leaders as they led monthly beginning teacher study groups in their school (Stanulis et al., 2012).

The mentors were asked to focus their weekly interactions with beginning teachers on building classroom communities that were conducive to leading text-based discussions to promote higher-order thinking. Throughout the year, mentors had time to learn, practice, analyze, and share their developing use of mentoring moves such as co-planning, co-teaching, observing and debriefing, mentoring on the move, videotaping teaching, modeling, material selection, and working in their school culture (Schwille, 2008).  For example, mentors learned to identify rigor in discussions by analyzing discourse in a variety of grade-level lesson videos, and then together defined ways to scaffold teacher and student moves to set up and practice elements of effective discussions.

In order to document beginning teacher actions and growth, mentors used records of practice, including student work samples, analyses of videotaped lessons, field notes from observations, and videotapes of mentor/beginning-teacher conversations. These activities provided specific data for discussions between university coaches and mentors to support their continued work. Mentors brought records of practice to monthly study group meeting in order to build a shared culture among the mentors of data sharing and analysis.

Principals were also expected by the district to participate in an online one-credit class taught by the same university, in order to learn about the unique needs of beginning teachers as learners, school cultures that embrace teachers as learners, and ways to observe and provide feedback to teachers within the induction model. Principals who participated in this course were supported by university faculty to use a protocol to observe and debrief with a focus-beginning-teacher, and then analyze this interaction. In addition, principals were introduced to ways to organize time and resources to support collaborative learning, identify features of a supportive learning environment for teachers in their school, and discuss ways to build capacity as a school to support teaching and learning.


District and School

Study participants included a purposeful sample of two mentors from a large, high-poverty, urban district in the southeastern United States (Patton, 1990). Due to high teacher attrition (25% attrition from 2006 to 2007) and a large percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced price lunch (79% in 2007), this district volunteered to participate in a large-scale, two-year intervention study on mentoring during the 2008-2010 school years. It is important to note that this district does not have a tenure system or a teacher union. During the first year of the study, 83 beginning teachers (42 treatment and 41 comparison) were observed at the beginning and end of the 2008-2009 school year, using an observational measure called the Instructional Quality Assessment (IQA) which aligned with our definition of rigorous instruction and was used to measure the quality of classroom discussions. A comparison of means showed that the teachers receiving our intensive mentoring intervention significantly out-scored the comparison group on end of the year rubric scores (Stanulis et al., 2012).


Seven veteran teachers were selected for a new district role as full-release mentors for beginning teachers. Two mentors were chosen for this study as they had the most comparable data: they were the only mentors who remained in the same school, with the same principal, and same university coach for the two years of the study.


Monique is new to mentoring, having taught lower elementary (including ESL) for the previous eight years.  She is a 30-year-old African American woman who has aspirations to be an administrator and is currently working on her doctorate in educational leadership. Monique mentored 12 beginning teachers at Clark Elementary for two years. The kindergarten through fifth grade student population of 866 was 72% African American and 21% Hispanic, and 91% of the students were eligible for free and reduced meals. On the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, third and fifth graders mean scores were 42 and 37 respectively. The mobility rate for students was 44%. Monique’s boss, the principal at Clark Elementary was an African American female, who chose not to participate in the principal course, despite district pressures to do so.


Mary is an African American woman in her mid-40s. Mary was a middle school language arts and social studies teacher for thirteen years and also worked with adult learners as a reading specialist and literacy coach for three years.  Mary earned National Board Certification and regularly leads staff development seminars. Mary was placed at Howard Elementary to mentor 11 beginning teachers. The school serves students pre-kindergarten through fifth grade in a modern facility that opened in 2003. Of the 629 students enrolled, 94% are African American and 91% of students were eligible for free and reduced meals. The school has a relatively high mobility rate of 62% and students received mean scores of 33 (third grade) and 36 (fifth grade) on the reading portion of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  The principal, a male in his late-40s, began at Howard the same year as Mary and was an active participant in the online principal course.


Randi is the director of the induction program and research components and Sue is a professional development facilitator and university coach.


A variety of data was collected to document the experiences, enactment, and reflections of the mentors across two years. The data collected was part of the natural experiences of the mentor professional development. Data sources include email exchanges with university coaches and reflections written by mentors as part of the online support provided. In addition, as part of the induction program, the mentors audiotaped two conversations with two focus-beginning-teachers each year, and videotaped two conversations with two focus-beginning-teachers each year. Each year the mentors analyzed one of the videotaped conversations with their university coach. At the end of the second year, mentors also wrote and presented an action research project that documented their perspective(s) in promoting beginning teacher growth. Table One provides a summary of the data sources collected.

Table 1. Data sources (across two years)

Data Source


1:1 field notes/emails (mentor/university coach)

(total = 12-14 per participant)

Written reflections (responding to prompt online)

(total = 8 per participant)

Audiotaped mentor/beginning teacher conversations

(total= 6 per participant)

Videotaped mentor/beginning teacher conversations

(total= 4 per participant)

Mentor analysis of videotape/audiotape conversation

(total = 2 per participant)

Action research project power point

(total = 1 per participant)


A descriptive coding process helped us initially summarize the data across all seven participants (i.e., two mentors, one administrator, and four beginning teachers) to characterize how each mentor approached her work. This first round of data analysis raised questions about ways to further analyze the data (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996). As we began to explore our data by writing analytic memos about each participant, two mentors caught our attention (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Wood, Jilk & Paine, 2012). Monique and Mary worked at schools with comparable school demographics, similar caseloads of beginning teachers.  Also, during the two-year study, Monique’s and Mary’s principals and university coaches remained the same.

In selecting Mary and Monique for more detailed analysis, we were able to look beyond structural similarities to examine complexities in the activity setting that could explain differences in their work. Once we selected the two mentors, we began a more focused analysis by looking at activities each mentor engaged in with their beginning teachers across the two years. We first labeled data with codes and themes that related to their work. Then we began to look at the ways these particular themes developed across time, and we wrote analytic memos that later became the stories of Mary and Monique.

By using multiple data sources, we were able to triangulate our findings (Denzin, 1970). Each of us reviewed the data separately and together in order to increase reliability in coding. Once we wrote analytic memos for each mentor, we shared these memos with other university coaches who could raise critical questions to confirm or challenge our analysis (Wood et al., 2012). At the end of this process, we arrived at two primary themes that form the basis of our cross-case analysis: identity and authority.

As we collected our data and began a process of developing analytic categories by a process of both induction and deduction, we looked to activity theory to make sense of what was happening as the participants learned to mentor. It became apparent that there were issues related to both individuals and the contexts in which they worked that influenced how they implemented this new practice. Two constructs emerged from the analytic process related to “identity” and “authority” and these helped us examine the ways in which features of the activity setting could have influenced enactment of mentoring.  As we analyzed what the mentors talked about when they communicated by email, debriefed with new teachers, and reflected on their practice, we coded themes that helped us think about how they used new ideas and practices. Table Two describes these themes and sample codes.

Table 2. Data analysis


Sample Codes

Mentoring Practices

Debriefing focus chosen

Mentoring move chosen                                                                                

Leading discussions


Rigor of texts

Supporting with evidence

Understand student thinking

Factors Influencing Work

Competing messages

Principal support

BT value of work

Comfort with PD focus

From the analyses of identity and authority, we developed two narrative case studies. We describe both and offer evidence for our theoretical claim that individuals’ sense of empowerment, the level of contextual support received, and the resulting combination of these factors affect their enactment of a new practice.

Through the process of data analysis we also realized limitations in our data collection. For example, we did not collect field notes that documented comments from the mentors during the monthly study groups. In addition, we had video and audiotapes from only two beginning teachers that each mentor worked with; furthermore, these beginning teachers were selected by the mentor teachers.


In this section we provide a glimpse of how each mentor, Monique and Mary, experienced her work and role as a new mentor in a university/school induction partnership. Each participant brought different knowledge, experiences, and worked in different teaching contexts; in turn, they understood and enacted the professional development in different ways.  



In the first year as mentor, Monique stated that the vision promoted by the university held unfamiliar teaching practices and unfamiliar roles for teachers and students.

My biggest challenge is I feel like I am just learning as I go and it feels very strange. I am not always sure that I am doing what I am supposed to do. My biggest fear is that some of the beginning teachers do not see value in the work that we do together (April, Year One, Reflection).

In her new role Monique tried out ideas related to questioning promoted in the mentor professional development. This included helping beginning teachers identify questions they asked, considering what it means to ask rigorous questions, responding to student questions. Monique provided information about her own understanding of rigorous questions as she debriefed with a novice, “You know you ask a lot of open-ended questions like ‘who thinks they know what we should do first?’” She followed up by saying, “So then the child told you we need to draw three circles and then you said, ‘why’, which is really good because that let you know what they are thinking” (December, Year One, BT Conference).

In order to feel prepared for conversations with her beginning teachers, Monique planned very careful scripts of questions to ask. As her university coach analyzed videotaped conferences between Monique and her beginning teachers, the coach said,

 (The beginning teacher) said she wants to encourage the students to explain their thinking when talking about how they solved a problem. But I felt, a little bit, like you weren’t listening closely to what she was saying; you had an agenda that you were just moving through (December, Year One, E-mail).


In the mentor professional development in which we engaged with the mentors, each mentor was asked to co-plan with beginning teachers in order to push their thinking about why, how, and where student and teacher talk could be enhanced. Within Monique’s school however, teachers at each grade level met weekly to divide the planning for the week. With this plan, one teacher designed the weekly plans for math, another for literacy, and so on. Her principal promoted this planning process.  Monique reported,

Beginning teachers just "go with the flow" but they don't understand what they are teaching or why they are teaching it (December, Year One, Mentor Survey).

Monique said that she did not feel comfortable discussing the ways in which this practice went against the university-based program’s mentoring principles the school had committed to participate in. Among the seven participating schools, her principal was the only one who did not log in to the required principal online professional development class led by the university providing the mentoring support. Monique sometimes felt subversive, as on one occasion when she emailed her university coach from her personal email account, saying, “You never really know who has access to our work email.” In the message, Monique communicated that her beginning teachers “need some help and need it quick. I don’t know if I can address [the assistant principal] because I don’t know if this is going to open up a can of worms. Oftentimes when the administration realizes teachers are having problems they tend to over-react and the teachers end up in trouble instead of getting the help they need.” (September, Year Two, E-mail to 1-1 Coach).

Toward the end of the first year of mentoring, Monique felt like the beginning teachers began to value her ideas. In a debriefing conversation,

I explained that we always want to ask more than we tell . . . The teacher was not interested in what I was saying . . . I did record my observation notes and I left a copy with her. After a few days when I returned to her classroom I actually saw some of the suggestions that I had given being utilized . . . Whole group instruction included more questioning and less telling. . . . I could directly see that a change was made—I guess she was actually listening (April, Year One, Reflection).

This trend continued into the second year when several of the beginning teachers raised questions with Monique during their monthly beginning teacher study group. Monique wrote down their specific questions, as she did not feel prepared to answer on the spot. These questions included

 Is there such a thing as asking too many questions?

When should students be able to generate higher order thinking questions?

How do you engage less motivated students in rigorous discussions?

Quickly, Monique asked her university coach to help her respond to the beginning teachers’ questions and design next steps.

In a February email to her university coach, Monique’s questions about whether a beginning teacher’s discussions were rigorous caused Monique to examine her own practice and conceptions of rigor.

Ms. Jones, a 1st grade teacher, did a wonderful job asking open ended, multi-level questions. She pressed students to explain their thinking and to provide evidence from the text to support their answers. She linked students’ responses together and she gave students the language to use when their comments were connected. She used adequate wait time and she was actively listening to what the students were actually saying and continued to press students if their responses were off tack. . . . I asked her, “Would you consider this a rigorous discussion? Why or why not? She thought that it was rigorous but really couldn’t explain why.

Monique continued to think about her own teaching and how to mentor:

Rigor is something I continue to think about. As I reflect back on my own teaching, I realize many of the discussions I engaged in with my students were at a very surface level. Those types of discussions don’t take a lot of foresight; they are “time killers” that help the teacher say, “We read a book and had a discussion.” But as I think back, I wonder what, if anything, the students learned during the process (February, Year 2, E-mail to 1-1 Coach).

During this same period of time in the second year of mentoring, Monique described a teacher in an article read during study group who resonated with her own ideas of how she wanted to enact the work of mentor:

Ms. Lee (the mentor in the article) mentioned, “She hoped to provide a model of herself as a teacher who, despite the demands of teaching, found value and excitement in finding time for reflection” . . . I wonder what this excitement looked like during a debriefing conference . . . I agree that asking the “right” questions can engage a teacher in reflecting on their practice, but it does take work to find just the right questions. (February Year Two, Reflection)

Monique saw changes in her beginning teachers’ practice as they worked with ideas of questioning, using evidence and rigor. During a debriefing session at the end of year two, Monique provided this feedback to a beginning teacher:

During previous lessons I observed, students were not pressed to explain their thinking, nor were they asked to provide any evidence to support their thinking. Now, you were asking rigorous questions and asking students to provide reasons for their answers. You asked questions such as, “Does anyone have a different theory?” and, “What makes you think they’re going somewhere else?”



Mary came to this new role of “induction mentor” with a repertoire of mentoring practices, based on her experience as a reading specialist and instructional coach, and, in many ways, Mary already thought of herself as a teacher leader. When a situation arose with a struggling new teacher in the first week of school, Mary went to her principal—a first year administrator—to talk about new teachers and their learning needs (September Year One Observation). These conversations coincided with the principal’s participation in an online professional development course in which he was exploring the structures and supports that mentors and teachers need to engage in their work. Her principal agreed to provide time and space for Mary to work with individual teachers and the beginning teachers as a group, by rearranging planning times and limiting after school meetings (October, Year One, 1-1 Conversation with Coach).

Mary put into practice some of the ideas and tools related to questioning provided in the mentor professional development:  

The most exciting piece is the deeper understanding of Bloom’s Taxonomy and how to generate a rigorous discussion. I was blown away by the change in teachers once they realized how powerful one open-ended question can be and how much students will share if given the opportunity (December, Year One, Reflection).

After seeing immediate changes in the ways that students were talking in the classroom, Mary worked with each beginning teacher to analyze their teaching and look for ways that questioning and rigor in text-based discussions could impact engagement, forms of participation, and meet learning standards. During a debriefing session, during the fall of the first year in the induction program, Mary was trying to help Ms. Moore analyze student responses and engagement from a lesson.  Mary said,

You asked questions [like], “Who is more dishonest, the soldier or the old woman?” And “Why do you think this? Could you explain it more?” That was the flow of your language for that discussion . . . So if you look at the questions that you asked in the read aloud, and the questions that you asked with the shared inquiry, what is the difference in the questions? Did you see the differences in the way students responded? (December, Year One, Mentor/BT Conversation)

In a reflection, Mary wrote about the reasons why she asked the questions above as she did. “In the beginning [in a read aloud], Ms. Moore would introduce new concepts through lecture type lessons.  She rarely allowed students to be involved in the lesson at all. As a result, student engagement was poor” (December, Year One, Reflection). As a follow up to this conversation, Mary told her university coach,

I modeled [a read aloud] and chose a book that supported the standard she was teaching, making predictions. Then, I found a graphic organizer that required students to record their predictions along with evidence from the story. Students shared their predictions with the class and classmates “agreed” and/or “disagreed” with them. One week later, I observed Ms. Moore reading a story, using a graphic organizer and discussing aspects of the story using the “agree” and “disagree” signs.  The difference was unbelievable!  (February, Year One, 1-1 Conversation with Coach)

Mary continued to make rigor a focus in her mentoring, but she noticed that her beginning teachers were less able to make this a priority in their teaching and seemed confused by the competing messages and demands placed on them as novices. Recognizing that some of her teachers had as many as six different support personnel assigned to help them, Mary talked directly with support staff in the building. Mary knew that in order to be effective she needed the “support from other people in the building” (May, Year One, 1-1 Conversation with Coach).

I met one-on-one with the grade level chairperson and tried to make her aware of the unique needs of these beginning teachers and their need for support. I also requested a few minutes on the agenda for the upcoming staff meeting to share information that would benefit my teachers and to share what we were working on. (October, Year One, Reflection)

As Mary explored questioning as a way to elicit student thinking with her beginning teachers, she also began to apply these ideas in her mentoring. Mary found that the biggest barrier to being able to implement these ideas was her own comfort in telling and showing, rather than asking and guiding.  

As much as I like to talk, I learned to listen, ask probing questions and then listen again.  I looked for “openings” in our conversations that would naturally steer the discussion into reflecting “why” something happened and what could be done differently (April, Year One, Mentor/BT conference).

At the end of the first year of mentoring, Mary shared how this new approach was changing the way she thought how teachers learn.

When I started, I thought I needed to have all the answers. Now I know, it’s more important to ask the right questions. The whole concept of “fading to a whisper” was a paradigm shift for me. I kept asking myself, how can I impact the life of a teacher in such a way that they continue to ask reflective questions after I am gone?  I see now that  . . . teachers will eventually come around to answering their own questions or solving their own problems if given the space and think time to do so.  They are also more likely to change their practice, if they realize the need to change on their own. (May, Year Two, Reflection)

Early in the second year, Mary experienced what she considered a break-through with one of her beginning teachers. Ms. Moore approached her, saying she wanted to find ways to regularly incorporate talk into her teaching. Ms. Moore wanted to make this change because of the difference she saw in the ways her students thought and worked at the end of the previous year. Mary conferred with her university coach to devise ways to help Ms. Moore regularly implement discussions into her classroom. Mary also wanted to design interactive activities that would get the teachers talking to one another about their understanding of rigor and what they were trying in their classrooms during their beginning teacher meetings (January, Year Two, E-mail to 1-1 Coach).

Mary reflected that she used to be scattered in her approach to mentoring—typically focusing on classroom management issues—but this focus enabled her to push her beginning teachers to understand, try out, and even evaluate features of classroom discussions (March, Year Two, 1-1 Conversation with Coach).  For example, during a workshop she attended with her beginning teachers, one of them, Mr. Smith leaned over and whispered to Mary, “That’s not rigorous! That activity doesn’t require students to really think about the content or to support their arguments with evidence” (March, Year Two, 1-1 Conversation with Coach).

In addition, in a conversation during the second year of mentoring with a beginning teacher Mary said,

So now that you’ve gotten students used to supporting what they say with evidence from the text or explaining their answers, are there any things that you have to think about when you’re planning a lesson? I guess I’m asking that question because you made a conscious effort to choose a rigorous text and I want to know how that supported your instruction (March, Year Two, Mentor/BT Conversation).


In the previous section we described the individual experiences of each mentor. Within this section, we look across the two cases to consider how the mentors’ experiences were similar and different. This further analysis helps us address our research question and understand more about the variation in enactment. As we analyze the work of these two mentors to understand more about why they approach their work in different ways, the overarching ideas of identity and authority are key in understanding the cases’ similarities and differences. Individual experimentation has to do with the ideas the mentors adopt and the barriers that impede the work (Kazemi & Hubbard, 2008). First, we examine how issues of identity and authority play out in the practice of these two mentors. Then, we look across the cases to understand the interplay between these individual and contextual factors.


Image of One’s Self

From the beginning, Monique stated that the vision promoted by the university in the professional development was new to her and she worried whether she would be able to enact this new role. Monique worried that the beginning teachers did not see her as an expert or find value in her mentoring, as she did not have an extensive repertoire to draw from in her practice. In her first mentoring experiences, she defined her emerging understanding of rigor as she reinforced the use of any question as rigorous questioning (e.g., “Who thinks they know what we should do first?”). Monique scripted out questions learned in the professional development in order to try to be sure she was acting out the goals for the mentor work. But competing old scripts (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988), where she worried whether she knew enough, was valued, or had a voice, interfered with her enactment in the first year of mentoring.

Mary, as a National Board Certified Teacher, shared a vision of teaching similar in many ways to that of the professional development providers. With years of experience in leading staff development and mentoring, she felt confident about ways to approach her work and was excited to target discussions as a focused way to mentor.  In an early mentoring experience in this program, she asked a beginning teacher to analyze the difference in two different literacy occasions (read aloud and shared inquiry) in order to see whether the type of question asked could influence engagement and student learning. Mary felt valued and knowledgeable in the work of mentoring and leading discussions.

In both cases, personal history influenced role enactment. In particular, the perception of how others viewed them, along with how they saw themselves, influenced the ways in which these mentors asserted a particular agenda of leading discussions as important component to learn in the first year of teaching. Both mentors were “newcomers” to their assigned school the first year. But each mentor differed in how she approached this newcomer role. Monique, worried she did not know enough, did not assert her agenda. Mary, confident in the targeted work, had a strong image of herself and the possibilities of where the focus on questioning and rigor could take new teachers.


Monique did not feel valued or knowledgeable during her first year of mentoring. She worried that the beginning teachers did not value her work, she did not feel confident to talk with the principal about the goals of her work, and she worried about staying under the radar in the school. She was constrained by competing demands of support people in the building, but she did not feel comfortable stepping in. Since the content of leading rigorous discussions was new to her, at many times she did not feel knowledgeable enough to carry out the tasks. As a high achiever, she was motivated to continue learning, and saw a difference when beginning teachers’ implemented ideas she brought from the professional development. In the second year, when beginning teachers themselves asked to learn more about discussions, Monique’s motivation peaked and she sought resources to help her maximize her effectiveness. She admitted that she had much to learn, and this admitted vulnerability opened her up to value learning and try out what she learned from the professional development ideas.

Mary felt valued in her school context right away, stepping in to lead conversations with support providers and her principal. This value came from both her image of herself through past history and because she shared the vision of teaching goals promoted in the professional development.  Saying that the professional development helped her focus what had been “scattered” mentoring, she studied ideas related to rigor, created activities, graphic organizers, and tables to scaffold beginning teachers’ learning.

The motivation to improve their own practice and help beginning teachers is evident in the data, for instance, when Monique struggles to understand rigor and when Mary works to question more and talk less. In a larger sense, motivation involves questions of whether the two mentors felt knowledgeable enough to carry out the tasks and valued enough by participants to implement ideas from the professional development. Monique’s motivation seemed to develop from reflected appraisals of her beginning teachers. When she saw that the beginning teachers valued the work and they asked to learn more, Monique sought out more resources to deepen her learning. Mary’s motivation seemed to develop from learning about ideas related to rigor; the more she learned about rigorous discussions, the more she pushed for subtle and concrete ways to help her beginning teachers. As Mary saw the impact and change in classroom teaching, she was validated and sought more ways to focus her mentoring on rigor in discussions.


By the end of the first year of mentoring, Monique felt like she was making a difference in her mentoring.  In a written reflection at the end of year one, she exclaimed, “I guess she [a beginning teacher] was actually listening” to feedback Monique had provided, for noticeable changes were made in this beginning teacher’s practice. Spurred by this sense of agency, Monique entered the second year anxious to learn more about how to help her novices learn to lead rigorous discussions. As she began to open up about her own teaching, saying that much of her own discussions were taught at a “surface level,” she became more engaged as a learner. She also expressed her desire to be more like a teacher they read about in an article, who seemed to know how to “ask the right questions” to help teachers learn. These moves—reflecting openly about her own teaching and setting goals for her work as mentor—helped Monique feel more power and control in setting an agenda for her own work and development as a mentor.

Even though Mary entered the context with a sense of agency, the ways that she interacted with the content of the professional development curriculum in order to teach the ideas to novices provided a powerful example of agency for teaching effectiveness. As she reflected about her own practice, she too wanted to learn from the mentor they read about in an article who “faded to a whisper” to help novices internalize knowledge from working together (Author 1, 1994).

Agency refers to a feeling of confidence and empowerment that comes from feeling like “the environment is responsive to our actions” (Johnston, 2004, p. 29) and that we are making a difference. In this case, agency comes from a feeling that the mentors had the power to make decisions, direct a focus of mentoring on rigorous discussions and see the impact of this focus in the beginning teachers’ practice. Monique’s agency came as a result of the beginning teachers seeing value in her work. Mary’s agency came as a result of being part of leading change at the local level of each beginning teacher, while also leading change at the school context level.


Goal Alignment

“Each community of practice has its own indigenous enterprise, its own vision, its own strategies,” (Wenger, 1998, p. 244) with which newcomers may or may not align.  Early in the first year, Monique shared a dilemma with her university coach. The mentors were asked to co-plan with their beginning teachers, as a way to promote a particular way of talking and thinking about planning. Monique’s concern stemmed from the fact that her beginning teachers, while willing, were finding it challenging to adopt this practice because of the planning norms of the school, where teachers split up the subjects and handed one another lessons to teach. This practice was not conducive to the type of work that Monique was trying to instill in her teachers.

Monique faced a similar situation during the second year, only this time the disparity was conceptual. Monique was faced with a struggling beginning teacher and again turned to her university coach for advice. Monique’s initial inclination was to talk with her assistant principal about this teacher, but she was concerned for the teacher’s job security.  Monique feared that talking with an administrator about this teacher’s challenges might make the teacher appear less than competent. Monique’s frustration stemmed from the fact that the professional development encouraged teachers to talk openly about their successes and challenges. She was trying to create a community among her beginning teachers in which they talked about their struggles and reflected on their teaching. Monique found these two attitudes incongruous and was uncertain how to proceed.

Mary also faced competing goals in her school. In the professional development sessions, mentors learned about mentoring toward the core practice of classroom discussions. Mary embraced this focus early on as she and her teachers began to see differences in the way students were thinking and talking. They worked together to plan questions and implement discussions. Frustration arose on the part of teachers, because they were receiving mixed messages from the multiple people assigned to support them.  They were confused about what to work on and who to listen to and they voiced these concerns to Mary.

In both instances, the school culture mediated the efforts of these mentors in that they had to contend with competing goals. They responded in very different ways, however. Monique chose to quietly go about her work, promoting the ideas and practices of the professional development, despite it being contrary to the norms of the school. She admitted to feeling subversive, but she reacted in the only way she felt most comfortable. Mary, on the other hand, chose to assert herself more by talking to colleagues in the building about her work and advocating for change. This more forward approach reflects Mary’s confidence in her ability to articulate her goals and needs and advocate for change. These mentors differed in their ability to “assert [their] belongingness to [the] organization” (p. 248), which Wenger (1998) describes as the ability to both control your own actions as well as to affect the institutional environment and its meanings.

Power Issues

At play within any social group are power structures that mediate the work of individuals. For our purposes, “power is not construed exclusively in terms of conflict or domination, but primarily as the ability to act in line” (Wenger, 1998, p. 189). Members of the group who hold the most power—be it the principal or a veteran staff member—have the ability to enable or avert the efforts of other members. In this respect, Monique and Mary had very different experiences.

In the previous example about the struggling teacher, Monique contacted her university coach to talk about the situation. Monique explained that she decided to email her coach from her home computer, because she was worried that her emails might be monitored and, due to the sensitive nature of the topic, she wanted the conversation to remain confidential. The fact that Monique felt the need to do this reflects her insecurities about her administrators.  It was in this same conversation that Monique voiced her concerns about the assistant principal’s willingness to support her efforts with this teacher.  

Mary’s experience with her principal yielded a different response. During the first week of school, one of the beginning teachers in the building was having classroom management issues so severe that she broke down in tears and left the room. Mary and the principal met with this teacher to devise a plan. In the course of that, and subsequent, conversations, the principal and Mary began talking about teacher learning. Mary was able to share with him what she knew about developing teachers and establish a rapport that sustained her work in significant ways over the next two years.

Despite disparity in support by administrators, both mentors “acted in line” and supported their new teachers to the best of their abilities. They responded to contextual mediation, however, in very different ways, for different reasons. Monique was uncertain about the level of support from her administrators and did not feel safe confiding in them. She chose not to engage in situations that could result in power struggles. Instead, she went about the work outlined in the professional development and sought support from her fellow mentors and university personnel. Mary responded by addressing administrators directly. The differences in their approach are clearly related to their personal identity issues.


The purpose of this study is to understand the features of complexity that could implicate how two teachers enacted a particular targeted form of mentoring with beginning teachers. First, we examined the cases of Mary and Monique in terms of how their own issues related to identity and the contextual factors affecting their work. This helped us isolate factors that could explain their differences. In this section, we consider the interplay between identity and authority for these two mentors. Table 3 provides examples of individual and contextual factors that contributed to the mentors’ feelings of being knowledgeable, safe, and valued in Year 1.

Table 3. Year 1: Individual and Contextual Factors


Year One

Did they feel knowledgeable, safe, and valued?

Individual Factors

Contextual Factors



Mentoring practice was new

Content (discussions) was new

Could not rely on support from administration and did not feel safe

Principal did not participate in online class offered in conjunction with PD

Work not valued by other teaching staff



Was an experienced mentor

Vision of teaching aligned with professional development

Discussions as a focus was new

Had strong support from principal

Principal did participate in online class offered in conjunction with PD

Beginning teachers received competing messages from other support staff in building

Monique may have had a different experience during her first year if the school context had welcomed her as a newcomer. Instead, she walked into an environment that did not welcome her new ideas or openly support her in mentoring. On top of this, Monique was learning new content and a new practice as mentor. As a result, Monique remained silenced as she experimented with her new role and content.

Mary was able to jump in and begin the work with confidence, because of her own experiences and the support of her principal. This support did not initially extend to the other support staff in the building and she sometimes felt that they were at cross-purposes. And although her general ideas about good teaching aligned with the professional development, the specific focus on discussions was new to her. Table 4 provides examples of individual and contextual factors that contribute to the mentors’ feelings of being knowledgeable, safe, and valued in Year 2.

Table 4. Year 2: Individual and Contextual Factors


Year Two

Did they feel knowledgeable, safe and valued?

Individual Factors

Contextual Factors



Felt more valued when beginning teachers became excited about the questioning and wanted to know more

Felt motivated to learn more about the mentoring and content so that she could help teachers

Could not rely on support from administration and did not feel safe

Work not valued by other support staff

Work valued by many beginning teachers



Felt like the focus on discussions helped her be more effective in improving her teacher’s practices

Garnered support of staff which eliminated some of the competing messages

Principal adopted a school-wide focus on rigor

The contextual features did not improve any for Monique in the second year. In order to enact her work, she often felt subversive. There was, however, a big shift in her attitude when her beginning teachers became excited about discussions when they saw the effect it was having on their students. This bolstered Monique’s confidence and motivated her to work even harder to be an effective mentor.  As Monique gained experience and felt more valued by the beginning teachers, she began to move from peripheral participation to participation which is closer to the complex practice she learned.  And, as she assumed more authority in her new role, the way she framed questions in her own mentoring showed a shift as she moved from concerns about “how” to enact discussions to ideas about “what” the content of discussions should be.

Mary reported two insights during her second year that impacted her mentoring. First, she realized that prior to the intervention, her mentoring tended to be “all over the place” and that having a focus allowed her to be more targeted and effective. The other insight stemmed from the first. As Mary focused her efforts on rigorous discussions and saw changes in classroom, she recognized the need for more sustained interaction with teachers. In order to get this time, she needed to coordinate efforts with other support staff in the building. Because Mary felt secure in her abilities and valued by the staff, she was able to advocate for her teachers by talking with the principal and other staff members about her work. As a result, the school adopted rigor as a school-wide focus for the school year.  These illustrate Mary’s growing enactment of her role and sense of authority.

These cases show two mentors’ attempts to negotiate meaning as they learned a new role in a new context. Activity theory allows us to think about how identity and authority mediate practice in a social setting. Newcomers coming into any established group must “invest in continuity because it connects them to a history of which they are not [yet] a part” (Wenger, 1998, p. 157) but are trying to gain access to. We claim that their sense of agency— “to make a difference . . . and exercise some sort of power” (Lasky, 2005, p. 913) —is strongly influenced by both their identity and the culture of their contexts. Monique, as a young, new mentor felt insecure about her abilities and silenced by the leadership in her school. As a reticent newcomer in a community with strongly ingrained norms, Monique could easily have succumbed to pressure and assimilated into the culture, relinquishing the goals put forth by the university-based professional development. Instead, she took a stance of covert authority as she continued to work with her beginning teachers to implement discussions. Monique quietly continued her work without the benefit of institutional support and formed her new identity not only through the practices she engaged in, but also the practices she did not engage in (Wenger, 1998). Any sense of agency expressed by Monique came, not from her administrators, but rather from the enthusiasm of her beginning teachers and support from her university coach (Johnston, 2004).  This marginality within the community restricted her full participation, but despite her isolation, Monique was able to enact real change.

Mary exuded confidence in her new role from the outset and openly assumed authority, taking an active role in garnering support from school leadership and support staff. In this sense, she acted as a broker between the two settings—the university professional development and her elementary school—by translating, coordinating, and aligning different perspectives (Wenger, 1998). Mary’s personal alignment with the reform agenda and pre-existing sense of herself as a teacher leader, along with an openness from members of the community, contributed to Mary’s confidence and ability to actively advocate for the needs of her teachers and successfully implement rigorous discussions throughout the school.


As we examined how two mentors implemented a new practice in their school contexts, we found that identify and authority influenced role enactment. The cases of Mary and Monique provide ways to think about key issues related to how a mentor scaffolds beginning teacher learning in a new practice, specifically as the mentor learns a new practice herself while mentoring in a new school context. Two issues emerge from these cases that have implications for the field: (a) mentor learning and growing authority in promoting reform-based practices and (b) preparing mentors for a more powerful role in enacting reform-oriented practices in schools.


The professional development targeted a certain kind of educative mentoring focused on helping beginning teachers learn to lead classroom discussions across activity settings. A socio-cultural lens helped us think about the degrees of freedom available in the mentors’ new contexts and how the shared historical and cultural norms affected participation by these two mentors.  In the professional development setting, teachers developed a sense of their new role as mentors. As they enacted their practice in their school contexts and then returned regularly to professional development activities, the mentors negotiated meaning within their new communities.  Through a process of “continuous interaction, of gradual achievement and of give-and-take” (Wenger, 1998, p. 53), these mentors grew in their sense of authority.  The authority of the mentors was not limited exclusively to their knowledge of the practice of leading classroom discussions that they were helping beginners to learn. Their growing sense of authority also related to identifying, addressing, and helping beginning teachers change conventional practice in their school settings.  

Each mentor in this study worked to execute the reform-oriented agenda of the professional development in different ways. In the second year of mentoring, beginning teachers in both schools asked their mentors to help them learn more about leading discussions. Beginning teachers saw value in the ideas promoted by the mentors, although these ideas were not established practices within the social organization of the school contexts. This signified a shift away from the norms of the culture toward the goals of the professional development, a change that was a “fundamental property of communities of practice and their activities” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 117). Within Mary’s school, the learning of rigorous discussions as reform-oriented practice became a school-wide focus. In Monique’s school, she continued to work “against the grain” (Cochran-Smith, 1991). In both instances, but in different ways, issues of power and authority shifted from the mentor/beginning teacher dyad to the activities of mentor and beginning teacher in the wider social context of the schools.  

In order to promote mentor learning and growing authority in promoting reform-based practices, there are implications for future mentor professional development. School leaders need direct and sustained support to develop and value a strong school professional culture. In this culture, principals learn to model a set of beliefs about effective teaching (including leading classroom discussions as a central practice), engage teachers in collaborative activities such as those promoted in this program, and support development of new and experienced teachers as a norm (Kardos & Johnson, 2007).  Merely proposing that principals create such a complex system for teacher learning in their school is not enough. Principal preparation programs and in-service professional development should model successful ways to scaffold the development of effective school cultures as a central part of educational administration curriculum and principal evaluation. Principals can learn ways to integrate development of structures—such as sustained time to co-plan, observe, and analyze student work—and build a school where teachers feel like they can try out new ideas (Merseth, 2010). Professional teacher talk time needs to be valued in words, actions, and teacher evaluation.


The cases of Mary and Monique expose challenges involved in enacting a new practice across activity settings, for they illustrate how ideas and actions are mediated by social context and personal identities. When mentors do not see it as their role to question or try out new ideas, they may not be able to teach a new, complex practice to novices. Those who lead professional development need to consider what mentors know about the practices they are asked to teach to novices, along with considering the contexts in which mentors will be asked to enact their work.

As professional development providers and teacher educators, we need to pay direct attention to how to help and empower mentors in induction and pre-service teacher education to play a purposeful, targeted, powerful role in teacher education. Research indicates that the mentor teacher has the most significant influence in teacher learning (Duffield, 2006; Feiman-Nemser, 1990). Instead of mentoring beginning teachers to learn ordinary practices perpetuated in school cultures, mentors can be prepared to push back against institutionalized norms. Instead of focusing primarily on management issues that perpetuate pedagogy that overemphasizes control and direct instruction, mentors and beginning teachers are able to focus on new possibilities for student engagement and learning (Achinstein & Barrett, 2004). A direct implication of this kind of targeted mentoring is that teachers can learn ways that students in these high-poverty classrooms can have access to robust academic learning experiences.

We believe that focusing mentors’ work on enacting high-leverage practices is one way to begin this process of empowerment for teachers and students. Doing so will lead to change in local practice, because, as evidenced in these two cases, mentor preparation during induction empowered these practitioners to change local practice in two very different school settings.  Further research is needed to continue to build on what we learned from this study in order to help practitioners and policy-makers act on these findings. For example, we need to generate more examples of the conditions and curriculum that support mentor teacher learning in ways that impact beginning teachers’ effectiveness. Furthermore, data from the perspective of the beginning teacher is needed to substantiate claims that targeted induction support within a school culture that values collaborative activity matters for teacher and student learning.  


This study was funded by the Carnegie Corporation’s Teachers for A New Era. The authors would like to thank Susan Florio-Ruane for her thoughtful feedback.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 10, 2013, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17157, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:28:10 AM

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About the Author
  • Randi Stanulis
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    RANDI STANULIS is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University, where she serves as the Director of Launch into Teaching induction program. For twenty years Stanulis has conducted research on beginning teacher and mentor teacher learning.
  • Susan Brondyk
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN BRONDYK is the Associate Director of Launch into Teaching induction program at Michigan State University and Assistant Professor at Hope College. Her research interests include mentor preparation.
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