What supports can school leaders provide to develop effective and committed special education teachers?

Page 10: Responsive Mentoring

teacher with mentorResponsive mentoring is a critical feature of induction and is often the primary source of support for new teachers. Mentoring is a formal or informal relationship usually between two people, one with experience in the field (mentor) and one just entering the field (mentee). Mentors assist the development of the new teacher’s expertise by focusing on improving the mentee’s ability to provide effective instruction. Mentors’ work can be structured in a number of ways. Click each link below for a description.

Generally, full-time mentors are veteran special education teachers who devote 100% of their time to mentoring multiple teachers, earning a regular teaching salary plus a supplement. Some advantages of having full-time mentors is that they can:

  • Focus solely on mentoring
  • Be matched to new teacher’s characteristics and needs
  • Be more available and flexible for scheduling mentoring sessions
  • Meet with other mentors and provide support to each other

Part-time mentors are typically veteran special education teachers located at the new teacher’s school. They are assigned the responsibility of mentoring in addition to their regular teaching duties. Compensation usually is provided through a stipend. One advantage to this structure is proximity. New teachers have direct access to a mentor who likely has specific knowledge of the context of the teacher’s own school.

Typically, in group mentoring, a veteran special education teacher serves as a mentor for a group of new special education teachers. These mentors may be full or part time. The group works together on common professional development needs or to address immediate instructional needs or behavioral concerns. One advantage to this structure is that the new teachers develop a collegial network of support that might extend beyond the first year.

In this structure, the mentor uses technology to support the new teacher. They might do this through email, blogs, discussion boards, chat rooms, or video conferencing. It can be particularly helpful for new special education teachers in certain locations (e.g., a rural setting where they are the only special education teacher, an urban setting where there are no veterans). An advantage of this structure is that mentors can be selected according to their expertise and matched carefully to the needs of the new special education teacher. Moreover, there is great flexibility in correspondence.

One way to meet the needs of new special education teachers is to provide a variety of mentoring structures. For example, a district might have a full-time veteran special education teacher to serve as an instructional mentor and a part-time mentor (of any subject or area) to assist with navigating the school culture and helping to avert immediate crises.

The Content of Mentoring

One essential, but often overlooked, topic for leaders is the content of mentoring. Mentors are often hired and expected to “help” new teachers without being given guidance in the content of the assistance they are expected to provide. To alleviate this issue, mentors should be offered some direction to help them provide appropriate supports. There are three types of content support mentors often provide: instructional, emotional, and school culture and procedural.

Instructional Support

A primary role for mentors is to provide instructional support for new special education teachers. Instructional support does not always occur in a focused mentoring conversation. It can also take place in other contexts such as those described in the table below.

Co-planning Co-planning might be helpful for new special education teachers struggling to create successful lesson plans. It is important for mentors to help new special education teachers link lesson goals to both district and state goals/standards, as well as individual IEP goals. The mentor can also support new special education teachers in using data to plan classroom practice.
Modeling Some new special education teachers need to see an effective practice in action before they can implement it in their own classrooms. Prior to the lesson, the mentor and new teacher can discuss the strategy to be modeled. After the mentor models the practice, the new special education teachers is given an opportunity to practice with feedback.
Developing and implementing an action plan Action plans can help guide a new special education teacher to make instructional progress. The mentor and new special education teacher work together to establish goals, objectives, and timelines. The teacher then independently implements strategies to achieve the objectives and later receives corrective feedback from the mentor.

Emotional Support

Emotional support is among the forms of support most highly valued by new special education teachers. Emotional support includes providing reinforcement in a difficult situation, sharing similar experiences, and listening. Mentors can supply emotional support through:

  • Positive affirmations (e.g., “What a great idea for dealing with that problem.”)
  • Active listening (e.g., maintaining eye contact, nodding, summarizing what the speaker has said)
  • Focusing on challenges that lead to actionable situations (e.g., finding a solution to a frustration)

Although emotional support is critical for new special education teachers, some situations are not appropriate for mentors to tackle. For example, new special education teachers with personal difficulties, financial concerns, or legal problems should look to trained professionals for assistance in those areas.

School Culture and Procedural Support

New special education teachers often feel isolated at their schools and overwhelmed by procedural demands. Mentors play a crucial role in helping new special education teachers to navigate their school culture and to feel confident in performing procedural requirements. Mentors can help new special education teachers:

  • adult meetingConnect with colleagues: Mentors can help new special education teachers to connect to key faculty and can encourage continuing collegial relationships.
  • Communicate with parents: New special education teachers might need assistance in effective written communication strategies, timelines for communication, and the best way to run meetings.
  • Understand policies and procedures: Mentors can encourage new special education teachers to attend all district professional development on policies and procedures and can answer questions about their roles and responsibilities.
  • Master IEPs: Mentors can offer assistance in time management skills, co-planning and drafting special education teachers’ paperwork, and identifying partnerships for assistance.
  • Link to Resources: Not all new special education teachers have the curriculum and resources they need to plan instruction. Mentors can help by providing connections to available resources.


Jamal has no experience writing IEPs. How could a mentor support him throughout the year while he learns this skill? Be sure to address both the content and the approach(es) the mentor might use.

The development of IEPs is often challenging for new teachers. Mentoring that covered these skills is a form of procedural support. Because the subject is new to Jamal, the mentor will probably engage in a good deal of direct mentoring, with some reflective mentoring used when appropriate. Other supports the mentor should consider include:

  • Providing written guidelines for writing IEPs (e.g., published or local guidelines) and reviewing them in detail with Jamal
  • Showing Jamal a model IEP, pointing out those things that make it a good example
  • Asking Jamal to observe an IEP meeting, providing Jamal with a list of guidelines for leading an IEP meeting, and discussing the extent to which he observed these things after the meeting
  • Co-leading Jamal’s first IEP meeting with him, providing support as needed
  • Reviewing the first IEP Jamal develops and providing feedback

Approaches to Mentoring

Because new teachers have unique needs and different levels of knowledge and experience, mentors need to be flexible in their approach. Mentors can use the following three approaches to facilitate high-quality mentoring sessions. Click on each label below to learn more.

Definition: An approach in which the mentor typically asks a series of questions to provoke thoughtful reflection by the new teacher to improve classroom practice; also called cognitive coaching.

Recommended for: New teachers who have a strong command of basic teaching skills and are thoughtful about their classroom practice. It is not recommended for teachers who have limited knowledge and skills entering the classroom.

Examples of reflective mentoring questions:

  • How will you know whether the students met your goals for the lesson?
  • If you were to repeat the lesson, what would you do differently and why?
  • Let’s take a look at your student data. What does it tell you?

Click the video below to view a demonstration of reflective mentoring (time: 1:00).

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Definition: An approach in which the mentor takes on the role of problem-solver by providing specific feedback to the new teacher on how he or she can improve classroom practice. The mentor provides new special education teachers with explicit answers and advice to questions or problems they are experiencing.

Recommended for: New teachers who are struggling with solving problems on their own. Ideally, the mentor should work towards establishing a more reflective or collaborative relationship with the new teacher over time. Mentors using this approach should have strong skills and experiences that match their new special education teacher’s classroom placements.

Examples of direct mentoring language:

  • If that happened to me, I would…
  • I tried this strategy in my classroom and it worked…
  • You can look for help with this by going to…

Click the video below to view a demonstration of direct mentoring (time: 2:01).

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Definition: An approach that combines reflective and direct mentoring. The mentor and mentee discuss the new teacher’s experiences as colleagues. The approach is often referred to as instructional coaching. Collaborative mentoring generally requires a high level of comfort in the mentor and mentee relationship.

Recommended for: New special education teachers who have moved past survival mode and have begun to reflect on their teaching practices.

Examples of collaborative mentoring language:

  • When that happened to me, I handled it this way…What would you do?
  • Let’s think about how we can change instruction to impact Frankie’s writing.
  • Okay, so tell me what strategies you used in that situation. I will jump in with my ideas, too!

Click the video below to view a demonstration of collaborative mentoring (time: 1:42).

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Kristen Zimmerman, a full-time mentor, describes how she moves between a direct mentoring approach (i.e., expert or consultant model) and a reflective mentoring approach (i.e., coaching) (time: 2:22).

Kristin Zimmerman
Kristin Zimmerman
Full-Time Mentor
Special School District of St. Louis County
St. Louis, Missouri


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Margaret Kamman summarizes key aspects of responsive mentoring (time: 2:21).

Margaret Kamman
Margaret Kamman, PhD
Project Coordinator, CEEDAR and NCIPP
University of Florida

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