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How Effective Mentors Strengthen Teacher Recruitment and Retention

When Rudy Ruiz worked as a teacher years ago, he struggled to find high-quality mentorship that would help him navigate his school and career.

Data show that most of today’s teachers still don’t get that top-notch mentorship, which is a troubling reality as enrollment in teacher-preparation programs falls, retaining teachers remains a challenge, and teachers of color remain underrepresented in the workforce, Ruiz said.

It’s why in 2021 he founded Edifying Teachers, a national network of educators that partner with school districts to offer mentorship that can support and retain teachers of color.

When it comes to recruiting and retaining more teachers, specifically teachers of color, Ruiz and other experts see mentorship programs as a valuable tool.

Educators agree. In an October survey from the EdWeek Research Center, principals and district leaders were asked what changes they made to teacher compensation and/or benefits in the past two years to address staffing challenges. While increased pay was the top choice, the second most popular answer, with 22 percent of respondents, was introducing or improving mentorship programs.

In a virtual discussion at Education Week’s K-12 Essentials Forum on March 14, Ruiz explained how mentorship can help address the national leaky pipeline of teachers of color and the role school and district leaders play in making mentorship a success.

Teachers, like students, need a sense of belonging

The Edifying Teachers network led by Ruiz offers community and one-on-one sessions for educators nationwide. A driving idea behind the one-on-one sessions between mentors and mentees is ensuring teachers gain a sense of belonging.

“When you think about the notion of bringing in the first and potentially only Latino teacher or Black teacher [into your school], there’s kind of that nervousness that folks have around what would that look like? How can we support them properly?” Ruiz said.

“What we’re finding is that in those situations, the fact that we’re able to provide a mentor that [teachers] can identify with, even if they’re outside the building, actually still enhances a sense of belonging in the field, which still has the impact that we want around retention.”

In the spirit of helping teachers gain this sense of belonging, Edifying Teachers mentees choose mentors who share their cultural backgrounds or experiences. For instance, an immigrant Latino teacher has some aspects of identity that might not be shared with a Latino teacher born and raised in the United States, Ruiz said.

What quality mentorship entails

When determining what schools should look for in high-quality mentorship programs, Ruiz recommends programming that addresses challenges teachers face in navigating schools and life overall.

He calls this “culturally sustaining mentorship.”

“We allow a space to see teachers in their full humanity,” Ruiz said. “Our mantra is rehumanizing education through the power of connection.”

In quality mentor partnerships, mentees let mentors know what kind of support they need, and the mentor works to get them advice for that.

For instance, some teachers of color might ask for leadership opportunities that don’t take them away from their students too much. Others might seek out specific advice on how to use adaptive technology in class.

But a key component to mentorship success has also been getting school district leaders involved with finding solutions to some of the challenges teachers face, Ruiz added.

The role school/district leadership plays in retention

Though the communication between mentors and mentees in the Edifying Teachers network is a safe space, Ruiz said comments are aggregated into findings shared with school leaders partnering with the network to point them toward what they can do to help teachers.

Sometimes, it could be that teachers of color face an invisible tax of extra work in family engagement with families of color. School leaders can remove that additional work by building up all teachers’ capacities to connect with those families, Ruiz said.

In general, school leaders need to be aware of gaps in understanding how things work in school buildings. For instance, EdWeek Research Center survey data from October 2023 for the State of Teaching 2024 project found that while 84 percent of school and district leaders said professional development offered to teachers in the last year was relevant to their job, only 52 percent of teachers agreed.

“That’s a huge gap,” Ruiz said. “We feel like there’s been a lot of talk around personalization, differentiation for students, not enough for teachers, and we feel like mentorship is a really valuable approach to that.”

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