Mentoring Preservice Teachers in Cross Cultural Classes

Reprinted with permission of the Journal of Interdisciplinary Education, V. 2 – # 2 – October 1998

The Needs

National reports on education have questioned both the structure and content of American schooling. What these reports reflect is society locked in a struggle with issues of self- interest. If American is to combat the inner decay that can undermine the potential for cultural and social harmony and prosperity, then those who educate the young and influence future generations will be engaged on the front lines of this struggle. There is no acceptable alternative.

Teachers entering our schools must be equipped for the demands that await them. To a great extent this duty falls on the colleges and universities where the preparation of preservice teachers takes place. Programs of teacher education must use the training experience to link knowledge to cultural understanding and to connect education theory to instructional practice.

“When significant changes and shifts in curriculum and instruction occur in teacher preparation, the potential exists for particular and long-term impact on society. Teacher candidates, especially those in undergraduate teacher preparation programs, acquire subject matter knowledge and also, unlike those in other professions, learn about the structure of the disciplines and approaches to their professional work. What curriculum and what instruction they experience influence what and how they will teach” (Francis-Okongwu and Pflaum as cited in Pignatelli and Pflaum, 1992, p.112).

The Challenges for Students of Teaching

Students in teacher education programs come to their professional programs with a wide range of background experiences. What these preservice teachers seem to have in common is an interest in children and a strong desire to engage in work activity that will “make a difference.” Seldom motivated by financial reward or a desire for personal recognition, they enter their teacher education studies seeking fulfillment through the teaching
experience. This motivation is predictably idealistic in nature if not naive. What happens to these preservice teachers during their professional sequence of course work and field experiences is critical in the shaping of their attitudes and choices.

Kozol (1991) has helped us picture vividly the contrasting learning environments that exist across our country. Teaching does not occur on a level playing field. Some schools have abundant resources while others nearby are working with virtually no support materials or services. While our nation is dealing with political and societal issues, teacher education can continue to cultivate creative teaching strategies and the spirit of determination that all children must be aided in receiving an education that will provide choices and opportunities.

It is understood that change takes time, but that is a dismal reality as class after class of first graders moves on and out of schooling without giving significant numbers of young adults the skills that they need for life.

Schools that need restructuring can be found in many places, but it is in the urban areas that we most frequently find the school in crises. Here is the school with a large number of minority children. Some are children of the street and many live in poverty. In a setting that challenges the experienced educational community, how can we help the preservice teacher feel comfortable and prepared to teach here?

Teacher education acknowledges the need, but the reality is that this concern is just one need among many.:

  • Teacher candidates must meet an array of competencies.
  • They must fulfill general degree requirements as they expand their own knowledge base.
  • We expect them to demonstrate proficiency in the planning and implementation of model lessons rich in motivation strategies and classroom management skills.
  • They are clarifying their personal philosophy and beliefs about teaching and learning.
  • Field work requirements also must be met.

All of this happens while they sort out their personal growth and enjoy the social activities that are part of the college experience.

The Response of Teacher Education Programs

Teacher education programs today provide expanded opportunities to enter the classroom where observation and participation bring meaning to the college course work. This is the intersection of theory and reality, and the catalyst for the growth or retreat of the preservice teacher.

How the preservice teacher is introduced to the urban classroom is a watershed experience. This initial contact with a majority of students who differ in race and background can be extremely unsettling. While the potential exists for this to be the foundation for change and growth, this initial contact frequently has other unfortunate consequences. Classroom teachers from the urban schools describe the college students in terms such as fearful and perplexed. The preservice teachers are present in the urban classroom because this is a program requirement, not because they view this school or these children as a part of their future.

Having fulfilled their requirements many of the college students exit as quickly as possible with no plan to ever return. The one thing that was accomplished on this visit was the confirming of some conventional stereotypes of minority children and urban schools that the preservice teacher had as the beginning of the experience.

The need to restructure teacher education and to expand the field-based requirements for preservice teachers has been promoted by studies such as the Holmes Group (1986). Work based in classrooms with children and mentoring teachers helps make the connections and cultivate the habit of reflection. Across the country, schools of education are defining how the character of individual programs will reflect the local, state, and national standards, meet community and constituent expectations, and fulfill the mission and goals at the institutional level.

This Research Project

This research on mentoring for the cultural awareness of preservice teachers was conducted in conjunction with the education program of Wisconsin Lutheran College, a small private four-year liberal arts college. It is located at the western boundary of the city of Milwaukee and the eastern edge of one of the suburban communities – the village of Wauwatosa.

In 1993 the methods course at Wisconsin Lutheran College for teaching elementary and middle school social studies was moved off campus and into Whitman Middle School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. The preservice teachers met with the seventh grade teachers and participated as mentors in an integrated program of study. Even as the preservice teachers were being mentored by teachers from Whitman, each preservice teacher was able to make the application by holding individual or small group mentoring sessions with a small group of seventh grade students.

During class sessions held at the middle school the preservice teachers were able to meet with Susan Bechard, the associate principal, and Joan Boyce, the reading specialist. They helped establish the fundamentals of curriculum design and integrated instruction strategies appropriate for social studies. With the assistance of a team of seventh grade teachers they also explored the stages of development, styles of teaching and learning,
and strategies for mentoring.

Whitman Middle School has a culturally diverse student population, which introduced the cross-cultural dimension. The preservice teachers were able to ask their questions and benefit from guided exploration. Meeting for the first time with a minority student provided the preservice teachers the opportunity to know them as individuals and to break down some of the fears and barriers that ignorance had cultivated. The seventh grade students came to the mentoring sessions with all of the social and emotional needs
characteristic of the age group. In an inclusive environment there were students who were challenged by the assignments to write letters for the required service project and to keep a personal journal of their project.

Others came with an abundance of ability accompanied by low motivation or high distractibility. In this setting, the content of the text materials took on new meaning for the preservice teachers.

The preservice teachers listened with interest as the veteran classroom teachers gave suggestions for working with individual students. The teachers provided guide sheets and student feedback forms for each session. The preservice teachers were participating in a model experience. They were not able to passively observe from the theoretical sanctuary of a college classroom. They were being drawn into the discussion and they were participating in the success, joys, and frustrations found in the teaching experience.

A term introduced by Fieman-Nemser and Rosaen (1994) to describe face-to-face, close-to-the-classroom work is “guided practice.” They described guided practice as education intervention. If the preservice teacher is to make the connection between urban schooling and the principle that these children in this setting have the capacity to learn and grow then an intervention must take place. The intervention is initiated when teacher educators connect preservice teachers to cross-cultural classrooms and unite those preservice teachers with urban children and teachers in a extended dialogue about teaching and learning.

The Whitman experience continues as a guided practice activity each year. On an annual basis it brings together a new set of preservice teachers and a new class of seventh graders. The belief emerging from this combination of course and field-work is that the mentoring process will help the preservice teacher set aside fears and prejudice and develop as a reflective practitioner committed to urban teaching. The mentor can support them as they reach out with understanding, dignity, and compassion to a child who does not look or act as they do – to a child who is culturally, racially, socially, or economically different.

Effective Mentoring

An effective mentoring program requires the defining of both purpose and process. Since mentoring can mean a variety of things, the mentoring program must be attached to the desired outcomes.

  • What is it that the preservice teacher should know, be able to do, and value as a result of this experience?
  • How then will these outcomes be acquired?

Observation of developing teachers prompts the belief that it is necessary to provide an orientation and training for both the preservice teachers and the mentors to make sure that the purpose and process has been clarified at the start of the field-experience.

Unless prompted to operate differently, classroom teachers serving as mentors will generally adopt a show and tell approach that is long on efficiency and short on reflection. If one of the intended outcomes of mentoring is the development of reflective practitioners, then the process used by mentor and mentee should be designed to support that goal. Where teachers fail to embrace the opportunity to interact with the preservice teacher they impede potential development and leave the novice feeling isolated.

“I was sitting in the faculty lounge and they were talking as if I wasn’t there. I wanted to say something. I wanted them to acknowledge that I was there. Finally I just walked away.” – From a conversation with a student teacher.

The experience of the mentor may in fact become a barrier to a pattern of open and interactive communication. Assumptions tend to be made concerning the knowledge and experience of the preservice teacher resulting in the use of educational “jargon” that is intimidating to the college student.

Stoddart (1990) observed that “effective mentoring requires experienced teachers to unpack, expand, and simplify their personal knowledge. The art of mentoring involves making explicit what is implicitly known. Such understandings are not typically acquired as individuals teach. Mentoring involves a specific kind of expertise that needs to be viewed as distinct professional knowledge and skill and developed in its own right” (pp.3-4).

A Mentoring Model

The following model has been developed to advance the relationship between mentor and protege and to establish a framework for monitoring the preservice teacher’s induction into the cross-cultural classroom.

Stages and Guiding Questions:

1 – Purpose (Goals)
– What are the desired outcomes for this experience?- What principles of effective teaching apply?
Phase 2 – Orientation
– How will the mentor and preservice teacher reach the outcomes?- What is expected of the mentor and preservice teacher?
Phase 3 – Induction
– What do I need to know about the classroom and students?
Phase 4 – Teaching
– How is effective teaching connected to the actions of the teachers and students in this school or in this classroom?
Phase 5 – Processing
– What happened and what did it mean?- How can the mentor help the preservice teacher make these connections?
Phase 6 – Monitoring
– What additional support or experience is needed to connect theory and practice for this preservice teacher?

We have moved to this proactive model and found that it opens up a shared ownership for developing the knowledge, skills, and values that will help preservice teachers teach successfully in a cross-cultural classroom. The conversation that takes place is an essential part of the process. The classroom teachers and the preservice teachers share the search for understanding. No longer is it just enough to observe and leave. In the induction phase the students from the college and the students in the classroom need to be introduced and engage in conversation. It is from the student that the preservice teacher will receive the experience and insight that will provide the foundation for the reflective phase. Through the mentor, the experience with students is processed for its meaning.

Heath (1986) observed that it is the tendency of teachers not to be reflective about the impact that the climate of the school and the dynamics of teaching have on the educability of our youth. The teachers invited to mentor must be willing to ask those questions. Heath further identified selected principles for developing effective teaching. Here are three that are stressed in the orientation phase. These will guide the mentors relationship with the preservice teacher:

  • Clarify expectations
  • Create a climate of trust
  • Affirm strengths (of the preservice teacher)

Why is this process significant? The preservice teacher who learns from the guided practice experience has taken on an increased level of readiness for teaching that will help meet diversity wherever it is found. The gift of mentoring holds potential that may best be summarized in the words of a grateful recipient:

“I am thankful every day that I get to work with someone who is so positive. She cares about the children and I can tell she cares about me too. She takes times to share ideas and discuss my teaching. She has helped me feel confident. I am becoming a better teacher because I am working with her.”     – A preservice teacher describing her mentor.


Apelman, M. (1986). “Working with teachers: The advisory approach”. In Improving Teaching: 1986 ASCD Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, pp. 115-129.

Feiman-Nemser, S. & Rosaen (ed). (1994). “Guided learning from teaching: A fresh look at a familiar practice”. East Lansing: Michigan State University. National Center for Research on Teacher Learning.

Francis-Okongwu, A. & Pflaum, S. (1992). “Diversity in education: Implications for teacher preparation”. In F. Pignatelli & S. Pflaum. (Ed.), Celebrating Diverse Voices. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press, Inc., (pp.112-132).

Heath, D.H. (1986). “Developing teachers, not just techniques”. Improving Teaching: 1986 ASCD Yearbook. Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, pp. 1-14.

Holmes Group. (1986). Tomorrow’s Teachers. East Lansing: Michigan State University.

Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities. Crown Publishers, Inc.

Pignatelli, F. & Pflaum, S. (1992). Celebrating Diverse Voices. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.

Stoddart, Trish (Ed). (1990). Perspectives on Guided Practice. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University.