Volume: 9, Issue: 2


Unintended Influence: How the Teacher Candidate’s Beliefs about Student Achievement are Impacted by the Mentor’s Language and Context
Хейни-Смит, Джилл Р. [about]

KEYWORDS: mentor, mentored learning to teach, language, labeling, culturally responsive teaching, situated learning

ABSTRACT: Mentor teachers must model and impart foundational knowledge and skills to their teacher candidates (TCs) throughout the course of internship.  The mentor also unknowingly influences the development of the TC through the classroom discourse, which includes the way she talks and listens to students and via systems at work in a classroom, such as the common practice of labeling. This paper explores empirical evidence and assumptions about the situated context of student teaching, in order to examine how mentor teachers knowingly and unknowingly influence the candidate’s developing beliefs about the K-12 students’ ability to achieve. Recommendations for how teacher education programs can better prepare their mentors regarding classroom language and labeling systems will be presented and discussed.


Regardless of the program, the grade level and content, and even the school itself, the student teaching practicum is inarguably influential in the development of the novice teacher.  Teacher Candidates (TCs) project their need for synthesis of theory and practice onto their mentor, dreaming of a match in personality, pedagogical approach and communication style.   The mentor signs up for a variety of reasons, including the desire to “pay it forward” and, according to an unpublished ongoing study, for their own professional development (Heiney-Smith & Denton, 2015). The mentor and candidate may inhabit different contexts that shape their identities and influence their beliefs about students, yet during student teaching, the TC must assume the mentor’s.  Habitual norms such as the way a mentor speaks and listens to students, the labels used both officially, such as for instructional blocking, and unofficially, such as during the post-instruction casual reflection, can be especially crucial when concerning the candidate’s ability to build a culturally responsive learning environment that is authentic to his or her own lived experience. Teacher candidates learn to privilege the progressive ideals of educators such as John Dewey (1859-1952) or Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), and are even placed in contemporary classrooms that feature child-centered learning environments and democratically derived classroom norms. Their learning would be further emboldened by studying other famous European educators including Pestalozzi (1746-1827), Korczak (1878-1942) and Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970). However, these holistic educators’ deep commitments of student-directed inquiry, creativity, and combined psycho-social learning are curiously absent from mentoring programs in teacher education, which demand that students meet competency and outcomes-based standards devised by the states in which they seek certification.  Requirements aside, mentor teachers are arguably the most critical factor in influencing the developing belief systems of the TC. 


While the term “mentor” generally carries a positive association, it is defined differently in the literature (Dawson, 2014).  For example, Daloz (1999) suggests Mentors are guides.  They lead us along the journey of our lives.  We trust them because they have been there before.  They embody our hopes, cast light on the way ahead, interpret arcane signs, warn us of lurking dangers, and point out unexpected delights along the way…(p. 106).

Bozeman and Feeney (2007) define mentoring as

A process for the informal transmission of knowledge, social capital, and the psychosocial support perceived by the recipient as relevant to work, career, or professional development; mentoring entails informal communication, usually face to face and during a sustained period of time, between a person who is perceived to have greater relevant knowledge, wisdom, or experience (the mentor) and a person who is perceived to have less (the protégé, p. 722).

Both of these definitions speak to the explicit, observable knowledge and behaviors that a mentor hopes to transfer.  In coining the phrase “mentored learning to teach,” Feiman-Nemser (2012) proposes a more nuanced approach that encompasses the implicit behaviors and assumptions about learning to teach, such as the way that a TC’s learning is “situated” in the context of teaching and in a relationship with a “knowledgable other” (p. 237).  Feiman-Nemser draws upon the work of Lave and Wenger (1991) to argue that while the novice moves towards full participation in a community of practice as the internship progresses, this process of enculturation assumes shared standards, norms and language. 

Language in the Classroom. Language in the classroom refers to both the explicit and implicit understandings present in the discourse of the classroom.  It includes the oral and written language that the teachers use to instruct and respond to students, and the implied meaning within these symbols (Delpit, 2002). While Delpit refers to classroom discourse in this structure of one teacher and a classroom of students, our model must extend to the teacher candidate’s mentored learning internship, which adds yet another layer of complexity.

Culturally Responsive Learning Environment. While the concept of “culture” in the classroom is an exceedingly popular contemporary topic, the body of literature owes much to German educator Adolf Diesterweg (1790-1866), who developed his pedagogical principle based on the belief that students will engage best with material that is culturally familiar to them (Gunther, 1993).  Geneva Gay (2010) defines culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them” (p. 31).  Throughout this seminal book on the subject, Gay points to the teacher’s own need for an examination of the self and the cultural norms, biases and “positions” or “positionality” that one holds as a result of race and ethnicity.  This will be further explored in the context of situated learning theory and the TC’s double context: her internship and her own positionality according to Gay’s definition.

Situated Learning Theory. Lave and Wenger (1991) developed situated learning theory to explore knowledge acquisition, claiming that learners acquire knowledge and skills gradually through participation in social interaction, or communities of practice.  Novices learn by observing experts and through everyday activities, therefore learning to speak, act and improvise according to the norms of the community.  Lave and Wenger say that in contrast to theories of learning as internalization, learning is instead an evolving and continuously renewed set of relations.  For the purposes of this paper, a key application of situated learning theory relies upon the assumption that situated learning can be unintentional rather than deliberate.

Development of the Student Teacher-Empirical Findings

An analysis of the research on how teachers learn and develop along with possible implications for a mentored internship will shed light on the thesis that mentors may unknowingly pass along their implicit belief systems in an effort to provide their candidates with these schemas they believe are necessary for TCs to develop in order to look like a good teacher.

In comparing various theories of learning applied to adults, Knowles (1973) notes many assumptions implicit in current models of education, including, “presentation equals learning,” “the aim of education is to accumulate brick upon brick of factual knowledge” and “the truth is known” (p. 111).  While this research is certainly not contemporary, unfortunately many mentors still hold these beliefs about their job as a mentor (Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005), maintaining the belief that candidates should simply mimic the language, pedagogical skills and strategies that the mentor employs.  Some mentors have the ability and desire to help their students actually build their own thinking around what it means to be a good teacher.  Certainly, much can be learned from the work of Sukhomlinsky, who mentored his new teachers through observation and analysis and collaborative exploration of the individual teacher’s skills and strengths (Cockerill, 2011). A similar “mentored learning to teach” approach would help teachers become adaptive experts, which Hammerness, Darling-Hammond and Bransford (2005) argue should be the goal of teacher education (p. 359).

And yet, research does suggest that TCs must develop their own foundational schemas in order to successfully learn to adapt and reduce variability in implementation and outcomes. Adaptivity requires the development of automatized schemas and routines that prevent novice teachers from being overwhelmed by providing background efficiency (Hammerness, Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005).  Both the TC and the mentor are motivated to help reduce the overwhelming nature of internship, as this creates conflict, emotionalism and impact upon the students.  Developing discrete schemas for TC learning and a perceived healthy community of practice may indeed support the candidate and make the mentor feel successful, but it may also overlook the deeper contextual differences that impact the authentic development of the TC’s practice.

Study Findings, and Situated Learning Theory Further Explored. Canadian researchers Reynolds and Smaller (1996) conducted a study in the 1990s on the influence of workplace structures on teacher identity.  They surveyed over 1000 students during their teacher education program, a subgroup of 300 into their first year of teaching and final sample of sixty-three teachers one year and three years after graduation.  In analyzing the data, Reynolds and Smaller concluded that teachers assume a sort of “script” for their identity that is influenced by the poststructural notion of subjectification of the self.   Reynolds notes, “the recognition of subjects and cultural scripts reveals how each of us, in attempting to construct our “selves” does so in ways which are gendered, classed, raced, ethnicized, and so on, by elements of a culture which has many elements which must be questioned” (p. 73).  In order to “survive induction” (p. 75), the study participants revealed an inability to push against the methods, strategies and scripts that were prescribed to them during their practicums.  Three years post-graduation, Reynolds and Smaller found that teachers were “shocked by the diversity of the actual landscapes in schools, and they were dismayed by the extent to which those landscapes worked against their being able to perform prescribed teacher scripts as well as they had during rehearsals” (p. 75).  Further, Reynolds notes that many of them began to question previously held beliefs about themselves and about their students, including a dominance of discourse that prescribes identity.

These findings are consistent with Gay’s (2010) argument that the decisions made by educators about their students’ potential and realized achievement are dependent on the communication abilities of both students and teacher.  This is especially true for students of color.   According to Gay, “If students are not very proficient in school communication, and teachers do not understand or accept their cultural communication styles, then their academic performance may be misdiagnosed or trapped in communicative mismatches” (p.77). Further, the common school practice of labeling students into achievement groups with language such as “high performing” “low performing” and even the mentor’s anecdotal, casual conversation about students must impact what TCs believe students will be able to achieve.  Hattie (2012) reports a 0.61 effect size of not labeling students and argues that while students must certainly be involved in the learning equation, the teacher’s mindset has the greatest impact and is even morally critical. “[This is] about teachers believing that achievement is changeable or enhanceable and is never immutable or fixed” (p. 184). This certainly suggests a level of movement and action within the mind of the teacher, but is possibly limited when applied to the teacher candidate.  A mentor’s entire language and labeling system, for example how she labels and structures her reading groups, will likely not be overturned during the candidate’s solo teaching time.   This requires further exploration within the complexities of context.

Triple Context: The Classroom, The Mentor’s and the TC’s.

As previously discussed, Feiman-Nemser’s (2012) positive hopes for mentored learning to teach depend upon the application of situated learning theory onto the student teaching internship as an active learning environmentfor the candidate. Feiman-Nemser notes that theorists from this tradition reject a passive view of the learning process, instead highlighting the talk that surrounds learning activities in a communal and relational context (p. 240). This application is limited in scope when considered along with the multiple contexts at play, and the multiple meanings of “talk” itself.  Imagine that the teacher candidate has her own contextual understanding of the language and culture of some of her students (as defined by Gay, (2010) and Delpit, (2002)), and that these understandings may differ from the mentor’s.  This would suggest a positive factor in the TC’s ability to adopt culturally responsive teaching practices.  Yet, as the research by Darling-Hammond and Bransford (2005) and Reynolds and Smaller (1996) reveals, the mentor’s own context, beliefs about student achievement and even language and labeling systems will likely supersede the TC’s during internship.

Can Candidates Learn to Resist?

Gonsalves (2008) explores the TC’s possibilities and limitations in the effort to develop a culturally responsive pedagogy during internship. Gonsalves examines the cognitive dissonance experienced by candidates and the lack of ability to enact “transformative resistance” within this brief and complex time period of learning.  He proposes that preservice teachers have a need to defend their sense of self and dominant values, even at a great cost of their personal teacher identity development. Gonsalves certainly does not argue that a mentor teacher is ultimately responsible for the TC’s entire experience, or the maintenance of this “self.”  His model, shown in Table 1, of social and individual consciousness, provides a lens for considering why the candidate cannot overcome the environmental and ideological constraints within the internship context.

Table 1. Shared levels of social and individual consciousness (Gonsalves, 2002)

Social Individual
conscious awareness and reaction to ideas
preconscious emerging awareness of unconscious striving
dysconscious uncritical habit of mind and behavior
unconscious repressed fantasies/fears/desires/knowledge

As Gonsalves argues, both the mentor and the candidate are motivated to maintain the allegiance to current ideology, in order for the candidate to survive the demands of internship (p. 15).  This happens on multiple levels of consciousness, but the candidate may rarely move beyond dysconscious behaviors.  Further, the brief time period of internship does not allow either the mentor or the candidate sufficient space to explore these deeply embedded belief systems.  “Sudden exposure to challenging views may create confusion regarding the preservice teacher’s self-concept and can hinder progress toward comprehending the general ideal of tolerance that multicultural education hopes to fulfill” (p. 6). This provides a bleak counter to the claim by Hammerness, Darling-Hammond and Bransford (2005) that new teachers can somehow achieve control of their own learning if they simply apply metacognition as a tool for analysis to help them learn to adapt and to “understand and handle the complexities of life in the classroom” (p. 366).


While a TC’s ability to develop truly transformative culturally responsive behaviors and practices during internship appears to be limited, there is no question that supporting TCs in becoming adaptive experts must extend beyond pedagogical skills and strategies.  Mentor teachers need support from teacher education programs to dig deeper into their own belief systems about students and to examine their own biases and assumptions that their candidates will benefit from mimicry and scripting. To do this, mentors must be given opportunities to interrogate the practices they may have in place and also to be willing to evaluate the discourse used in the classroom.  They must be given opportunities to reflect upon the labeling and implicit biases that may be communicated to their candidate, therefore unknowingly impacting their own ability to develop equitable and culturally responsive practices.

Finally, just as teachers strive to build a child-centered learning environment for their K-12 students, mentors must do the same for their TCs. For centuries, educators such as Switzerland’s Pestalozzi (1746-1827), Poland’s Korczak (1878-1942) and Ukriane’s Sukhomlinsky (1918-1970) sought to develop models of holistic education that would address the spiritual, physical and mental needs of the learner. Sukhomlinsky believed that students’ ability to show empathy, compassion and kindness was central to the development of the individual and to the future of society (Cockerill, 2011). This belief must be transferred to a model of professional development for teacher mentors so that TC development is equally humane.


In concluding comments on some of her case studies involving mentors, Feiman-Nemser (2012) argues that mentored learning to teach should be educative for all participants.  She maintains that a shared vision of good teaching and a theory of learning to teach are as critical as a repertoire of mentoring moves.  Further, an awareness of sociocultural perspectives demands metacognition around labeling and language in the classroom, which may implicitly influence the candidate’s developing beliefs about students.

Delpit (2002) says that school is a complex place of anxiety for most students. If mentors believe that they can grow and change in their own practice through the work of mentoring, there may be hope yet that we can work together to build a new vision of teacher education that is truly educative in all areas, and for all participants. 


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