Tammi Davis sits in a chair posing for a picture

Mentorship: Will it solve the teacher shortage?

During the course of her research, Dr. Tammi Davis has found there is a lack of guidance and support for teachers in the early years of their careers.

“The first few years are a crucial time in the development of novice teachers,” said Davis, associate professor of childhood education and family studies at Missouri State University. “They need mentorship and support to help guide them so they’re not navigating it all alone.” 

Evidence shows formal mentorship provides teachers with the support they need for their professional development. But there is little research on the implementation and effectiveness of formal mentorship programs, and it is not standardized across the U.S. 

“Many states that require teachers to have mentors don’t have high quality mentorship programs,” Davis said. “Some states don’t require mentors at all.”  

As an educator with over 20 years of experience — including 10 years as a teacher educator — Davis has prioritized her research to study the experiences of new teachers. She’s worked with a team of colleagues on a long-term, multi-institution research collaboration.  

She notes that mentorship can ease the transition between teacher preparation programs and teaching positions. A focus on this transition period could help raise job satisfaction and reduce teacher shortages. The goal of Davis’ research is to improve mentorship programs to help educators. 

“I want to help teachers, so they feel supported in the profession they love.

Dr. Tammi Davis points to an example system on a whiteboard while her students raise their hands to answer a question.

Learning from experiences 

In 2020, Davis and her team set out to learn what does and doesn’t work about current mentorship programs.  

She collaborated with Dr. Jackie Sydnor, a faculty member at Ball State University, and Dr. Sharon Daley, a faculty member at Indiana University, to learn from the experiences of 15 elementary teachers from various schools in their first few years of teaching. 

“There are a lot of mentoring tools out there. Through our research, we’re trying to find out how we can use those tools better and learn what new tools we need to provide,” Davis said. 

In phase one of their research, the team, with the assistance of Ball State graduate assistant, Margaret Ascolani, conducted four one-on-one interviews with each teacher.

The interviews took place in summer and fall 2020 and spring and summer 2021. Due to the pandemic, each teacher had switched from teaching in person, to virtual instruction.

The interviews included questions, such as:  

  • Reflecting back on your first year of teaching, what was your greatest success and challenge?
  • Was your support network lacking in any way? If so, how?
  • Which relationships were the most beneficial?

Tammi Davis reads a book to a class of children.

Mentorship should be prioritized and systematic 

Davis and her research partners found that overall, mentors deprioritized mentorship and mentorship lacked consistency. The pandemic contributed greatly to the lack of mentoring. 

“One theme we found was that the schools’ priorities seemed to shift from supporting educators to keeping the school afloat in the midst of the pandemic,” Davis said. 

Several teachers had to seek their own support because their mentor was not available or was not providing guidance regularly. But not all teachers had formal mentors, and those who wanted a mentor did not know where to find one.  

“So many teachers felt like they were on their own.” 

Mentors should be available to answer questions and provide advice when teachers need it,” Davis said.

As the teachers moved into their second year of teaching, more than half moved grade levels or districts. The primary reason teachers reported for these shifts was the lack of support during their first year of teaching.   

Like so many other issues in education, attention to mentorship suffered during the pandemic. The research team concluded that successful mentorship needs prioritizing and a systematic approach for teachers to have consistent support. After the pandemic, mentorships are even more critical with the resulting changes in protocols and technologies.    

“Mentors may benefit from some form of training so they can learn how to be effective in their mentoring,” Davis said. “Time and funding may be necessary to support mentors so they can support teachers.” 

This research is part of a longitudinal study following teachers through the first few years of teaching. The researchers’ goal is to find out how to best support novice teachers overall. 

Dr. Davis clasps a clipboard in one hand while leading a class of soon-to-be teachers.

Dedicated to helping teachers 

Early findings from this study were published in 2023 in Child Studies. This effort is only a fraction of the ways Davis helps new and future educators. 

“Dr. Davis consistently seeks to address issues important to pre-service and in-service teachers. She centers teachers’ needs in all her work,” Daley said.   

Davis puts her research into action by participating in projects such as MSU CODERS and facilitating School Scenario discussions in her courses.  

CODERS, or Computer Science Opportunities, Development and Education in Rural Schools, is a five-year grant project that provides computer science opportunities, development and education to rural schools. Through CODERS, a team of MSU faculty supports rural teachers to level the playing field with materials, tools, support and professional development to engage students in computer science, STEM and 21stcentury literacy. 

Her role as co-project coordinator complements her mentoring research. It is another way to help prepare educators so they can thrive in the classroom.

For her education students who are not yet fully in the field, Davis hosts School Scenario discussions.

“This involves me sharing stories of novice teachers and the obstacles they face as early career teachers and facilitating conversations of ways to best navigate these obstacles,” Davis said. 

She believes having discussions like these before the students’ first year of teaching is vital.

“Dr. Davis is fiercely committed to the professional development and well-being of aspiring and novice teachers,” Sydnor said. “Her research and teaching provide tangible evidence of this on a daily basis.”

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