What is the Meaning and Purpose of Mentoring?

Lesley K. Petersen, February, 2007

There appears to be no singular definition of mentoring in the literature but rather a concept open to interpretation by whoever chooses to instigate or engage in it. There are a variety of descriptions to explain the purpose of mentoring for teachers, including induction, a support mechanism, supervision, staff retention, professional development. Kanuka (2005) offers another view, believing that mentoring can help to develop more collegial and compassionate departments and institutions.

Feiman-Nemser (1996) asks, “is mentoring a support function or a judge of the new teacher’s performance for the purpose of employment or certification?” If mentoring is defined in this way, as a tool for assessment of performance, it certainly takes on a meaning quite apart from the concept of ‘support’ and ‘guidance’. With such a variation of themes, it is important for an organisation to be clear in defining the purpose and place of mentoring before establishing any kind of mentoring process or programme offered to teachers.

The following examples suggest a range of models or approaches that could describe mentoring and its purpose, for different educational contexts. These models have been implemented in an organisation, however the ‘ideal’ model is still in development.

Buddy System

When the new teacher commences their employment, a colleague from within the same department or faculty is assigned as their buddy, with the responsibility to orientate the new teacher to the organisational culture. This may include familiarity with the campus, the department they are going to be working in, a selection of key institutional policies and procedures that will affect the new teacher early on in their employment.

Experienced Teacher-Novice

Within the department or faculty, an experienced teacher is automatically assigned as mentor for the new teacher. There is a faculty expectation and embedded process that all experienced teachers will assume a mentor role as the need arises. (Experienced could mean the person having taught for a minimum of three years or more).

The experienced teacher’s role could focus on general organisational orientation, but perhaps is more effectively utilised by assisting with the actual teaching practice aspects. This could include observation of teaching and giving feedback, creating opportunities for the new teacher to observe other experienced teachers, working through the administrative tasks directly associated with the teaching job.

Campus Mentors

These mentors are experienced teachers spread across the institution who can be accessed by any teacher; the mentee does not have to be from the same department or faculty as the campus mentor. The campus mentors can be available for anything relating to teaching practice and ongoing professional development.

In this scenario, the mentee may be a new teacher or an experienced teacher. There is very little in the literature that describes mentoring as a mechanism for the experienced teacher. However, with an inherent and explicit expectation from the institute that teachers engage in ongoing professional development, the experienced teacher may very well need some advice, assistance and guidance in this area. Also, we cannot assume that an experienced teacher has learned all there is to know about teaching and learning or about their own teaching.

Group Mentoring

Now sometimes referred to as “Communities of Practice” (Wenger, 1998), group mentoring can encourage collaboration and co-learning across the institution in a structured or less-structured environment. Balatti (2001) believes that the group mentoring model has more potential for fostering workplace learning than the more traditional one-to-one mentoring relationship.

The mentor-mentees may be inter-departmental or may come from across the campus. If the purpose of the mentoring is of a more generic nature either scenario is feasible. If the group sustains itself and becomes more cohesive, the group’s purpose could shift to focus more on specific issues or problems the mentees would like to address.

Centralised Mentor Resource

This resource is often based within staff development or human resource. The role is specifically to provide mentoring for teaching staff, more commonly for new teachers. Because of other institutional induction processes, the centralised mentor may focus solely on supporting teaching and learning practices rather than general orientation aspects.

An interesting off-shoot of this resource could be the new teacher starting to put together a teaching portfolio, eventually to be used for advancement within the institution.

The examples above reflect the thinkings of Gibson (2004) who talks of a ‘continuum of mentoring’, signifying that varying types of mentoring relationships can exist in the one institution. These models do not sit in isolation as ‘another tool for supporting staff’. By implementing a model, mentoring immediately becomes embedded in the culture of the institution. Whichever mentoring approach is chosen, its purpose must be clarified and agreed to before its place in the institution can be valid and accepted.


Balatti, J.M. (2001). Mentoring dyad to learning community: A narrative case study

   of the evolution of a workplace peer learning support system. Educational

   Research Thesis, James Cook University.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (1996). Teacher mentoring: a critical review. ERIC Digest.

Retrieved September 8, 2005, from  HYPERLINK "http://www.ericdigests.org/1997-1/mentoring.html" http://www.ericdigests.org/1997-1/mentoring.html.

Gibson, S.K. (2004). Being mentored: The experience of women faculty. Journal of

   Career Development, 30(3), 173-188.

Kanuka, H. (2005). Does mentoring new faculty make a difference? Retrieved August

   15, 2005, from  HYPERLINK "http://commons.ucalgary.ca" http://commons.ucalgary.ca.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. New York: Cambridge University Press