"Don't swim alone. Use the buddy system so someone always knows where you are and can get help if needed," warns a standard water safety tip. Educators need buddies, too, because it is dangerous to swim alone in the often deep and treacherous waters of teaching.

As we saw previously, mentoring has its specific place in addressing the needs of teachers who are young and new to the profession. There are other approaches to help educators, regardless of their age or their experience, one of which is a buddy system.

Unlike mentoring programs, which situate an experienced professional in a hierarchical position above the new and inexperienced teacher, the buddy system relies on buddies as equal partners though with roles different from one another.

Thirty years ago, Connecticut established a buddy system for all new teachers after a successful pilot program. Instead of focusing solely on teaching skills and strategies, the ‘senior buddy’ "helps to [obtain] classroom supplies and [arrange] parent conferences."

Of course, the buddies discuss and exchange teaching insights and approaches, but "(m)ainly, the senior buddy stays close and available to the incoming teacher. To this end, the pair is usually located in adjacent classrooms or in the same office and is matched according to grade level or academic subject."

In this type of buddy system, both rookie and veteran teachers benefit. Rookie teachers come with the latest research and perspective into theories and applications, and veteran teachers are acknowledged for their teaching excellence while "renew(ing) their enthusiasm and generat(ing) new insights into their profession."

By 2009, however, the pilot program had become TEAM, the Teacher Education and Mentoring Program, in which rookies and veterans are required to participate in modules covering topics related to instruction, classroom management, lesson and unit planning, learning assessment, and professional practice.

Gone is help with the necessary and often overlooked details, only a few of which are: How and from where do I get more markers? How do I arrange parent or guardian conferences? How do I regulate the heat and A/C in my classroom? Where do I get new light bulbs? Little things do mean a lot and can often create unnecessary irritations that interfere with teacher success.

Another approach to a successful buddy system is the community of practice, a term popularized by Etienne Wenger.

"Today, people in law, medicine, and business rarely work alone—either on television or in real life. Today, people work in teams at all levels of organizations because teams can take on challenges and find new solutions far more effectively than can individuals working alone. Even solo practitioners like psychologists have ongoing clinical supervision and seminars for peer review of cases. Nearly every profession has reinvented itself to create forms of collaborative problem-solving—except education," observes Tony Wagner, an accomplished educator, prominent education reformer, and Harvard’s first Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center.

Communities of practice have three features: domain, community, and practice. Community members (practitioners) who have a "shared domain of interest" meet routinely for focused conversation and projects in order to learn and improve (practice). Unlike clubs or social gatherings, the intent of CoPs is to exchange expertise, support practitioners, and learn in order to improve members’ practice in the domain.

Wagner notes that communities of practice can take a variety of forms. One form, "the critical friends group" — comprised of teachers voluntarily meeting to deliberate — leaves a good deal to be desired, writes Wagner, because there are limits to what teachers examine.

Teachers tend to confine their analysis to weaknesses in student work and strategies teachers can use to encourage student improvement. "For critical friends groups to be more effective, they need to be data-driven," advises Wagner.

A successful buddy system, Wagner asserts, is Stigler and Hiebert’s research-based "lesson study process," one that has had success in some U.S. and Asian schools. Stigler and Hiebert argue that, "Schools must become places where teachers, not just students, learn."

It is not enough, they contend, to spend a few days in professional development workshops "listening to experts." Instead, for effective long-term teacher improvement, education administrators must provide a reliable meeting place for teachers to conduct ongoing lesson studies.

Efficacious teacher development demands that "learning opportunities need to be tied to the curriculum [that teachers] are teaching students." Teachers need to increase the content knowledge of what they will teach while concurrently learning techniques for teaching that content. Moreover, teachers need opportunities to consider students’ learning styles in order to ascertain and apply successful teaching strategies.

"These learning opportunities are most useful when they occur with teachers who share the same learning goals for students and who are willing to open their classroom doors so teaching can become a shared object of study. In this environment, different approaches can be planned together, tested in multiple classrooms, and revised based on their effects on students’ learning," write Stigler and Hiebert.

The Department of Education and Communities in the Australian state of New South Wales defines a "buddy teacher" as "different from that of mentor/coach." In this paradigm, the buddy teacher is not a formal role and its purpose is to nurture "personal and professional well-being and [...] transmit a positive perspective on school culture and teaching. The focus of the buddy teacher’s role is largely friendship and personal support rather than professional practice. Beginning teachers need empathy and perspective along with practical advice on how to reduce stress at what can be a challenging time."

The Dexter Community Schools District has designed the comprehensive, year-long Buddy Teacher Program; the Buddy Teacher "is a helper and not an evaluator [and] serves as a trainer, a positive role model, and an opener of doors."

The Buddy Teacher must have exacting qualifications, and both the protege and the Buddy Teacher have clearly enumerated responsibilities, including having one-on-one regular meetings covering a variety of topics, attending professional development meetings together, writing reflectively, and documenting their activities. Essential to recognizing buddy teachers’ professionalism and expertise is the stipend they receive.

Moreover, school principals have vital roles to play in the program. As Tony Wagner maintains, "School and district leaders have at least as much to learn from one another and from teachers by participating in their own communities of practice. A first step is for leaders to model [...] learning and problem-solving in all their meetings. It is only through such ongoing dialogue that we can create new knowledge about how to continuously improve learning, teaching, and leadership."

Note: For additional information on mentoring (as opposed to CoPs or buddy systems) and for free, self-paced, online professional development, see: https://sde.ok.gov/teacher-residency-program