A Tale of Two Mentors: Mentoring with perspective

Fernando is a new mentor.  He is enthusiastic and keen to be supportive and to work with the university based tutor.  He is also realistic, and has taken time to understand his mentee and their needs and to become the ‘critical friend’ discussed previously in another post: Matey Mentor .

Helen has been a mentor via our programme for a few years now.  She is passionate about growing teachers who will have longevity in the profession and is keen to work with the university teacher educator to achieve this.  She is also realistic and understanding of her mentees.  She seeks to create a friendly and welcoming environment where they are able to concentrate on their teacher development and are allowed to make mistakes as a necessary part of that growth.  She is a ‘critical friend’. 

I write this tale of two mentors today, partly to celebrate the amazing work of our UoN mentors (I could have easily spoken about far more than these), but also to highlight two approaches these mentors have taken to support our beginning teachers in recent weeks.  In both cases it is apparent that the beginning teachers in question have been empowered to reflect on their teaching, reassess and take the lead in ‘moving themselves on’ as they hit the plateau.  In both cases a concern for well-being and balance has been a refreshing feature of mentors concerned for the long-term health and resilience of their beginning teacher colleagues.

Providing space, providing focus

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On a recent visit to school, I was blown away by how much progress Fernando’s mentee had made since my last visit.  Her awareness of pupils’ individual needs and their understanding of the subject knowledge being introduced in the lessons was impressive for a beginning teacher, as was the way she then attempted to adapt her lesson to address misconceptions.  Fernando explained to me how he had been stripping away distractions for his mentee.  Over the past two weeks her only target had been to concentrate on developing her use of AfL in the classroom; in other words, her aim at every point in the lesson was to check for understanding.  Any observation Fernando or colleagues had undertaken during that time discussed how well, or not, she had checked for historical understanding throughout the lesson and how well she had used this information to benefit pupils.  Behaviour wasn’t a focus, the quality of her differentiation wasn’t a focus, her resourcing hadn’t been focused on, and neither had her subject knowledge.  And yet, all these areas of her practice had improved.  Why?  She had been encouraged to focus on the one thing which would help her to develop her own reflections and evaluation of her teaching and the learning taking place in her classroom.  Stripping away the supportive but overwhelming raft of targets had given her space.  Space to look with fresh eyes.  Space to really see what was happening in her classroom and to understand herself what she needed to do to move her practice on. 

Providing enrichment, providing perspective

Helen contacted me about her mentee who had made remarkable and unusually consistent progress throughout his PGCE journey.  Exhaustion had hit, his confidence was low, and he had reached the plateau with a bump.  Helen’s answer to this was to similarly strip things away; she removed lessons from him, radically reducing his planning and marking load and then she organised enrichment for him.  At the point of contact he was out and about doing various observations around the school, watching his departmental colleagues modelling different pedagogical approaches and demonstrating how examination subject knowledge content can be embedded in disciplinary understanding to develop greater depth.  In all these endeavours he was being encouraged to ‘observe’ his colleagues as his mentor observes him, completing the observation sheet and offering ‘feedback’ after the lesson.  In this way, Helen had sought to rebuild his confidence by valuing his opinion and teaching experience, and re-injecting him with ideas and inspiration and modelling of good practice.  Most significantly though she has not panicked about him teaching ‘enough’ but instead chosen to carve out some space for him to rest and reset his understanding; Helen understands that in the long run less will lead to more.  She also did all of this whilst emphasising, in many different ways, that this was not a negative judgement of him.  It is an opportunity for him to gain a fresh perspective.  Keeping the university tutor in the loop also meant her mentee could receive this message from more than one side. And the outcome of this intervention?  Just a few days ago I had the privilege of watching him teach and his lesson absolutely flew – the self-generated debate between year 9 pupils was at a depth of historical understanding I have rarely observed in Year 11 pupils.

Mentoring as collaborative self-development

Occasionally I hear mentors and mentees making a direct link between the amount of time the mentor spends with their mentee and the quality of support being offered as if ‘more time = more support’.  Thankfully, as illustrated by Fernando and Helen, this is not necessarily the case.  Fernando and Helen demonstrate how effective mentors can do this as they embrace a mentoring style which is one of ‘collaborative self-development’ combined with ‘mentoring as support’ and allow ‘mentoring as supervision’ to take a back seat (Kemmis, Heikkinen et al. (2014), 163). Targeted, focused support underpinned by care and concern and ‘friendliness’ is what helps beginning teachers to grow.  Ultimately, the students will not have a mentor holding their hand, even in their NQT year the level of support is necessarily reduced.  Our job should therefore be to equip them to direct their own development, giving them the tools to increase their reflective and evaluative skills and helping them to understand how to ‘reset’ when they find themselves in a cul-de-sac.  They need to learn how to ‘move themselves on’

Reading: Kemmis, S., Heikkinine, H., Fransson, G and Edwards-Groves,C.,  Mentoring of new teachers as a contested practice: Supervision, support and collaborative self-development, Teaching and Teacher Education Volume 43, (October 2014), 154-164.

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