I remember the moment I was first asked to be a NQT mentor. The news was delivered as a fait accompli, and my heart sank. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it, I did, but I had just gained my first middle leader promotion and was in the middle of a MA. I was already feeling the pressure and the idea of adding mentoring into the mix felt overwhelming and unachievable.
16 years later I look back on that first mentoring experience and am so grateful that I was entrusted with the opportunity to take on such an important role. I cringe at the things I did wrong but am also proud at having been part of the journey of an incredible teacher who is now a Head of Faculty and highly effective mentor in a local partnership school. Personally, it was a significant and transformative experience for my own practice as a teacher.
Why should I become a mentor? What’s in it for me?
Recently, I overheard one of my mentors being asked why he wanted to be a mentor. I leaned in for the answer:
“It is just really helpful to have someone with a completely new perspective come into the department and shake us all up a bit. The students I have mentored always arrive buzzing with the latest historical scholarship and full of enthusiasm to take calculated risks in trying out creative teaching approaches. They pose a challenge to the department: are you teaching the best curriculum in the best way? Watching them teach, having them watch you, means you are constantly engaged in an ongoing professional development conversation. You support them in being reflective and then you have to turn the mirror back on yourself”.
As an ITE subject lead this filled me with joy. This mentor has not always experienced ‘easy’ students. They have grafted and worked hard at supporting beginning teachers who were not ‘naturals’ but had real potential, and have worked hard to support great beginning teachers with low confidence. And yet, despite the effort, they were able to see how much they had personally gained from the experience of mentoring. And so I propose that mentoring a beginning teacher – whether an ITT/ITE student, NQT or RQT (as the Early Career Framework comes into being) – can offer you a number of important opportunities.
Insights of the reflection cycle
Beginning teachers are enmeshed in the experiential learning cycle (Kolb 1984). The cycle engages them in a continual process of gaining teaching experiences upon which they reflect in light of their observation of more experienced colleagues. Mentors support them to develop their understanding of these experiences before they once again engaging in active experimentation. The mentor’s role, in supporting the beginning teacher’s abstract conceptualisation or ‘sense making’ of their experience, is critical. It also means that the mentor themselves is necessarily drawn into this reflective cycle in a way that inevitably impacts their own practice. Supporting your mentee in this analysis, helping them develop targets which are specific and actionable (and move beyond classroom management) is a real skill. In observing them regularly your reflective observation becomes more focused as your ability to articulate and interpret events, and the thinking and planning required to achieve the lesson rationale, requires a sharper understanding of effective practice.
The impact of observation
Similarly, the regularity with which you are now being observed by your mentee often means your own lesson planning is now permeated with the desire to carefully model certain pedagogical approaches or aspects of lesson enaction (clarity of explanation around a substantive concept for example). Planning for questioning or exposition in this way provides an opportunity to undertake your own reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation of your established teaching approaches and classroom behaviours (Orland-Barak, 2010). Thus the ‘sense making’ and reflective practice cycle seeps into your own practice, heightening your evaluation and willingness to “turn the mirror on yourself”.
Joint planning provides yet another opportunity to critically evaluate and explore your own practice and approach. Once again, the articulation of process is an important aspect of our own continued development to ‘expert’ practitioners. It promotes a greater focus upon your own lesson planning rationale and pedagogical choices as you seek to explain and justify them to the mentee. Moreover, joint planning can provide a space in which the mentee provides inspiration and enthusiasm for new lesson approaches or the incorporation of recently read or studied subject scholarship. Indeed, engaging in joint reading of pedagogy and scholarship alongside your mentee, an integral part of many ITE courses, provides a natural and ‘routine’ way for curricular refreshment to become part of your own continued professional development.
Joining a community beyond your school
Becoming an ITT/ITE or NQT mentor often brings opportunities to engage with a broader community and development opportunities beyond your own school. The professional development support mechanism offered by the ITE provider creates a space where you access mentor development training and many other opportunities besides – both formal and informal – to develop. In the context of the UoN ITE Partnership, University-based teacher educators work alongside mentors to co-observe and support students, bringing a different perspective and experience of a wide range of school settings; mentors frequently comment on how helpful this is for expanding horizons and helping them to think differently about their usual practice approaches (discussed here). In addition to mentor development, we also offer subject specific development opportunities, in collaboration with UoN Humanities, through our Subject Interest Group which provides access to recent history scholarship, and involvement in our team’s research work looking at history education in the context of museums and holocaust education. Whilst it is possible to engage with the wider subject community yourself, being involved in mentoring automatically connects you into the heart of a local network.
So why bother?
Mentoring a beginning teacher is an honour. The teachers I meet are usually motivated by a desire to see children grow a love of their subject and gain the empowerment and life opportunity that education can bring. When you mentor you multiply the potential of that impact; even if only in some small way, their long-term impact is in part due to you and your support in those early days. Taking on this role isn’t about gaining your ‘mentoring badge’ as a necessary rite of passage. Along the way mentoring enriches your own teaching and enables you to see your own teacher identity in a new light.
DfE (2019) Early Career Framework, Crown: London. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-career-framework [Accessed 01/07/2020]
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Prentice Hall, NJ.
Orland-Barak, L. (2010) Learning to Mentor-as-Praxis: Foundations for a Curriculum in Teacher Education, Springer, US, pp.101-2.
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