Seeking a Second Opinion: Feeling undermined by your ITT mentee

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The Mentor’s View

Sonya is a new mentor. She has been shadowing a colleague in the role for the first time this academic year and has really enjoyed taking a more active role with the ITT student. She has appreciated how thinking like a mentor has sharpened her own practice and made her more thoughtful and precise about her in-class decision making.  She has taken care to plan how she might model certain aspects of practice to the ITT student and watched carefully as the lead mentor, Gabby, has structured the post-lesson discussions and mentor meetings to ensure feedback is as constructive as possible.  She has learnt a lot and, overall, it has been a positive experience. 

However, the ITT student has developed a habit of asking for Sonya’s opinion and help before subsequently running it past their ‘actual’ mentor, seemingly discounting or ignoring the advice she gave in favour of Gabby’s proclamation on the matter.  It has left her feeling unsure and a bit undermined.

The Mentee’s view

Jason, the ITT student, was delighted when he arrived at placement to discover he had not one but two mentors just to himself. His first placement mentor, who had other whole school responsibilities, often seemed busy and over-stretched.  Placement two seems like a golden opportunity to glean lots of support and advice and to hopefully make rapid progress in the classroom.  And yet, as time has gone on he’s found negotiating it all a little bit baffling.

Jason admires Sonya’s classroom practice – she is so creative and inspiring and full of energy and the pupils love her lessons and always leave the room chatting about what they’ve just learnt.  Sonya has been amazingly supportive, full of advice for him and very available to chat things through, but he knows she’s not that many years into her career, does she really know what he should be doing to get better?  Gabby on the other hand, is full of the wisdom that comes with experience, but she isn’t quite as tolerant of his off-the-cuff everyday requests for help.  She likes to keep her interactions boundaried within the mentor meeting period they have scheduled on the timetable.

Consequently, Jason often has quick midweek interactions with Sonya that allow him to progress with day-to-day tasks and challenges with classes, but knows he then often repackages those same questions for Gabby to answer during period 4 on a Wednesday. His bafflement comes from the fact that he often gets different answers.  How can both Gabby and Sonya be right? Surely it makes sense that Gabby must have the correct answer to his dilemmas. How should he raise this with Sonya, if at all?

The Dilemma

So, how can Sonya, Gabby and Jason navigate Jason, not so secretly, seeking these second opinions and then disregarding Sonya’s advice?  

  • Work as a team

First up, Sonya needs to have a conversation with Gabby.  In her busy-ness, is Gabby even aware Jason is doing this?  Is there a way of encouraging Jason to keep a questions journal so that Gabby can work through the ones he’s not had answered in the mentor meeting? Can Gabby ask Jason if he’s already had an answer from another member of the team and ask him to reflect on what he learnt before she gives her own answer which she can frame as offering a different, but not necessarily better solution?  Indeed, it is in both the mentor and the shadow mentor’s interest to share this intelligence as currently they are repeating each other’s work.  Working together will mean both a more efficient use of departmental time and will help Jason to understand how teacher persona and teaching context, as well as experience, can lead to a variety of perfectly acceptable approaches or solutions.   

  • Address the issue with Jason directly

It is likely that Jason will have no sense of how significantly his actions are impacting Sonya.  The act of training to be a teacher requires students to occupy a liminal space where they are both learner and teacher (McNamara et. al, 2002).  The learner aspect of their identity is necessarily focused entirely upon their own progress through the course.  Consequently, whilst Jason recognises that he is seeking both Sonya and Gabby’s views, he frames this as an acceptable means to an end – the key objective of passing the course and gaining his qualification.  Whilst it can be really tempting to avoid confrontation with the ITT student, helping him to frame these behaviours in the context of a fellow professional rather than a student could be an important step in the development of his teacher identity.  It is important that any such conversation happens with the mentoring ‘team’ present – Gabby and Sonya need to explain together how the dynamic of their mentoring relationship with Jason will work, and how and when he should seek advice from each of them.  In the context of a teacher training partnership, the tutor may also be a useful person to involve in this conversation to help provide a bridge between Jason’s student and professional identities. 

  • Introduce structured availability

Jason is right, he’s got a great deal from this mentor partnership.  Sonya’s ready availability combined with Gabby’s concentrated and focused attention is the perfect mix for an eager student focused on making progress.  As Teaching Practice 2 develops, putting more defined boundaries in place, around when and where support can be sought, is an important step towards the independent practice required for an ECT year.  This may mean Sonya delaying response to some of the important but less urgent issues Jason brings to her, asking him to ‘park that question’ until the mentor meeting where she and Gabby can discuss this with him together.

Seeking a Second Opinion

In many ways it is understandable that Jason will seek a second opinion in a situation where he has two mentors, but he needs to be supported to navigate his professional identity in the context of a team and mentoring relationship.  Sonya also needs support from Gabby to feel secure in her new identity as a mentor, just as much as Jason needs both of their support to feel secure in his new identity as a teacher.  Reframing this situation as innocuous rather than threatening, and as an opportunity for growth rather than undermining, is critical for moving forward in the mentor-mentee relationship.      

References and Further Reading

Beauchamp, C. & Thomas, L. (2009) Understanding teacher identity: an overview of issues in the literature and implications for teacher education, Cambridge Journal of Education, 39:2, 175-189, DOI: 10.1080/03057640902902252

McNamara, O., Roberts, L., Basit, T.N. & Brown, T. (2002) “Rites of Passage in Initial Teacher Training: Ritual, Performance, Ordeal and Numeracy Skills Test.” British educational research journal 28.6: 863–878.

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