How to make the most of school mentors

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Schools dedicate hundreds of teacher hours to supporting trainees and NQTs but, until now, ensuring mentors have the skills they need to carry out their role effectively has been low on the list of priorities. With new ECF funding, however, all that looks set to change – and there’s plenty leaders can do to usher in improvements, says Fe Brewer

Teacher mentors development CPD

Mentoring has been a staple of initial teacher training (ITT) and induction for many, many years, and is something that almost all of us have experienced.

As trainees and newly qualified teachers, we were all allocated a mentor: a person to guide us and offer us expertise. Some teachers attribute their success to a great mentor; some claim success despite theirs. For others, poor mentoring may have even been a contributing factor to their exit from the profession.

There are many studies that explore the impact mentoring can have on the success of an early career teacher (ECT) and the likelihood that teacher will go on to succeed and be satisfied in their job.

In 2020-21, there were more than 41,000 new entrants to ITT. Assuming each of these had a mentor and a formal weekly meeting for each week of their placements, that’s hundreds of thousands of hours of teacher time spent mentoring. Among the many other draws on teachers’ time, mentoring has to be among the biggest.

Why, then, if mentoring is so impactful and time consuming, has it featured so little on the agenda? There are some common misconceptions at play here:

Misconception one: A good teacher makes a good mentor

We’ve long assumed that someone who is good at teaching will automatically be a good mentor. It’s an easy assumption to make: surely a good teacher provides a good model of teaching? On this assumption, little mentor training is required because the appointed teacher already has “the goods”.

Misconception two: Mentoring is simple

Mentoring can seem pretty simple on the surface. To a large extent, we might frame mentoring as the process of supporting someone who is learning to teach, a definition that can again lead to the “good teacher = good mentor” equation. And again, so the assumption goes, little training is required as a consequence.

Misconception three: Mentoring isn’t a priority

It’s easy to see how mentoring can fall to the bottom of a long list of priorities. Its impact is not neatly measurable in the way that Progress 8 or student outcomes are, and it doesn’t feel as directly “child focused” as many other initiatives.

Each of these misconceptions indicates the ways in which we underestimate mentoring. The role of the mentor is multifaceted and complex: mentors are teacher educators, yes, but they are also nurturers, managers and safety nets, supporting trainees and new teachers through an incredibly demanding time in which they grow and evolve as people as well as teachers.

Mentors also need to be able to articulate pedagogy to unlock the magical process of effective planning and teaching, and need the skills to coach a novice into developing their own practice. To neglect the development of mentors is to neglect the development of our trainees, our new teachers and – when all is said and done – our pupils.

Thankfully, hope is not lost. Following the findings and recommendations of the Carter review of ITT (published in 2015) along with the Recruitment and Retention Strategy of 2019, change is afoot. From autumn 2021, the Early Careers Framework will be rolled out nationally and will bring with it fully funded mentor time and training.

To maximise the opportunities the ECF will usher in, here are some key things leaders can do to support mentors in their school to provide successful and supportive mentoring:

Choose wisely

Choosing a mentor shouldn’t be rushed and – given the new requirements – must involve an honest dialogue about expectations and time considerations. It’s worth looking at the National Mentor Standards and opening a dialogue with those who might be interested or may benefit from mentoring. It’s brilliant continuing professional development, after all.

Build in time to share

Giving mentors time to share ideas and experiences is invaluable but often neglected. The stakes are high and, when mentees hit bumps in the road, or when difficult conversations have to be held, it can be difficult for them to know how to proceed. Providing time specifically for mentors to come together and talk can be invaluable for learning and support, even if this only happens a handful of times throughout the year.

Add richness through research

It’s relatively easy to come across education research these days and, while there’s lots to be found about how students learn and what makes great teaching, studies on how teachers develop can be a little more elusive.

It’s worth seeking these out, however, because they can unlock some of the reasons why novice teachers plan, teach and reflect in the way they do. Understanding this can enable mentors to support mentees more appropriately. Berliner’s work on the novice-to-expert continuum, Knight’s work on instructional coaching or working papers from CollectivED are good places to start.

Instructional coaching

With so much new content for mentors as part of the ECF rollout, there are bound to be elements that are unfamiliar even to experienced mentors.

One of these elements may be instructional coaching. To ensure that coaching for ECTs is as effective as possible, it will benefit mentors to not only be given examples of good coaching but also for them to plan and practise instructional coaching together. By offering feedback to one another, mentors can refine routines and optimise their terminology so that time spent with ECTs is as effective and efficient as possible.

Celebrate mentoring

The additional training, exposure to ECTs’ training and general experience of mentoring means that mentors will be enriched with an abundance of new knowledge and expertise. Leaders should recognise this, highlighting the advantages that mentors bring to a team and repositioning mentoring as a brilliant source of professional learning that can be a significant boost to classroom practice and a step towards leadership. If we’re asking more of mentors now, we need to celebrate them more, too.

The ECF may be focused on new teachers but it is a rich opportunity that stretches far beyond our newest members of staff.

Fe Brewer is a secondary English teacher and lead teacher educator for Leicestershire Secondary SCITT

This article originally appeared in the 30 July 2021 issue under the headline “How best to coach the coaches?”

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