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Full-time mentors give probationers a boost

Support programme sees some 110 newly-qualified primary teachers benefit in north east

Support programme sees some 110 newly-qualified primary teachers benefit in north east

Her first primary school teacher was an inspiration and five-year-old Jenny Melville decided there and then that she wanted to teach.

Now 22, Jenny looks back on her first year of teaching: "Terrifying and stressful but really enjoyable. I am tired a lot, but it's worth it and I have loved every minute."

Jenny is one of the first probationer primary teachers in Aberdeenshire to benefit from a full-time mentor, an experienced teacher on secondment from school who concentrates solely on supporting a group of probationers.

The scheme has been praised for encouraging collaborative working among 110 primary probationers and 10 mentors working with them in schools throughout the north east.

The council's one-year induction programme for probationary teachers has been recognised by COSLA with a bronze award in its 2010 Excellence Awards. Since the induction scheme began eight years ago, almost 1,000 probationers have taken part, about a third of the authority's workforce.

It has also won the approval of probationers like Jenny and her colleague Sarah Stout, 23, who teach at Balmedie Primary. Until last year, school- based mentors were released for half a day a week to carry out mentoring responsibilities with a probationer. But the new system introduced last August has released 10 trained and experienced school-based mentors from their posts across the region to become full-time mentors.

Jenny and Sarah are mentored by Fiona Napier, an experienced teacher on secondment from Strathburn Primary at Inverurie, where she has been a school-based mentor for five years.

"Fiona has other probationers, so not only do we have experience in our school, we have a number of schools in the area where we get to go in and see what they do, view their different types of practice and share ideas with them as well," says Jenny.

"Having an external mentor means we can speak about things we possibly wouldn't have felt comfortable talking about to somebody in school."

Sarah has just emerged from a lively dog portrait painting session with her P2 pupils. She says: "Fiona has put all her efforts into us. Rather than her having to go home and prepare for a class the next day, she can go home and prepare for us.

"The most worrying thing would be if somebody didn't have time for you when you had questions or needed support and help. You know that when Fiona is coming into school, those two hours are totally dedicated to you, your problems and your support."

The two young teachers meet other probationers in their group, formally for continuing professional development (CPD) sessions and informally, as they have now become friends. Every week the probationers are released from teaching for a half-day session with their mentor and a day for professional development.

"There was nothing wrong with the induction scheme that we had," says Sheila Carson, quality improvement officer for CPD with Aberdeenshire Council. "In fact, it was looked on as one of the really good examples nationally. The support the school-based mentors gave before this year was excellent."

Ms Carson has been working with probationers for several years as part of the authority's induction scheme. But during a group study visit to the US in 2008, she investigated the full-release mentor scheme at the New Teacher Centre at Santa Cruz in California with funding from Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) through the Scottish Government.

"The most exciting thing was going out and spending a couple of days with the mentors which Professor Kay Livingstone from LTS organised," says Ms Carson.

Her report to Aberdeenshire's education, learning and leisure committee convinced councillors to back the introduction of full- release mentors in primary schools last year. These external mentors visit schools and work alongside heads and teaching staff who continue to give guidance to probationers on a daily basis.

Fiona Napier mentors Sarah and Jenny and nine other probationers in six schools. She says: "It's been wonderful, because all the schools have been very open and welcoming, even though this is a pilot and people are wary of new ideas."

"It was quite daunting to think about going into other schools, because that hasn't happened before. But it's been very good. Collaboration is the main thing - we are collaborating at the mentoring level and with the probationers.

"It has opened up invisible boundaries and percolated ideas all the way through Aberdeenshire, through good practice and open communication between mentors and probationers.

"I would like to think that the expertise probationers have been given this year is far more because the mentors have been able to concentrate on mentoring."

Balmedie headteacher Ken McGowan describes himself as a convert to this new development. "To be honest, when it was first mooted I wasn't too sure how it was going to work in practical terms, but I have been really impressed," he says. "It's worked very well and the two probationers and Fiona get on exceptionally well.

"Fiona does a tremendous amount of work with them. We do, too, so it's not taking everything away from school."

Probationers have been able to draw on their mentor's experience of issues such as behaviour management and supporting parents.

Jenny says: "The biggest help we have had this past wee while has been with report cards and parents' evenings."

"We've never had to do that and it was a massively daunting prospect - meeting the parents of the children we are teaching."

After 31 years of parents' nights, Fiona Napier was well-equipped to give them some tips.

"It was nerve-racking, but it was fine once we got started," Jenny adds.

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