To a trainee they are role model, instructor, friend, colleague, assessor and much more. But being a trainee teacher's mentor is not an easy job and it's one that's usually done for free on top of the normal day-to-day duties.
School-based mentoring can be just as rewarding as teaching and, in grooming the next generation of teachers, it is just as vital. It is a complex job that requires teachers to act in collaboration with a number of people.
The training given to mentors, however, is not consistent across the country. With the impending induction year for newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and the need for school-based induction tutors for every NQT who qualifies after May, mentors may well find themselves extending their care beyond trainees.
But just what does being a mentor involve? What is their relationship with the Initial Teacher Training (ITT) provider and where will they get high-quality training in the future?
At Hinchley Wood School in Surrey, up to a dozen trainee teachers are taken from the South West London Teacher Education Consortium (SWELTEC), comprising Brunel University, Kingston University, Roehampton Institute and St Mary's University College. Hinchley Wood is a professional development school and organises a programme of sessions for trainees that complement the ITT consortium programme.
Julie Hayden, the school's science mentor, has officially been looking after trainees for the past two years, although she has dealt with them for the past five as an unofficial mentor and shoulder to cry on. Trainees spend two-thirds of their PGCE course "learning on the job", so the role of the mentor is vital to the success of school placements. "I enjoy the job of mentoring, but there is quite an art to providing good training and keeping all my colleagues happy," says Julie.
Openness and honesty are vital, but the art is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the trainees and providing support, encouragement and guidance. This cannot be done in isolation from the other staff or without the help of the university-based tutors. Hinchley Wood also has a school-wide co-ordinator, Lesley Mitchell, who oversees all trainees and mentors. She has regular contact with the trainees, delivering whole school perspectives and conducting observations of the trainees' teaching.
The school is committed to delivering high-quality teaching placements, even though the financial rewards for the school can't match the level of commitment made by its staff.
With the introduction of new standards for qualified teacher status and the national curriculum for ITT coming on stream soon, the partnership developed between the ITT institutions and their schools is crucial.
Brunel University, like the others in the consortium, offers training to all its school-based mentors, collaborating with the development of complementary university and school programmes of ITT. "The advantage of being trained and meeting with other school-based mentors is enormous as we often share the same experiences and problems," says Julie.
For Julie, a good working relationship between university and school is vital so that she can feel free to express concerns and discuss issues that relate to the trainees. "It is sometimes difficult to balance the role of mentor and assessor with the trainee but, with support, it can be achieved."
A typical working day for a school-based mentor is packed. "I have to swing into action from the word go," says Julie. "As well as teaching my timetable, I have to introduce the trainees to the rest of the department, go through their timetable of observations and lessons - and that's just on day one." From then on, the mentor is on call.
For their part, trainees must quickly become members of the school community and be committed to both personal and professional growth.
A key aim is earning the respect and confidence of their colleagues as well as setting high standards for themselves. This means arriving on time, pulling their weight in the department and committing themselves to at least as long a working day as their colleagues.
Mentors are the first port of call when advice and suggestions are needed about lesson planning. However, they are not there to plan the lessons for the trainee.
All good mentors encourage their trainees to be reflective practitioners. Seeking assistance, advice and taking note of lesson briefings with mentors - but, more important, acting on this advice - must rate as one of the most important responsibilities that a trainee has. Another is the documentation of their professional growth - the teaching experience file.
In addition to the pre-placement university preparation, when aspects of the theoretical basis of teaching and learning are linked to the practical side as well as lesson planning, evaluating and the principles of assessment, Hinchley Wood also informs the trainees of its expectations.
"We have a list of expectations for trainees which they receive when they arrive. It outlines our requirements for lesson plans, ordering equipment, the need for regular marking and feedback to the pupils and accurate record keeping," says Julie.
The school also timetables a regular teaching period for an individual tutorial session between the mentor and the trainee. The focus of these is the university's programme, the standards for Qualified Teacher Status, the national curriculum for ITT and the assignments that each trainee must complete. "Sometimes, this can be just a general help session," admits Julie, "but more often than not it is focused on tasks such as marking, classroom management, science investigations and information and communications technology in teaching. Each week we set targets for the following week."
Towards the end of a placement, Julie completes a profile on each of her trainees. This summarises their progress towards meeting the standards required for QTS, or, in the case of the final profile, determines whether or not they have consistently reached the required standard.
Training to teach and obtaining QTS is no mean feat these days and it is set to become even tougher with the possibility of national skills tests in numeracy, literacy and information and communication technology announced in the recent Green Paper. The need for good trainee mentors and induction mentors for NQTs has never been greater. The Green Paper recognises the valuable role played by schools in training the next generation of teachers.
Only if inadequate funding is addressed can we ensure that we have in place high-quality training producing high-quality mentors for both trainees and NQTs - and that those mentors do not feel left out in the cold.
James Williams is a lecturer in science education in the School of Education at Brunel University and was formerly a school-based mentor