Coping with the online learning revolution and the pressure of the Covid emergency has sapped everyone’s energy in the past year. Each change has seemed almost unsustainable to a profession that already carried an onerous, even excessive workload. The pre-existing problems in retention for the organisations and in wellbeing for the individual before 2020 need a resolution even more urgently in this crisis.
Wellbeing policies are well-intentioned but generalised, sometimes missing the very people who need assistance most. At times like these, it’s not the system that needs to be resourced so much as the individuals within the system.
We all know that every teacher has experienced the pandemic differently, which makes it more difficult than ever to find a whole-college solution. If the job is to be sustainable then greater support is needed.
Background: Teacher training: 4 tips for mentors
Mentoring and coaching are often the remedies of choice. After all, beginning teachers benefit greatly from sustained, predictable support. Sadly, mentoring in other contexts has been perceived as remedial “judgementoring” for underperforming, even borderline, employees. So those who would gain may shy away from this form of personal development.
The impact of mentoring on teacher retention
At the other end of the spectrum are colleges that do have strong mentoring structures in place, where teachers at any stage of their career receive mentoring as part of their continuing professional development. The results are highly beneficial for the individuals on their varied programmes and, by extension, for their students’ learning.
But provision has by no means been uniform across the sector. This is why the Education and Training Foundation’s two programmes: New to Mentoring and Advanced Mentoring Programmes, which took place between October 2020 and March 2021, have proved very timely.
The ETF’s far-reaching programme is funded by the DfE and is based on more than standalone courses, as can be seen from the four strands:
- Mentoring framework and accompanying guides.
- Desk-based research on effective mentoring training.
- Financial support for mentoring professional development in the FE sector.
- Professional development programmes for mentors.
The first two of these strands are based on research led by Professor Andrew Hobson on “The nature and impact of effective mentoring training, education and development (MTED)”. The detailed report by his group draws on case studies across sectors of industry as well as education to highlight a number of factors in the successful implementation of mentoring programmes – and some things to avoid. Further research by Hobson forms the basis for the mentoring framework and accompanying guides, which are well worth reading and implementing in any educational setting.
The implementation of the training was greatly facilitated by the financial support for learners to cover costs involved in their release to attend a four-hour weekly session and support their work to improve the quality of mentoring in their own colleges.
The New to Mentoring programme provided the knowledge and skills that new mentors need in order to support beginning teachers. The Advanced Mentoring course, on which I was a trainer, was more far-reaching, taking well-established mentors further in the application of their skills to the wider benefit of their organisation.
I feel privileged to have worked with such inspiring people as a trainer on the Advanced Mentoring course. So rarely do trainers have the chance to work with advanced learners over a six-month period. The holistic process had a transformational effect on the mentors’ working lives and boosted their resilience.
When the course was conceived, it was expected that the blended learning would form a sandwich of academic content, which could be accessed on the Future Learn platform, followed by either face-to-face sessions or online Zoom calls. This mode of delivery seemed essential in a discipline that is so dependent on reading of every nuance of expression and gesture, and building rapport between group members. But Covid restrictions in the autumn meant that the whole course had to go online, taking experienced mentors out of their usual comfort zone. This did not mean it was unworkable – far from it – but it did take some adjustment.
In the long run, there are definite benefits from the course having operated virtually, not least because its flexibility demonstrates that anyone across the country or even internationally can participate.
The success of any course is in the hands of the learners. Their willingness to engage with the academic materials online, to research different models of mentoring as well as participate in Zoom sessions where they could practise their skills, was absolutely central. They had to be resourceful in putting together their mentee programmes, sounding out colleagues at different levels of their organisations, negotiating with senior leaders and adapting their models to their own contexts.
At any stage of the academic year, all of this is a big ask. In the middle of an ever-changing national response to a pandemic, the energy and commitment of the participants were incredible.
It would be easy to simply end on the achievements already seen. There have been ongoing successes stage by stage in the setting up of mentoring programmes, large and small in scale. Embryonic communities of practice have evolved which are likely to outlast the lifetime of the programme.
However, the most inspiring part of the whole experience has been the group-work element. All along, shared developmental learning has been the vision. Nowhere has that been more in evidence than in the Action Learning Sets, where individuals have been able to bring along their challenges. The processes of listening to each other, asking enabling, open questions rather than closed ones and then reflecting on the learning from the set, have drawn the groups together.
Their warmth and mutual support showed that the online mode of participation is less of a barrier than we might have expected. The role of groups as supporters and questioners was often a much-needed catalyst for participants to make important changes in their practice. All too often we think learning is cerebral and we overlook the effect of emotional barriers to actually putting changes into effect: the best solutions to problems are the ones that we find for ourselves within ourselves.
The ETF anticipated that "this programme will promote a shared understanding of what makes up effective mentoring practices, produce a high-quality and evidence-informed training for new mentors, produce an ambitious ongoing professional development for experienced or qualified mentors, raise awareness of what mentoring looks like and promote best practice for mentoring".
The first run-through has already had tangible outcomes within a number of the participating organisations. Outcomes for the mentors themselves have been no less valuable. The benefits from training for mentors should be realised more broadly across the FE sector to counter the debilitating effects of the pandemic on staff and make teaching more life-affirming and sustainable.
Yvonne Williams was a trainer working for Alpha Plus on the ETF Advanced Mentoring course funded by the Department for Education