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Learn from your mentoring mistakes

PAT DENISON answers your leadership questions

I am a member of the senior leadership team in a primary school with major responsibility for the curriculum and for continuing professional development. I'm still reeling from a most uncomfortable experience mentoring a Graduate Training Programme student. I knew from the beginning she just didn't have what it takes to be a teacher. She seemed to have no idea about classroom organisation, was unable to plan suitable learning activities, was never properly prepared and never listened to advice. She has now asked to be (and has been) placed elsewhere, telling her tutor that she cannot work with me. I am "officious", "brittle" and make her feel inadequate. My head has not been supportive. She is obviously taking this woman's side and is embarrassed that our school's reputation has been damaged.

Unresolved conflict around poor performance is probably one of the main causes of sleepless nights for school leaders. There are all sorts of conflicting imperatives involved. An all-encompassing concern for the welfare of children is, of course, the most pressing. But there is also a broader concern for human beings - demanding the need to treat them with respect, value their worth, preserve their dignity and avoid any behaviour which is designed to undermine them. The role of the mentor and the successful building of the relationship with the mentee require the most effective mix of beliefs, skills and qualities, many of which are not made explicit to either party.

You are angry - first of all, I suspect, because you feel you have failed.

Second, slurs have been levelled at you; these are wounding and, through your eyes, unfair. Third, your point of view has not been understood. It's a toxic combination: failure, hurt and frustration. For your own health, esteem and development, you need to take action.

So, let's press the rewind button. How was this decision to employ a graduate teacher made? What led to your being selected as mentor? What training did you have? Did the two of you spend any time exploring how this relationship might work?

Once the practice started, at what stage did your misgivings become apparent to you? Who did you communicate these misgivings to? I would strongly urge you to reflect on these and other questions in writing. I am a passionate advocate for the use of a reflective journal during any experience which causes anxiety; you can record not just what happened and what was done, but what feelings were triggered. The process really does enable you to observe dispassionately. Answering the "what" questions will lead to a "next time, we could" range of solutions. Exploring your own emotional responses will help you specify exactly what it is that is making you feel irritated, impatient, frustrated, helpless.You can now be your own critical friend.

You need to persuade yourself of two things: one, that you did your level best, given the resources at your disposal, and two, that there is no failure, only feedback.

You will have reached some new understanding if you engage properly in this process of reflection, and you will want to share this new understanding with the head and the senior leadership team, because there are weighty implications for culture and policy.

Consider your own development and that of the school as two separate (although interdependent) strands. For yourself, it is vital that you seek feedback. You might invite the team to design some questions for key people in the school, so that you get responses from a range of sources. You need to identify who will help you make sense of these and plan for subsequent support.

For the school, the team will be able to learn from your experience. What must it have in place to support future student and mentor provision? You will highlight the need for resources, high quality training of mentors, methodologies and protocols to facilitate analysis of self and role.

I'm sure you will successfully work through your initial distress, put aside blame, and see this experience as a real opportunity not only to influence strategy and impact on practice, but to raise self awareness and add to your repertoire of effective leadership.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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