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Listen to the voice of experience

Good relationships with mentors are essential in the first year. You need to work well together, so speak now or forever hold your frustration, says Tom Bennett

Good relationships with mentors are essential in the first year. You need to work well together, so speak now or forever hold your frustration, says Tom Bennett

So how's it going? You've met the staff, taken your first lesson, found your own seat in the staffroom and even supervised the lunch queue - but how do you really feel? Confident and ready for whatever is thrown at you or scared, unprepared and ready to run?

Any new job can be daunting, but every new teacher has the right to help and support through a mentor. That mentor is one of the most important people in your development, but what makes a good mentor and what happens when the relationship goes wrong?

Considering what the relationship is designed to achieve makes it easier to discern the qualities of success. Job descriptions vary between schools, departments and even individuals. Some approach the role like a personal bodyguard, determined to protect and guide rookies through every step; others see it in a softer context, (the buddy system) where the relationship is more hands-off and usually centred around the pub. One thing remains constant: a mentor is a colleague with more experience paired with one with less, sharing the aim of easing the induction process. This doesn't mean that they will necessarily observe any lessons, or play a formal part in the qualification process (although they can provide documented evidence to support a candidate's graduation) - those tasks usually fall to an induction tutor, or nominated member of the senior management team. But when the rookie (that's you) needs someone to guide you through the jungle, the mentor is there with maps, rations and torches.

A mentor needs to be patient, friendly and approachable. Crucially they must want to do the job, as it's often an unpaid duty. They need to be empathetic, or even just sympathetic; they need to care about your wellbeing, and they need to see things through your eyes.

Something that seems easy to an experienced teacher (addressing a new class, dealing with disruption, taking an assembly) can provoke apoplexy in you.

What else? The mentor needs to be professional, which should go without saying but doesn't. That means reliable, punctual, responsible and positive. Much like the relationship between teacher and pupil, the bond can be friendly, but there must remain an arm's length of impartiality. The mentor is there to provide support, advice and encouragement; they may also need to be diplomatically critical or enable you to be reflective on your own work, which means that being too close isn't advisable.

You may also appreciate being given space to see your mentor as a professional that you can trust, rather than a pal, with all the emotional baggage that can entail. After all, you need a mentor, not a friend.

So why do your colleagues do it? The rewards can be substantial . at least professionally and emotionally. Being asked to mentor a new teacher is a huge vote of confidence by line managers and they are seen as a suitable role model for those that follow.

There are few ways more effective at instilling a sense of personal achievement and a realisation of professional progress than being a mentor. Teachers realise how far they have come, and that can't be bought. If you care at all about teaching and your own work, mentoring can be a milestone in your career.

So far, so rosy. But perfection only exists in the dictionary. What options are open when the mentoring goes wrong? The pitfalls in the process are as chimeral and subtle as in any human relationship.

What if your mentor is unsuitable? (For unsuitable read unwilling or even worse, hopeless.) Sometimes mentors are chosen by criteria that revolve more around expediency than effectiveness.

The mentor might regard the role as a chore, yet another millstone hanging from their necks. The new teacher will realise this quickly as the mentor will probably tell them at length how busy and overworked they are, and how little time they have for them. If this barrel of laughs happens to be your mentor, the best advice is to make the most of it - manage upwards. It's not ideal, but you play the hand you're dealt.

If the mentor is too busy or lacks interest in your career, then you have to think of ways that you can make time for you both. Find out when they are free, and book them. Remind them. Write down the things that you need from them, and keep copies for yourself.

It's unfair that a new teacher should have to do this, but show me the piece of paper you signed that guaranteed fairness in life. Hopefully by being proactive and encouraging of your mentor you can draw out the best of them so that they can do the same for you. It could even be a learning experience for both of you.

If the relationship is floundering and you feel you are getting nothing from the mentor (or worse, feel like you are being undermined by the relationship) then it's time to be a grown-up again and discuss your feelings with them. Possibly they don't realise the effect their carelessness is having on you, and you could shock them into action. If this still doesn't yield results then you must, for the sake of your career, speak to someone else, usually their line manager. But don't do so before you have discussed it with the mentor, because they deserve a chance to negotiate a solution with you.

Of course, if you feel like there is a personal dislike between you and the mentor, or you feel uncomfortable in any way (see "professional" above) then you have to act as swiftly as possible to remedy the situation. You only get one first year of teaching, and after that you largely fly solo, so it's critical that the first year is as supportive and reflective as possible.

Address the issue with the mentor as before, but be prepared to follow up with someone more senior.

Solid support is your right in your first year, not a privilege, so expect and demand it rather than be grateful for it when it does happen. And make sure that it happens.

Five ways to make the most of your relationship with your mentor

1. Be attentive - Don't just smile, nod and say: "Mmm-hmm." If they've taken the time to advise you, then take it in and process it. They may know what they're talking about.

2. Be organised - Make lists of questions and targets. The mentor's task will be made a lot easier if they know what things you are interested in, or are focused on.

3. Be honest - Tell them when you're having problems, or don't understand something. If you suffer in silence you let ignorance bloom.

4. Be professional - If they have to be, so do you. You're an employee and a member of a profession, not a pupil, so act like one.

5. Be grateful - Thank your mentor, and let them know that their input and support is valued. It will mean the world to them.

What can a new teacher reasonably expect from their mentor?

- Scheduled meetings - Once a week would be a good minimum, but more are possible.

- Positive support - Beginning the job can corrode anyone's confidence and self-esteem, so the mentor should be encouraging.

- Availability - Although the mentor needs to have their own space, they must allow reasonable access to their presence.

- Information and resources - Everybody needs somebody they can ask questions without feeling stupid.

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