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Make the most of your mentor

When the going gets tough even the tough would do well to turn to their mentor for guidance. Mike Fielding reports. What is your biggest worry as a newly qualified teacher? Is it being able to control classes; trying to interest children in your work; talking to parents; fitting into the staff; having to take an assembly; or one of the many other things that concern newcomers to the profession?

One thing is certain: whatever your particular worries you won't be alone. And nowadays you should not have to sort them out for yourself. For every NQT there should be a mentor, someone specifically designated to help the new colleague through the first year of school.

In the days when new teachers were called probationers and had to prove their worth before achieving qualified status, good schools always asked someone who wasn't involved in the assessment to "keep an eye" on the newcomer.

Now it is a more structured arrangement. Local education authorities provide training for mentors, there are clear guidelines about what the NQT should expect, and both time and resources are provided to try to ensure a successful first year for the new teacher.

For the NQT to make the most of these opportunities, there needs to be a clear understanding about what can be expected. Is the mentor, for instance, expected to sort out the class that is giving you trouble? Almost certainly not, that will be the job of the department or year head or a member of the senior team.

What the mentor might be able to do, though, is help you understand if there's anything in your approach which is contributing to the difficulty and whether there are strategies you can apply to improve the situation. It is not the mentor's job to tell you what to do (except, perhaps, about some straightforward school routines). The aim is to help you reflect on your practice and improve it.

This means regular meetings, scheduled in plenty of time and, preferably, during the school day (for the first term, at least, you will probably be too shattered at the end of the day to think of anything except getting your feet up before you start on the marking and preparation for next day's lessons).

Your mentor should be a good listener but also have the skills to guide you to your own conclusions. Patting you on the head and telling you it will be all right is well-meant but not very helpful. The same goes for the "if it were me, I'd I" approach. The odd thing about teaching is that we all face the same problems but have to find our own ways of dealing with them. Trying to copy other people - however good they are - is usually fatal.

By careful observation and analysis, a good mentor will be able to feed back a picture of what is happening in your classroom in a way that helps you to recognise your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Too many teachers - particularly when new - worry about what they are doing wrong and do not recognise that most of the time they are getting things right.

The mentor will help you build on these strengths by negotiating agreement about development targets and suggesting helpful experiences such as visiting other classrooms or other schools.

Your mentor should also be someone to whom you can have a good moan. Emotional stress affects all teachers and, particularly in the early days, there is often the added strain of getting used to living in a new place, making friends, establishing a social life. All these can be eased by a person to whom you can talk frankly and who will respond in a non-judgmental way.

So who should be these paragons with such an influence on the early professional life of new teachers? There is no hard and fast rule. Some schools want mentors with extensive experience of both the school and supporting new teachers. They are usually highly succesful teachers who can act as good role models for the committed newcomer.

Other schools will appoint mentors from among their most recently appointed staff, in the belief that they will be able to empathise better with the newly qualified teacher.

Whoever your mentor, it is essential you can get on with him or her. And this highlights the new teacher's responsibility for making the most of mentoring: it's not a passive activity. The NQT must take an active part, which includes rejecting the appointed mentor if it seems, at any stage, there is incompatibility between you. This can be tough but, done in the right way, will establish you as someone determined to achieve professional competence and recognition. It's also a preparation for appraisal which comes later.

There will be other support structures besides the mentor. The LEA, for instance, will probably ensure you have a couple of visits from your specialist subject advisor and arrange get-togethers where you can meet NQTs from other schools and share experiences. Your department head will have responsibilities for monitoring and supporting your work and there will probably be a senior team member with oversight of staff welfare which includes the progress of new teachers.

But your mentor remains the key person. As you settle into the routines of school life and gradually find the joys outweigh the strains, having someone beside you with a commitment to your success will make life so much more pleasant than in the days when new teachers were "on probation" and fair game for all the "sink or swim" tactics that staff or students could throw at them.

So make the most of a mentor. Don't treat the interest as intrusive or the questions as judgmental. Be open about your short-comings and proud of your successes. And, most of all, don't be afraid to ask. Starting as a teacher is a complicated business, the job of the mentor is to help simplify it as much as possible.

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