A few good mentors

12th January 2001 at 00:00
If you're unlucky, in-school mentors may leave you to sink or swim. Or, at the other extreme, they may expect you to be a clone of themselves. But Jon James has found a third way.

Have you ever been chased down the road by a 6ft 2in punk and wondered if it was something you said? I have and it was. As I pondered whether to fight or flee it called out "Sir!", and as he slowed I realised he was an ex-pupil. Although lazy, he had had potential. I has given him a "pep talk" (we didn't have "mentoring" back in the Eighties) and told him that, if he worked, he could get an A at GCSE and even A-level. He was chasing me just to say "thank you" as he was starting a history degree. A gratifying experience.

Usually such talks fall on stony ground but, with good advice, young people are more likely to make beneficial choices at crucial times in their lives. As someone involved in mentoring initial teaching trainees, NQTs, students and, increasingly, peer-mentors, I have seen that mentoring works and can be life-changing. But while it can have a profound effect on some, others seem immune.

The reason, of course, is that mentoring is a two-way process. The willingness of the mentee to enter into a relationship is fundamental. As subject teachers, we are used to telling people what to do rather than how to make good decisions. So do teachers have to unlearn patterns of behaviour in order to be mentors? The Government is putting more and more of the training of teachers into schools and, along with the professional tutors and the university tutors, the teacher-mentor is pivotal in the process. Have they chosen wisely?

The answer, I believe, is probably. Although there are graduate schemes which welcome good people into schools with no formal training, I am a believer in the university-school partnerships for PGCE, providing the process is carefully structured and all parties know what they are doing. In the history department at William Parker in Hastings, we work successfully with the University of Sussex to train two students each year. The mentoring undertaken in school is an integral and important part of the course and this has been my role for the past three years.

If mentoring, as one definition has it, is a "process whereby a more experienced person helps a novice through a period of transition or change", then there is no problem. I have been teaching for 19 years and all my colleagues are experienced too.

All we need to do is pass on this expertise to our students during the three months they are with us. This is usually managed very professionally in schools, though some models of induction are more acceptable than others.

The sink-or-swim model was popular for many years. The mentor sees the opportunity to catch up on some paperwork and uses the trainee as a supply teacher. The trainee is given a syllabus, a week to watch the mentor teach, warned not to turn their back on Turner of 8DE and left to get on with it. As I remember, this was pretty much what happened to me. Although an extreme example, I did find one student crying in a staffroom recently, vowing to give up teaching after just such an experience.

If the student does not realise that he or she has a right to expect a service frm the school, or does not have the confidence to "rock the boat", then this sort of thing can still happen.

In the case I mention here, the cause was a busy school and an inexperienced mentor. The solution was a change of mentor, and the trainee concerned is now teaching successfully in a local school.

When I started mentoring, I was so keen to avoid the first style that I tended to be too supportive. I was not training a student but cloning myself. I was stifling personality and creativity by giving the student too many hard-to-ignore guidelines, materials and "advice".

Now I use a collaborative approach. The idea that teaching and learning are just two sides of the same coin is fundamental to my thinking.

It is clearly easier to think of postgraduate students in this way, especially as they bring so much knowledge and experience to the school in return for the opportunity to develop their teaching skills. But there are still pitfalls.

There is no such thing as a "typical student". Their degree may be in American history or Victorian studies, leaving them without the broad knowledge of history demanded in the curriculum. They may have management experience in a large company or have spent the past few years bringing up a family, rather than coming straight from university. Mentees want to develop their own teaching styles, building on their experience, while meeting prescribed criteria.

To marry the skills, knowledge and experience of the trainee to the standards is a difficult but essential task for the mentor, especially if his or her personality is markedly different from your own.

If the mentee has a PhD in classics, then you will not want to lecture him on the Romans - but he may need to be given a strict timescale to get on to the Battle of Hastings.

And if your new trainee can make your computer talk to the VCR in a way you can only dream of, you can tick those information technology criteria straight off but you may need to point them in the direction of the syllabus content.

What you must do is "steal" from them whatever is useful for your own teaching. This will usually be seen as flattering, boost their confidence, gain their trust and make it easier to apply constructive criticism. And maybe even help you add another lesson or two to your repertoire.

I try to establish trust by letting mentees watch me with a difficult class and asking them to grade me. I will try to show them an example of good practice before I expect them to attempt it. We also have an hour each week to discuss openly what we have learned or need to achieve. Both of us can raise items for the agenda and usually much arises that was not on the agenda.

This symbiotic relationship is at the heart of mentoring. The mentoring relationship is different from the classroom teacher-pupil one. It requires you to explain what is usually done intuitively. It is demanding, but rewarding. Not only can teachers make good mentors, but mentoring can make better teachers.

Jon James is head of house at William Parker School, Hastings, and has whole school responsibility for developing mentoring of pupils. He is also an Initial Teacher Training mentor with the University of Sussex Consortium

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today