A guardian angel

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Teacher mentor. AKA...

Svengali. Professional development adviser, lifeguard. Not to be confused with student mentors; those young professionals who come into school in an attempt to persuade recalcitrant Year 10s to buckle down to some work and abandon their ambitions to be the next Chantelle Arctic Monkey.

Teaching mentors are there to help student and newly qualified teachers to survive the first few months of flak and develop into confident practitioners. All students on a school placement should be given a mentor, and schools with newly qualified teachers on the staff should have someone on hand to guide them through that crucial first year. Mentors should be chosen for their teaching ability, their sensitivity, and their ability to offer constructive criticism and advice - an observation that will surprise a number of students and NQTs.

Expect a lot of...

I angst - as devastated young teachers report that Year 9 have rejected their pearls of wisdom in favour of downloading the latest ring tone while chatting to their mates.

What does it involve?

In those business interviews that occupy acres of space in the Saturday broadsheets, the featured entrepreneurs are always asked about their mentor - the key individual who guided the first steps of their sparkling career.

It's a relatively new concept in teaching. Mentoring is first and foremost about professional support, which means that the mentor needs to develop a close working relationship with the mentored. It's not just about lesson observation, nor is it about the bureaucracy of the school placement or induction year.

A mentor is part friend, part colleague, part professional adviser. He or she should be the person that a young teacher can feel confident about approaching. A mentor should not be the person who makes the final decision about whether a placement or induction year has been a pass or fail, though they are often placed in that invidious position.

Mentoring is not easy; the line of least resistance is to offer platitudes and meaningless encouragement, rather than insights and constructive criticism. Good mentoring is about smoothing the path - making someone welcome, giving them essential information, introducing them to key members of staff - such as the reprographics assistant and the caretaker.

It's about being a role model, and offering opportunities to learn. It's "Let's look at that again" rather than "That's not the way to do it."

Some schools are good at this kind of support - others aren't. Many new teachers find no welcome mat in their schools. They are offered no tour of the school, no induction process to introduce them to the school and its procedures. Some trainees are not allowed to use the school car park and others find the senior management unwelcoming. That is, if they can find them at all. In other schools, a culture of professional development will see all teachers paired with a mentor. That approach, while in many ways welcome, assumes that any experienced teacher can fill the role - which may not be the case.

Is it a good career move?

It should be. In other professions this kind of professional development role would be highly regarded. In teaching, mentoring is often see as one of many things that middle managers are expected to do in the tiny amount of available spare time they have.

Does it pay?

Not specifically. Mentoring is normally seen as one of the duties of a head of department or curriculum leader. That's probably a mistake. There's no reason why middle managers should not be mentors, but the key skills are empathy and teaching ability - someone fresh out of their NQT year might make an excellent mentor.

Is it safe?

Hmm. Newly qualified and student teachers are usually grateful for the support a mentor offers; it's a close relationship that can offer a great deal to both parties. But, dealing with someone else's stress can itself be stressful, especially if their performance in the classroom means that the critical insights tend to outnumber the supportive praise.

And mentors need time to do the job properly; time that is simply not available in too many schools.

There's also the other danger inherent in any close working relationship.

Mentors should be aware of the possibility of the relationship developing from the professional to the personal - as should those being mentored.

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