A happy medium

25th February 2005 at 00:00
Pre-threshold: Mentors can make a lot of difference in helping new teachers

Regardless of age or experience, the early years of any teaching career can be bewildering. Getting to grips with the curriculum, managing student behaviour and keeping on top of marking are just some of the challenges to be faced. For this reason, many schools offer new teachers a mentor - usually a more experienced teacher or member of the leadership team - to support them through their first year.

Forming a good relationship with a mentor can help enhance your teaching expertise and support your professional development. Mentors' roles and responsibilities do vary between schools, but generally speaking, a mentor can offer independent, non-judgemental support and act as a "sounding board". Many schools now make provision for new or less experienced teachers to meet regularly with a mentor to discuss any concerns, professional development or simply chat about day-to-day issues.

"Although I have a weekly meeting scheduled with my mentor, we often talk more informally," says Matt Phillips, a first-year history teacher from Leeds. "If I've had a bad day or I'm struggling with a particular class, I'll often offload to him. Mostly he just listens, sometimes he offers advice. Talking things through with him often makes me realise I already know the answers. Often it just helps to verbalise it."

"Mentoring is more than ongoing advice on career development," says Chris Luck, research associate with the National College of School Leadership, and headteacher of Eastfield primary school, Enfield in north London. "And it's when someone is new in a role who can benefit most. Ideally, the mentor should not be their line manager, but someone with more expertise and experience than the mentee, as this can make for a more objective viewpoint."

According to Mr Luck, the two most important aspects of the relationship are confidentiality; the relationship will only work if the mentee feels they can "offload" in the safety of knowing what they say won't go any further.

"The other critical factor is matching the right people together," he says.

"They may not necessarily be the same school phase, but will have that piece of the jigsaw that the mentee is looking for."

It was her good relationship with her mentor that gave Rosemary Fisher the confidence to undertake additional responsibilities early in her career.

"Before I started teaching, I'd held a senior nursing post," says the science teacher from south London. "After a couple of years I felt I was ready to take on more responsibility.

"When a post as assistant head of year came up, I talked it through with my mentor, who'd met with me, week in week out, through the ups and downs of my NQT year. This was the woman who'd seen me swing from tears after an awful lesson with a particularly horrible class to elation when things started to go right.

"I was worried she wouldn't think I was up to the job, but she was really encouraging. She'd worked in a similar role earlier in her career, so she looked at my letter of application, offered suggestions for improvement and helped me brainstorm possible interview questions and answers. When I got the job, she was as pleased as I was.

"She's not officially my mentor any more, but I still run ideas past her or ask for her advice when I encounter a difficult situation. I don't expect her to have all the answers, but it's great to get things off my chest and hear what she has to say."

Others are not so lucky, as Elaine Francis found out. "When I started teaching, for some bizarre reason, I was matched with the most disillusioned teacher in the school," says the primary teacher who works in Bristol. "She was clearly coasting towards retirement and had no interest in supporting me other than to tell me that teaching was an awful job and I should get out while I still could.

"She frequently cancelled our weekly meetings and moaned about having to mentor two NQTs. When I did express worries or concerns, she went running off to the head, trying to imply I wasn't doing my job properly. It wasn't long before the relationship broke down."

Mr Luck believes this kind of situation can be avoided if both parties are clear about their roles from the start. He says: "Confidentiality and opting out are two things that should be discussed and agreed at the first meeting. In Enfield, we have an opt out clause on a no-blame basis. People who are being mentored can say that the relationship isn't going well, without having to go into the details."

Steve Thorp, director of operations at the Teacher Support Network, says:

"If the relationship becomes strained, the teacher involved can benefit from another senior member of staff to confide in, to gain some perspective on what's happening. Workloads and other school priorities can suddenly demand a tutor's or mentor's time, leaving teachers feeling vulnerable. It is vital to keep the channels of communication open to prevent misunderstandings and situations blowing out of proportion. If the relationship isn't working, the headteacher needs to be informed and steps taken to resolve the situation."

Fortunately, such situations are rare. A recent survey by the Teacher Support Network found 93 per cent of newly qualified teachers said they felt very or fairly well supported by their mentor or induction tutor. Many teachers felt satisfied with the frequency and content of meetings. As Mr Luck says: "An experienced practitioner can provide the objective guidance and support needed in the early stages of a teaching career. When it works, this can be an extremely productive relationship."

Some names have been changed

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