Guardian angels

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
It's not just experienced staff who look after those making early career choices. Their peers are getting in on the act too. Barbara Oaff reports

For teachers, the first year in the job is one of the most important.

Elizabeth Holmes, author of The Newly Qualified Teacher's Handbook, puts it this way: "You're making what's potentially the most empowering transition of your career, from trainee to fully-fledged teacher." Enter mentors. Good ones play a crucial role in helping you to move from where you are to where you need to be. They offer encouragement, support and guidance with honesty and sensitivity. Such backing ought to mean your first year is less a question of just surviving and more a matter of really thriving.

So, where are these professional guardian angels to be found? The first is, of course, your school. As part of your induction, it must partner you with an experienced teacher who takes official responsibility for your year.

Ideally, their interest will be active, ongoing, organised and, yes, constructive.

A second hide-out for these angels is Engage, a new network that enables early-career teachers to buddy up with one another. Clearly this arrangement is far more informal and is based on letting peers help each other.

Members can use a dedicated database to make connections and then email help to one another. They might be able to answer a particular inquiry - anything from handling parents to handling colleagues to handling disruptive pupils. They might also offer more general moral support - exploiting the truism that it's always reassuring to be reminded that you're not alone in finding something difficult.

In addition to helping those being mentored, Engage seeks to help those doing the mentoring, the network promotes the exchange of best practice.

Mentor members can detail their knowledge in an electronic newsletter and over an online discussion forum.

All members also receive notice of relevant research and national developments, plus invitations to pertinent events and an opportunity to feed their views into the GTC's national policy work.

Engage has been designed to complement the council's two other networks - Achieve, for education professionals who promote race equality in schools, and Connect, for leaders of continuing professional development - and membership is automatic for all new teachers .

And mentoring works. At the School of Education at Nottingham University, they found that new teachers benefit in three specific ways. At a practical level they gain an awareness of their school's ethos and everyday structure; on a personal level, they gain a feeling of acceptance and approval; finally, on a professional level, they gain a deeper understanding of curriculum delivery and classroom management.

Catrin Dawson is a Year 4 teacher at Grange juniors in Runcorn, Cheshire.

She was successfully mentored there during her induction last year. Linda Thurlow is deputy head at Brookfield high school in Liverpool, who has been mentoring for more than three decades. Here then is their combined wisdom.

* Quickly create open communications between yourself and your mentor or mentors.

* Express your needsconcerns as early as possible.

* Be ready to ask follow-up questions if necessary.

* Be discerning in deciding how challenging you want your targets to be.

* Note down any difficulties you subsequently come across and be sure to raise these.

* Be receptive towards your mentor's advice.

* Show respect for their time.

* Attend all the induction sessions offered and if you need more, request them.

* Whatever you learn, aim to apply it immediately in your practice.

* Regularly refer to the Induction Standards to remind yourself of what you're formally aiming for.

But, beware, occasionally your angel can turn in to the devil and blight, instead of feed your career.

"Some people have fantastic mentoring and couldn't want for better support but others are neglected or bullied," says Sara Bubb, senior lecturer at London University's Institute of Education, in her book Helping Teachers Develop. She details new teachers' views of their mentors and induction tutors, from The TES online new-teacher forum, including one who wrote: "My mentor is a bitch who has reduced me to a nervous wreck. It's got to the point where I can't teach in front of her because I'm convinced I'll fail."

Another complains of a mentor who "has made me cry twice and often does not accept any of my version or explanations for events. I feel that she is watching my every move for something she can pick up on, rather than achievements."

New teachers caught up in such a mentoring partenership are in a very vulnerable position, says Ms Bubb. "The problem is that the person doing the supporting is also the assessor and may not take to kindly complaints about their mentoring style."

She suggests that teachers in this position should adopt behaviour specialists' advice to "reward the behaviour you want".

"Go overboard on saying how very helpful you found certain advice, while being professionally straight about what you have found unhelpful.

"If it becomes bullying, try to involve a third person such as the head and maybe ask if it would be possible to have a new mentor."

But Ms Bubb warns not to let the occasional horror story put you off making the most of your mentor: "The worst mentoring can be very destructive, but at its best it can be wonderul," she says. mentnq

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