Homer's helpful henchman

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Developing as a Secondary School Mentor: a case study approach for trainee mentors and their tutors

By Alan Child and Stephen Merrill

Learning Matters pound;14

Mentoring in Further Education: meeting the National Occupational Standards

By Susan Wallace and Jonathon Gravells

Learning Matters pound;15

It is in our interests to set up teachers to succeed, so quality in-house training for teachers and lecturers is a high priority in most secondary schools and FE colleges. A good training and development programme is essential at all levels, particularly when teachers are starting out. There have always been mentors in schools; they used to be heads of department or experienced teachers given the role of supporting the beginning or newly qualified teacher.

I had no such support when I started my career more than 30 years ago. Save for a friendly head of department, I was left to sink or swim, with little or no formal back-up. I certainly never had a mentor. It is very different today. Mentoring is a priority at the school I lead as we train large numbers of student and graduate teachers, as well as inducting many NQTs every year. Our trainees have a subject mentor as well as a professional mentor, and a full training programme. Our HE providers train our mentors, and we work in partnership to ensure a high-quality support programme. So I was delighted to read both of these books.

Mentoring in Further Education, which gives a thorough overview of the history and the value of mentoring, is largely jargon-free and equally relevant to FE or secondary education. In a detailed introduction we are told that mentoring is nothing new - it comes from Homer's Odyssey. An old friend of Odysseus, Mentor, agrees to look after the king's son, Telemachus, while his father is away at the Trojan Wars. The authors then muse over what we call the person being mentored, pointing out that the word mentee sounds like a "new brand of mouthwash".

The introduction looks at the different types of mentoring usually encountered in FE colleges and asks why it is becoming increasingly important. We are also given a clear definition of the difference between mentoring and coaching: while coaches have a good grasp of their field, they do not have to be better performers than those they are coaching.

Mentors, however, are expected to be good role models and their teaching practice needs to be excellent. The book is full of useful case studies, as well as training hints for mentors to use and reflect on. It includes much theory, but is also full of helpful information and ideas to improve the professional practice of trainee mentors. The chapter on coaching and feedback is particularly useful.

Developing as a Secondary School Mentor is a well-written, slim volume that is basically a collection of 10 very different, believable - and irresistible - case studies, coupled with excellent training materials. The notes offering guidance on how to achieve "best-quality thinking" and secure the learning outcomes would be useful for a mentor working with a group of trainees. The authors point out that many of the approaches they suggest are not particularly new or different but can be an aide-memoire to good practice, and help to avoid the pitfalls.

Most of the case studies involve trainee teachers or NQTs. All have different backgrounds and present different issues. Some are very young and largely inexperienced; others are mature entrants to teaching who have spent many years in industry. Some are more open to receiving advice and support, while one or two prove to be a mentor's nightmare. However, each situation is well documented, with professional dilemmas faced, action taken and the outcome revealed: my favourite is "Not-so-sweet Caroline".

Caroline is an assistant head who has recently become a professional mentor. Although she is an excellent teacher, her lack of empathy means she has difficult relationships with other staff. As a perfectionist, she expects the same from her trainees. Her relationship with subject mentors causes problems, with trainees caught in the crossfire. The HE provider and the head are brought in to help sort out the problems.

It's a useful case study for training would-be mentors and for headteachers appointing mentors. They need to remember it is a job that requires particular skills and cannot be an add-on to a senior manager's role or a task given to those who are expert teachers, but lack the ability to share those skills.

The case studies start (as with all good lessons) with a statement of the intended learning outcomes, and are set out as a structured training session. Numerous tasks are included, as are notes for reflection. This book would be welcomed by all those involved in training teachers; it will certainly be used in my school.

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green community school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets

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