How to make the most of your mentor

20th May 2005 at 01:00
'My class coach helped me through my first year.' One probationer tells Su Clark of the support, strategies and soul searching

The theory that no probationer teacher should ever again have to stare into the blank faces of 30-plus pupils without the back-up of experienced teachers and a plan of professional development, has meant more than words in the McCrone report to Jacqui Crawford.

Originally from Kilmarnock, Ms Crawford, 24, has almost completed her qualifying year as a drama teacher at Boroughmuir High in Edinburgh, and it has been an eventful one.

"Jacqui's was a fully-funded post because the school didn't have a vacancy," explains Mo Cunningham, the development officer responsible for probation support at Edinburgh. "But in December a member of staff in the department left. It meant there has only been Jacqui and the principal teacher, Janie McGill, working full time, and one part-time teacher."

In a large school with 1,100 pupils, Ms Crawford's 16.5 hours of contact time were suddenly packed with classes from S1 through to her own Higher class, including an S4 group that she took through assessment for their Standard grade.

This experience has been crucial to her development as a teacher, but so have the responsibilities that come with being part of a small team. And she has had to juggle both with other professional development training obligatory under the national teachers' agreement.

Over the past year, Ms Crawford has attended many courses, contributed to departmental resources and management, and been involved in school strategy development. It was a lot to cope with when her contact time was so demanding, but Ms Crawford had the help of a mentor.

Edinburgh City Council began developing a system of mentoring before the teachers' agreement, which meant Ms Crawford benefited from an established structure of support. As head of department, Ms McGill was Ms Crawford's mentor.

"I've felt supported all year," says Ms Crawford. "I've met with Janie formally every week, but I've felt free to go to her informally with any concern or idea."

Under the national agreement, Mrs McGill is given one period a week to meet with Ms Crawford. Often this will include time spent in the classroom observing. But as the two must work so closely as a team, the relationship of mentor to mentee has been a powerful one.

"The mentor is meant to be more than just a supporter," says Ms Cunningham, who is on secondment to the council from her post as depute head at Forrester High in Edinburgh. "The style of mentoring we are trying to encourage in the city is one of coaching, with self-evaluation through discussions with the mentor." It's a system that has worked well for Ms Crawford.

"If I go to Janie with a concern, she doesn't tell me what I should have done differently. She makes me think about what I did, why and how, and what the outcome was. She prompts me to come to my own conclusions. I'm able to put the strategies learned at college in to practice."

Ms McGill has a formal structure of class observation and discussion that she must follow, which is set out by the national agreement and overseen by the school induction manager at Boroughmuir, Sheena Greco.

But Ms McGill does try to observe some of Ms Crawford's classes every week.

"Beyond the formal structure, I also like to observe informally, so that we can chat about it," she explains. "It means I can give her lots of feedback."

Rather than finding this intrusive, Ms Crawford has found it a positive experience, thanks to the coaching approach, which encourages her to give her own views. Ms McGill has also found that this has benefits for her and the school as well. Being Ms Crawford's mentor has been part of her own CPD.

"Jacqui is able to come up with ideas and solutions that I may not have thought of and it's good as it ensures the team doesn't become stagnant," she says.

But Ms Crawford's CPD isn't limited to teaching. During her time allowed because of the reduced probationer timetable, Ms Crawford has been working closely with Ms McGill to develop resources for the drama department. Part of her responsibility has been to produce S1S2 resources to make the transition between the years smoother. She has also put together starter packs for Higher drama, and, in hand with Ms McGill, developed structured cover work to fill in during absences so that pupils have continuous lessons.

Ms Crawford has also been encouraged to take on extra-curricular responsibilities when she wants and has been running an after-school study class for Higher students. She also plans to take a group of S1s to S5s to London, which has meant checking where her qualifications fell short.

"I had to consider what gaps there were in my training, and what I needed to have, to be able to take pupils away, such as first aid, which Sheena helped organise," says Ms Crawford.

In addition, Ms Crawford has done a health and safety course, another on literacy and is currently completing one on ICT.

Besides encouraging Ms Crawford's CPD within the department, Ms McGill and Ms Greco have also ensured professional development within the whole school. She has been encouraged to shadow other teachers in other departments, both practical and non-practical, to see how different teachers work, an experience Ms Crawford has found rewarding.

She has also been involved in developing whole school strategies, working with other departments on approaches to homework and with the guidance department to produce case studies of two pupils with additional education needs and suggest strategies for them.

"It is so different from how it used to be when I trained," says Ms McGill.

"Then you used to be given the key, shown the door and then left to it."

Jacqui Crawford is now looking for a permanent job. One she may be considering is the vacancy in Boroughmuir. But whatever she applies for, she knows she has the support of her mentor, even down to filling in her application form.

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