Look and learn

14th March 2008 at 00:00

Many mentors and induction tutors receive no extra pay for their dedication to new teachers. Nick Morrison finds out how they get their rewards in other ways

For many new teachers, there is one person who proves pivotal in determining whether their first year in teaching is a success. Not their headteacher, not their head of department, not their most difficult pupil, but their mentor.

So who are these people? How do they become mentors - or induction tutors? What does it involve and what do they do when a trainee is struggling? For many, the post is unpaid, so why do they do it?

For Chris Wheeler, the answer to that last question lies in his own experience as a new teacher. Now a training manager in charge of mentors at two secondary schools, Chris's first year of teaching was a harsh introduction to the classroom.

"My first school was challenging and there wasn't anyone willing to give me a great deal of time," he says. "I want to give trainees the sort of head start I didn't have, because I know what a bad situation in the classroom can look like and how to deal with it."

Chris opted to turn his experience into a positive by becoming a mentor after his induction year. He moved to Ashton on Mersey School in Sale, Cheshire, a training school with about 40 trainees a year and 60 per cent of its staff trained as subject mentors.

For Chris, becoming a mentor involved working with teacher training students, and carrying out a lesson observation while someone observed him. Comparing notes with his own observer enabled Chris to improve his observational techniques. There were also role-plays on giving feedback to new teachers.

As a mentor, he has a weekly meeting with the trainee and visits the school's partner universities once a term to talk to tutors about what they want from mentors.

Giving feedback is one of the most delicate areas. To a struggling new teacher, negative feedback can knock their confidence, but failing to acknowledge there is a problem can stop them doing anything about it.

"You have to make sure you don't come across as patronising, but you have to be clear that you are trying to help them through a stressful time," Chris says. "You have to find the balance between letting people know your opinion and not appearing bullish. The best feedback is a discussion where you both come up with ideas."

To reinforce his comments, Chris will often ask a member of the senior management team to sit in on an observation, or encourage the new teacher to video one of their own lessons to see how it comes across to the pupils.

The role is voluntary and he acknowledges that it does involve a substantial amount of commitment, but believes the rewards are worth it. "It's good professional development: you're managing people and can be dealing with difficult positions. I find it fulfilling," he says.

"There is no better feeling than working intensively with somebody who has really struggled and helping them succeed."

It's when a new teacher is in difficulty that a mentor can really earn their corn. And it is also when their job is most demanding.

Leah Shaw has gone from being a mentor to lead induction tutor at Macmillan Academy in Middlesbrough. She is in charge of the mentors for the school's 10 school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) students. She says if a mentor flags up a problem with a student, she will try to work with that teacher to identify the problem and then look at techniques to improve.

If the area of concern is the pace of the lesson, for example, solutions could be setting time limits for each task, making sure the pupils know what these time limits are and making sure the tasks aren't too hard.

Like Chris, Leah was inspired to become a mentor by her own experience on the other side of the tutor-trainee relationship. "I didn't think my mentors were very good and I thought I could do a better job," she says. "Their philosophy was `Do as I say, not as I do', there was a lot of negative criticism and we didn't have regular meetings. I know what it is like when you're left to cope on your own, and I didn't want other people to be treated like that."

It's not just those who have had a bad time who opt to become mentors. Leah says many newly qualified teachers (NQTs) who found their induction year rewarding choose to become mentors to give something back. Their recent experience of training can be as good a preparation for mentoring as years of teaching.

As well as seeing a student making progress and thinking you had a part in that, Leah says mentors can also see the benefits in their own classrooms. "Ultimately, you are talking with someone about what makes a perfect lesson. It helps you to keep up with new developments and it means you focus on your own lessons and try new things yourself."

This strikes a chord with Richard Cox, an induction tutor for 10 years. "If you are working with somebody at an early stage of their career it makes you think carefully about what you are doing in your classroom and why," he says. "New staff bring in lots of good ideas and sometimes make you question whether you are doing things the right way." Some new teachers can also be more adventurous than more experienced staff, he says, with the injection of ideas often benefiting the children as well.

Richard, who is a deputy head at Valley Primary School in Bromley, Kent, says that the key to helping a struggling trainee is to spot the problem early and then work with them to resolve it. This could be through teaching alongside the NQT, finding suitable courses, or sometimes bringing in external support.

"If people have been in the job a long time they can forget the difficulties you can have, and it's important for the NQT to recognise that asking for help is not failing," he says.

As with Leah and Chris, Richard isn't paid to be a mentor, but says the role can be a springboard to promotion, providing an opportunity to learn leadership and coaching skills. But he says there is one other advantage that has nothing to do with career development or classroom practice: the chance to work with adults.


Every NQT in England should have a named induction tutor working closely with them during their induction period.

Guidance for new induction tutors - or mentors - was drawn up by the Teacher Training Agency in 2001. The key responsibilities are:

- Co-ordinating effective guidance and support for the NQT's professional development.

- Liaising and collaborating with all partners in the induction process.

- Monitoring the NQT's progress towards satisfactory completion of induction, gathering evidence for fair and rigorous assessments.

- Informing the headteacher about the NQT's progress and contributing to the school's monitoring and evaluation of its induction provision.

The Role of the Induction Tutor is available from: www.tda.gov.ukuploadresourcespdfrroit.pdf.

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