Masterclass in mentoring

27th March 2009 at 00:00
An innovative in-house scheme has paid huge dividends for teachers in an Aberdeen school

Tell an Aberdonian that a student teacher has cried at Northfield Academy and he might not be surprised. Lazy journalism and ill-informed chatter have frequently written off the school as a wild place where pupils rule the roost.

She was not crying because she had arrived at the school, which is located in the one of the most deprived parts of the city. She was crying because she was leaving and, later, she was delighted to return as a probationer. Now she is as a permanent member of staff.

Northfield, like any school, is not without its problems. But, crucially for those setting out in the profession, new teachers here can rely on the support of a unique mentoring scheme.

The scheme is delivered entirely in-house. Where other schools use outside experts, at Northfield, mentors are also trainers of other mentors. The school has 17 teachers who have completed 12 months of training, enabling them to mentor student and probationer teachers.

Rosa Murray, professional officer at the General Teaching Council for Scotland, was "very impressed". The GTCS believes the scheme is "innovative" in the level of support provided not only to new teachers, but to the mentors themselves. It recognised the school's achievements last month with the creation of professional certificates in mentoring for all 17 teachers.

Depute headteacher Mike Will says staff are "proud that no other school in the country can boast of having a significant staff team who are professionally recognised by the GTCS in the area of mentoring". The in-house approach has improved trust between staff and raised morale, he adds.

The scheme was devised by Mr Will and Paul Rorie, principal teacher of religious and moral education, based on training they had received in Scotland from luminaries of the University of California's New Teacher Centre, such as Ellen Moir and Janet Gless.

The 17 mentors meet monthly at "masterclasses", where they update each other on issues in the school and share any difficulties, but also keep abreast of wider teaching matters and research. Issues raised by students and probationers can also be brought up here, which Mr Will believes is crucial, even if a school's senior management has an open-doors policy.

"For some probationers, they are reluctant to go and speak to people they perceive to be in a hierarchy, despite all the talk about collegiality," he says.

A mentor is assigned to a probationer two weeks after he or she arrives at the school. They meet weekly, and mentors must carry out at least five of the nine class observations required that year. They are given 0.1 full-time equivalent days each week to undertake their duties.

A Northfield mentor cannot be a probationer's line manager, but must come from another department, which is helping the school to adapt to the cross-curricular working of A Curriculum for Excellence. It also means the young teachers are not relying on a single person for support, with all the difficulties that can bring if the relationship breaks down.

Evaluation from probationers has been "quite stunning," says Mr Will, and the in-house approach has "embedded" the needs of new teachers into the school.

One student enjoyed having a person to talk to outside her department, "whom I could ask questions and share thoughts with, without being judged". She appreciated that the mentor was interested in her "as a person" and would share her own experiences. When behaviour problems came up, "the feedback was mostly reassurance for me that I could still do this".

Mr Will, who grew up in the area around the school, wants the mentoring scheme to produce students and probationers who will go back to university, or into other jobs, enthusing about Northfield Academy.

The national lead that the school is taking in mentoring also spreads a "powerful message to pupils, parents and the community", he says, that Northfield Academy attracts great teachers and is, after all, a great place to learn.

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