Realistic solutions to teacher stress - a source of much complaint - are rare. But one of the most effective ways of helping staff to deal with job strain is mentoring. It's mandatory for all teachers in their first year, but it may be two or three years in when you really need help.
When you start out in a profession, you always need advice from a wiser, more experienced head; someone to help you decide which problems are solvable and which are best left alone.
Mentoring is a simple idea: a senior member of staff meets regularly with a more junior colleague and gives them the benefit of their experience. These mentors don't proffer overt or directive advice, but help junior colleagues work through problems for themselves. The emphasis is on active listening.
There is clearly a psychotherapeutic dimension to the relationship, though no formal training is required for the role.
However, many teachers see the need for mentoring as a sign of weakness; that asking for help means they are not up to the job. This remedial model of mentoring puts teachers off and needs to be challenged.
Until recently, teachers were thrown into the deep end and told to get on with it. Many of today's mentors, therefore, might believe that as they coped without mentoring, there is indeed something wrong with the more junior colleague who now appears to need guidance. After all, they reason, I did it without help - why can't you? What's wrong with the teachers of today?
But mentoring is about enhancing the practice of teaching and helping to make teachers more effective. It is also about bonding people together in a profession where co-operation does not always come naturally.
A successful mentoring programme need not be expensive or elaborate, though it's wise to follow two principles. First, never try to force a reluctant senior teacher into mentoring, since that will only sour any relationship with their charge. And second, set clear, reasonable expectations of the mentor. Senior teachers don't have lots of time to spend holding their younger colleagues' hands; it can often be enough if the pair simply have lunch together occasionally, or spend an hour or two chatting every six months.
If possible, try to match up people who have compatible personalities or who look as though they will get on. This process is more art than science, but, when it works out, it makes for a more productive relationship. It may be as easy as asking new staff if they felt a connection with anyone during their interview, or after their first few weeks.
The relationship works best when teachers feel free to discuss whatever is bothering them without fearing it will get back to other colleagues. It also allows them to hear from someone whose perspective may be different from theirs.
What should mentors and their charges talk about? A good first meeting will cover the questions, fears, and goals that the less experienced teacher has, as well as each party's objectives.
How long should they stay in contact? As long as each party thinks it's necessary and the mentor is willing to serve. Most mentoring relationships taper off naturally as the younger teacher gains his or her bearings, but many develop into long-term friendships.
Mentoring is not the same as having your own psychotherapist on call; it's about the profession helping itself.
Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch (Bantam Press, pound;12.99). Email: email@example.com