Mentoring should be seen as a 'privilege'

30th October 2009 at 00:00
Probationers make better progress when supported by a full-time mentor.

A full-time probationer mentor has been appointed by a Scottish council after it found teachers looked at mentoring as "getting the short straw".

When Moray Council introduced the post in 2007, inspired by the work of the New Teacher Center in California, it wanted to develop consistent support for all probationers; get them into the habit of reflecting on their practice; and develop leadership and mentoring capacity.

Now research into the scheme has shown it has been largely successful, with probationers supported by a full-time mentor making better progress than those under a school-based mentor.

Lynn Whitelaw, a quality improvement officer in Moray, said: "The anecdotal evidence, when we started enquiring, was that people felt they were given the mentors' posts because they got the short straw. Not many thought: `It's great I've been asked, what a privilege.'"

Looking through probationer profiles, Ms Whitelaw said, it became apparent that meetings and observations were often being crammed into the last part of term in order to meet the requirements.

"There were clear issues about the quality of support probationers were getting," she said. "They teach a class for a year and we didn't want that class to suffer because they have not been adequately supported and growing. We also felt strongly this was when they were setting their habits of mind and discovering what sort of professionals they were going to be. We felt they needed support to think about that."

Then they came across the work of Ellen Moir and her team at the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz.

"We went away thinking what we needed was full-time mentors," said Ms Whitelaw, who visited the centre herself on a Learning and Teaching Scotland study trip to the city, which is 72 miles south of San Francisco.

Research into the scheme's first year, supported by Kay Livingston, a professor of education at Glasgow University and head of international education at LTS, has shown probationers with a full-release mentor were more likely to receive regular meetings, made more consistent progress in their classroom practice, and were more likely to be encouraged to become reflective practitioners.

Other advantages, according to Moray's 29 probationers, 11 of whom had access to the full-time mentor, were the coach's independence from the school, having access to someone with a different point of view, and the same support for every probationer.

However, two probationers found that, even with a full-time mentor, arranging meetings could be difficult. They also highlighted two disadvantages - full-time mentors lacked local knowledge and were not there for day-to-day issues.

"This clearly underlines the important fact that full-release mentoring does not replace, nor was it intended to replace, the normal day-to-day support within the school," the researchers said in their report.

AMERICAN PIONEERS ON TRAINING FRONTIER

Mentoring new teachers is not a job for whoever has the spare time, according to the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, California.

Speaking at an event in Stirling last year, its associate director, Janet Gless, said: "The growth and development of the adults in an educational system is the only way to impact on children's achievement. This is critical."

The center has pioneered a mentoring model that rejects the idea of "buddy mentors", who might discuss problems over a glass of wine; instead, they promote the idea of mentors as skilled practitioners who keep teachers afloat and in the right direction for the first few years.

Palm Beach County is the latest area to embrace the model. Working in partnership with the center this year, it has increased its number of full-time mentors from four to nine and will train 40 more district employees to guide teachers.

It hopes the move will improve retention rates among new teachers. According to data collected by the center, about 88 percent of the first- year teachers with mentors were still in the classroom five years later, compared with the US average of fewer than 50 percent.

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