Mentors can help new heads adapt

15th July 2011 at 01:00
Mentoring works best for new headteachers when it is informal and seen as a two-way relationship, research shows

New headteachers will adapt to the job much better with mentoring - as long as local authorities relinquish much of their control of mentoring schemes.

That message emerged from research by Dumfries and Galloway's quality improvement manager Gillian Brydson, who told the conference that mentoring works best when it is informal and between people who are naturally drawn to work together.

"Mentoring is a human relationship," she told TESS. Having a third party match up two people was often "contrived" and did not work.

Instead, organisations should see mentoring as the practice of helping "like-minded souls" find each other; the best mentoring often happened spontaneously. Even so, her study - based on employer-led approaches - suggested that experiences of formal mentoring were mainly positive.

There were different understandings of what was meant by mentoring: some wanted a mentor to show them how to do something; others wanted someone "to bounce ideas off". More important than ruling which approach is superior, believes Ms Brydson, is that two people share similar approaches.

Ms Brydson carried out 42 interviews in Dumfries and Galloway with newly- appointed heads and deputes and their mentors, uncovering different perceptions of mentoring in primary and secondary schools.

Collaboration and the exchanging of ideas was more common at primary, whereas secondary mentoring was more likely to involve a school leader showing how the job should be done.

One possible explanation given is that women, who fill more primary senior management roles than men, are more likely to see mentoring as a form of "psycho-social" support than men.

"Mentoring shouldn't be about passing on the baton of outdated practice," said Ms Brydson. "It should be about giving the novice school manager the confidence to find their own solutions in their own context."

Good leadership, her study suggests, is "characterised by the ability to influence others through good relationships", which is a greater challenge for new heads and deputes than "technical or operational hurdles".

The benefits of a two-way relationship are not all for the person being mentored, she stressed; the mentor frequently feels "renewed" from having to rethink long-established ways of doing things.


Mentor was a friend of Odysseus who was left to look after his household when Odysseus went to fight at Troy. Athena, the goddess of war, disguised herself as Mentor and encouraged Odyseus' son, Telemachus, in his father's absence. Mentor's name, as a result, became synonymous with a wise and faithful guide.

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