Mentors provide boost for new curriculum

17th December 2010 at 00:00
A pilot study inspired by the University of California encourages teachers to ask for help

It's almost 20 years since Sheila Mair trained as a primary teacher after volunteering to help in her children's school. The headteacher encouraged her to think about teaching, so she embarked on training as a mature student in her 30s.

It was a steep learning curve in her first term, when she worked 247 to keep on top of the job: "You were just thrown in at the deep end and that was it," she says.

Back then, she felt asking for advice could be seen as a sign of weakness: "You were a wee bit scared to ask, in case you were looked on as a failure."

Ms Mair is now on secondment as a full-release mentor for probationers in Aberdeenshire primary schools, and would like to think that they can ask her anything. She is one of the teachers participating in a training project to enhance mentoring skills in the context of Curriculum for Excellence.

The pilot venture is a partnership between the CfE team at Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS) and the New Teacher Centre at the University of California in Santa Cruz, which has run mentoring and continuing professional development programmes for teachers across the world.

Ms Mair was one of more than 50 teachers, heads and educational professionals who attended recent "Mentoring within Curriculum for Excellence" workshops in Aberdeenshire and North Lanarkshire, designed to develop mentoring skills across all sectors, not just for those on full- release mentor schemes or mentoring new teachers.

Kay Livingston, director of international research and innovation at LTS, says the programme is looking at the implementation phase within the new curriculum. "We want to ensure that we are thinking of the best possible way of supporting teachers in relation to CfE and the mentoring process is part of that."

Teachers are encouraged to focus on key elements of their practice that they might have to change and develop in relation to the implementation. The aim is to discover how supporting teachers through mentoring can help develop learning and teaching within the context of CfE.

The research and development will gather information to monitor and evaluate the impact this has on the teachers who take part and on their work within the new curriculum.

Julie Almquist, senior director with the New Teacher Centre in Santa Cruz, delivered the workshops alongside the CfE team from Learning and Teaching Scotland. She described one of the tools - a collaborative log, developed in Santa Cruz to support the mentoring relationship - which has been adapted to suit CfE.

"It's not a form you fill out, it's really a graphic organiser, a tool that supports a conversation around learning and development and teaching," she says. "We want it to support serious conversations between a mentor and a teacher in supporting the learning."

Scottish teachers will be able to share a protocol developed at Santa Cruz, which guides the conversation so the mentor can quickly assess the teacher's progress and identify any problems based on the information the teacher shares.

"Then we think about some of the ways I can support this teacher in moving forward, so that the teacher isn't stuck in dysfunction," Mrs Almquist adds.

Fiona Marshall, a full-release mentor seconded from her post as headteacher at Auchnagatt Primary in Aberdeenshire, thought the workshop was "absolutely excellent".

"We worked very collaboratively through the day in workshops. We looked at the role of the effective teacher first and the role of the mentor," she says. "We work closely together as a team and I think we all came away with the feeling `Oh we are doing the right thing, but there are elements we need to take forward'."

The next follow-up session on the programme will be held in March. Sheila Carson, a quality improvement officer at Aberdeenshire Council with responsibility for CPD, says the authority is delighted to be included in this venture.

"It's going to be great to have our staff trained by these brilliant people from Santa Cruz," she says. "I am very excited we have been asked to be part of this pilot."

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