Think back to your earliest days as a teacher. What were you like? Optimistic? Energetic? A bit of a know-it-all? It’s not uncommon for new staff to think they know how to do things better than the old guard. But in some workplaces, young upstarts are now being called upon to put that feeling into practice by mentoring someone more experienced.
Reverse mentoring is an idea that first took root in the business world in the 1990s, but has recently been growing in popularity in the tech sector, where young employees are tasked with offering fresh perspectives to their bosses. The concept made the headlines earlier this year when the BBC announced that it would be offering a mentor under the age of 30 to every member of the radio and education management team.
But could a similar approach work in schools? Tracey Lawrence, a head of school and specialist leader of education for behaviour at Danemill Primary School in Leicestershire, thinks so.
“I’d be more than open to it,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what age or stage in their career they are, I learn from people I buy into. It’s the ideas that ensure credibility.”
And there are areas in which new staff may have significant advantages over experienced colleagues, such as their willingness to try innovative approaches to classroom practice.
“Being a mentor around innovation and new practices could certainly be valuable,” says Philippa Cordingley, chief executive of the Centre for the use of Research and Evidence in Education. “If you haven’t spent 20 years developing techniques that you feel work for you and are in your comfort zone, you will be up for trying things. You will be seeing the learning situations with a fresh pair of eyes.”
Technology is another area in which older staff could potentially benefit from the knowledge of new colleagues. Younger teachers may well be more aware of trends in tech, and be able to offer useful pointers to those who are less comfortable or keen to explore them in the classroom.
That was the thinking behind a reverse-mentoring project at the University of Hertfordshire, in which students were employed as “technology mentors” to assist lecturers with the use of blended learning and navigating the university’s virtual learning environment. Students were paid for their time and developed useful skills to put on their CVs, while lecturers overcame IT issues they had been struggling with.
“There was a matching process between staff needs and student abilities, so it depended from one faculty to another what the requirements were,” explains Amanda Jefferies, a professor of computer science who worked on the project. “We called it win-win-win, because it had such a positive outcome. Even the vice-chancellor had a student mentor.”
But for school leaders who are already ready to jump on the bandwagon, there are potentially problematic interpersonal issues to consider, says Chris Curtis, who has been teaching for 14 years and is currently head of English at Saint John Houghton Catholic Voluntary Academy in Derbyshire.
“I think it would be insulting,” he says. “Imagine a Year 7 mentoring a Year 11 student. They might be good, but they lack the experience. People in the position of being mentored need to have some confidence in the mentor’s ability to help, and a new person will not always inspire that confidence.”
His concern, he continues, would be whether a new teacher could fully grasp the complexities of situations they were presented with.
“In my early days, I made a lot of mistakes because I didn’t understand the situation properly,” he says. “Teaching is about cause and effect. It is easy to suggest the causes, but it takes experience to understand the effect. They could observe aspects of teaching and help established teachers with identifying problems, but not necessarily resolve them.”
Cordingley agrees that classroom management and pedagogy may not be suitable areas for reverse mentoring, as new staff tend to “see the surface” of teaching in terms of keeping a room calm and getting content organised. It takes time, she says, to understand the “beneath the iceberg” parts of the role. But, she continues, the best schools will have an element of reverse mentoring anyway, even if it doesn’t go by that name.
“Good schools recognise that when students are coming in on PGCEs, they are getting access to the latest research, so they give them quite a prominent role in bringing that research into the school as a learning community,” she says. “And it happens with subject knowledge, too. If you’ve been studying physics at university and then train to be a physics teacher, the whole department will be hanging on your coat-tails, and that will be very welcome.”
Grace Benson completed her NQT year last July and has found a similar process taking place implicitly in the English department in which she works.
“We all share approaches to things, particularly all the curriculum changes that have gone on,” she explains. “And because I’ve just trained in it, there are areas that I know in a bit more detail because I spent hours in university studying it. So I am sharing a lot of best practice, although we wouldn’t call it reverse mentoring.”
Some schools are now implementing reverse mentoring by another name: coaching triads. James Bennett is a new Teach First participant at Holloway School in North London, and has been placed in a triad with a teacher in their second year and a deputy head. The three meet twice each half-term, and take it in turns to swap roles as coach, coachee and observer. The programme uses a reflective model, so the coach doesn’t give advice, but guides the coachee to think about their own practice. And for Bennett, the process has been positive.
“Mentoring a senior or middle leader might be daunting for some, but it really depends on your school’s culture,” he says. “It has allowed me to build connections with members of staff I might not have reached out to, and it has been extremely useful to coach more experienced members of staff and hear what issues they are experiencing and how they plan on tackling them.”
It’s also refreshing as a newcomer, he adds, to see teachers who have been at the school for more than 20 years “actively reflecting on their practice”.
For Cordingley, the most important thing is that mentoring – in all its various guises – moves toward receiving the respect it deserves. “What we see from the research is that no country is doing mentoring well at the moment,” she says. “It’s not a very high-status role in schools; it’s often just given to the person who’s got a bit of time on their timetable, with not a lot of thought. Many schools don’t recognise the value of it – they very rarely train them, for example. But being a mentor is hugely helpful for people’s learning. At the moment, the system doesn’t really recognise it, but it is a privilege.”
Zofia Niemtus is a freelance writer