There is nothing more frustrating than asking a question of someone who is supposed to be your mentor and getting “What do you think?” in response. If you’re in need of some quick advice, the last thing you want is to find yourself in a pseudo-counselling session, where you end up having to find the answers yourself with little input from the mentor.
Mentoring and coaching are very personal processes. What works for some might not work for others. I am an NQT mentor, line manager and have also mentored trainee teachers, and find that each situation requires a slightly different approach.
As a middle leader, part of your job will be to develop the teachers who report to you. But how do you learn the role of mentor in the first place, particularly if you’ve never experienced good mentoring yourself?
Broadly speaking, there are some subtle differences between mentoring and what we call “coaching”. The latter is task or performance orientated and usually occurs in the short term, while the former is relationship orientated, occurs in the long term and is more concerned with the individual and their development.
Personally, I find that the lines between the two are rather blurred. For example, I may be mentoring someone in the long term and developing them as a whole but their day-to-day performance is always going to be a key factor.
Build a good relationship
The good news is that, as a classroom teacher, you will already have cultivated many of the skills you need to be a great mentor. Perhaps the most important of these is the ability to build a good working relationship with the person you are mentoring so that they feel able to discuss a variety of issues with you.
The difference is that while there is an inherent power imbalance in a student-teacher relationship, the mentor-mentee relationship should feel much more equal.
Think of it as an exchange that will also help to develop you as a leader. Mentoring can go both ways and I have frequently learnt things from the people I mentor.
You must be aware of your own areas for development and be open about these with your mentee. Don’t pretend you know something if you don’t. If your mentee asks for advice on a certain topic and you aren’t confident about how to guide them, be honest; ask them if they mind you getting back to them later, after you have spoken to Ms X about it, so that you know you are giving them the best possible advice.
You need to strike a balance between encouraging self-reflection and offering solid guidance and advice. You want your mentee to reflect on what went well and what they could improve but they should not be doing all the legwork. It’s up to you to make suggestions, too.
However, when offering advice, it is important to stress that your way of doing something is not the only way.
Use phrases such as “Could you do that?” and “Have you thought of trying this?”, or share contextualised examples that come from experience.
This will help to guide a mentee to their own conclusions, allowing them to incorporate something of their own way of doing things into the solution without resorting to the dreaded “What do you think?”
Remember that everyone is different, so prepare to be flexible. Ask your mentee when they would like to meet and what format of meeting would suit them best. Do they need an agenda in advance to support their thinking? Or do they like to come with a list of their own thoughts to discuss? It can be very difficult not to mentor someone in the way you would like to be mentored, but the process needs to work for both of you.
Finally, never stop developing yourself. Observe meetings conducted by other people. Reflect on examples of when you have been mentored and then put your findings into practice.
As you observe and reflect, you learn, and as you learn, you implement. Then you reflect some more.
The path to being a good mentor is likely the same path you followed to being a good teacher. In the words of Yoda: “Always pass on what you have learned.”
Lacey Flook is a middle leader at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol