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Caroline Daly & Emmajane Milton - Mentoring teachers is harder than lots of people think!

EjMMentoring by experienced practitioners to support new teachers has been around for a long time and has received a lot of attention in recent years. For example through Donaldson’s recommendations for mentoring in early teacher progression (Donaldson, 2011) and in the WG New Deal publication on Coaching and Mentoring (WG, 2015). There is also however a significant amount of evidence that suggests they are many difficulty in achieving effective mentoring. One problem has been identified as fabrication – the tendency for new teachers to conceal problems they are having due to fears of repercussions . . . . . another is ‘judgementoring’ – which indicates the difficulties for mentors of separating out their supportive role from their assessment role which frequently results in assessment dominating mentor conversations.

Further problems with school based mentoring include a tendency to induct new teachers in ‘the way things are done around here’ rather than helping them to critically evaluate their teaching and take risks to develop genuinely effective practice. In the face of these kinds of challenges external mentoring – carried out by professionals who are not employed by the school, has the potential to create a safe environment where new teachers can openly discuss their concerns. This included critiquing practices they are exposed to and expected to adopt in their settings.

Caroline DalyExternal mentoring was a key strategy of the Masters in Educational Practice (MEP) aimed at tackling such problems and inconsistencies in school based mentoring by offering rich development opportunities aimed at improving outcomes for learners. The MEP’s national network of up to 150 mentors was established between 2012-2017 to support the learning and development of NQTs, throughout Wales for the first three years of their career. These mentors had a dual role to support NQTs in meeting the Professional Teaching Standards (PTS) and helping them develop critical thinking and research informed practice that could be accredited at masters level.

Give these ambitions the challenges for mentors’ in being able to provide this kind of support over a three year period were considerable. A sustained programme of mentor learning and development was provided throughout the three year period of mentoring. A recent study has identified the key features that underpinned the training of external mentors to achieve these ambitious goals. Findings confirm that mentor training should be mandatory and requires sustained commitment and engagement that involves continued professional learning for an already expert cohort. As such the recruitment of mentors should be a rigorous process. External mentors included experienced classroom teachers, headteachers, local authority advisors, teacher educators and university professors. Eight principles emerge from the study for meeting the learning and development needs of mentors in order to maximise their capacity to support new teachers to achieve their full potential. The principles are based on enabling mentors to ‘mentor each other’ to meet ambitious goals for teacher development that can contribute to school improvement:

  1. Harness diversity of experience among mentors – the strengths of a mentor learning community lies in the range of backgrounds and expertise of its members – difference is essential.

  2. Dialogue is the basis for mentor learning and development, to enable mentors to talk about, exchange and deeply explore and interpret their experiences in order to learn from them.

  3. Inclusion is vital - no mentors are regarded as more senior than others, expertise is seen as complex and multifaceted.

  4. Problematise the concept of ‘consistency’ in mentor-mentee conversations - each mentoring instance is unique with a need to ‘mentor in the moment’.

  5. Promote disruptive exchanges through ‘risky talk’ to rehearse conversations with new teachers that legitimise criticality and grow confidence.

  6. Resist simple solutions and ‘quick fixes’ to learning and improvement – these are complex and unique to teachers’ and learners’ contexts – there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’.

  7. Mentor learning and development is hard work and takes time . . . time to build trust for genuine collaboration with others.

  8. Question ‘what works’ - investigate teaching practices and pupils learning as a foundation for supporting new teachers to develop.

These principles are proposed in order to challenge the conditions and constraints that so frequently inhibit opportunities for new teachers to develop as excellent practitioners. They are needed to develop mentors so that they can have questioning perspectives that disrupt the taken for granted assumptions about teaching practice that prevent true innovation.

The research was being published in August 2017 in the International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education and is titled ‘External mentoring for new teachers: mentor learning for a change agenda’.

Caroline Daly & Emmajane Milton
MEP Co-Directors

Daly, C. and Milton, E., (2017) "External mentoring for new teachers: mentor learning for a change agenda", International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 6 Issue: 3, pp.178-195, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-03-2017-0021