I wrote a post recently giving advice for PGCE students in which I talked about listening to mentors and taking their advice. However I think it's worth taking the time to discuss the role of a mentor, and the dos and don'ts of how to mentor a new entrant to our profession in a school.
Standards of mentoring vary enormously from school to school, and that probably has a lot to do with the overall ethos of the school, their levels of organisation and morale, and the workload. But the role is so very important that I think schools would do well to think carefully about the roles of professional mentor and subject mentor and choose the right person very carefully. And it behoves an individual to think carefully before stepping up to the challenge of mentoring.
It is a wonderful privilege to mentor younger teachers in our profession, but it requires some humility to do it properly. Being chosen as a mentor is not being told that you are there to pass on all the wealth of your wisdom to some ignorant newbie. What you are there to do is to bring out of the younger teachers the best teacher they can become.
This is tricky because you may be called upon to mentor teachers who are not like you, who don’t have the same teacher personality and will therefore never teach like you. What you want to do is to observe that person teach and try to see what they are good at. Perhaps it is human nature, but observing anyone do anything with a view to coming up with a judgement tends to mean that you note down every little thing they get wrong, and then only come up with one or two generalised positives when required to give feedback. (It’s amazing how many teachers do this to each other, when they would never dream of meting out this sort of treatment to the young people in their classes.)
So those who are mentored by an experienced teacher are left in no doubt as to all the myriad ways they could improve, but no real idea of what strengths they have to build upon. This does not enable a colleague to refine their teacher personality.
Strictly Positive Mentoring, looking for what a teacher is doing right, is an incredibly important job. We all know there is a shortage of teachers these days, and that it is widely perceived as a difficult job. We need to encourage those who have stepped up to the challenge of our profession, and we know that the PGCE and NQT years come with their challenges. We should help our trainees.
Not everyone can teach, it is true. But what we must do as mentors is to help those brave souls who come into our profession to become, from a standing start, the best teacher they can be. And to do that, we employ all the nurturing, positive techniques that we would use when encouraging a student to achieve their potential.
Among the raw ingredients of a good teacher that we should be looking for are:
o an easy manner with a class
o a clear liking for young people
o the ability to listen
o the ability to “read the room”
o the presence to control a class
o the confidence to use silence
o confidence in knowledge
o ability to accept correction
The ability to correct sensitively:
o being able to react appropriately to wrong answers
o guiding students to correct answers
o talking so students will listen
o a good balance of talk and silence
The ability to give instructions:
o clarity and economy of expression
o checking that instructions have been understood
They do not need to do all these things in the way that we do them. They need to be helped to do them in their way. And we need to be as kind to our trainees as to all the other learners we deal in our professional lives.
And we need to acknowledge that they won't make straight-line progress and to know when we need to step in and offer them emotional as well as professional support, to help them to keep going and achieve their, and our, end - that of successful completion of this stage of their training.