Guest blog by Haili Hughes, English teacher and author of ‘Mentoring in Schools’ @HughesHaili.
“New teachers most benefit from being offered space to grow, reflect, continue to observe others, and to work collaboratively with colleagues. Mentoring is at its most powerful when it is built on positive personal relationships between novice teachers and those with more experience.”
We have all seen the headlines screaming at us from newspaper front pages, ‘Teacher recruitment and retention crisis,’ informing us that around one third of teachers leave the profession within 5 years of qualifying (New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2016 & 2019; Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership Limited, 2016).
There is no doubt that teaching is a difficult job but how many of those practitioners may have stayed in the classroom if they had been given the support of a highly skilled mentor? Somebody who was given the time and training to support and nurture them through what can be one of the toughest times of their career. Now more than ever, in an uncertain educational landscape, where early career teachers are sometimes working in isolation, having supportive mentors and experienced colleagues for support can make a huge difference.
Mentoring can be defined in many different ways: Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983) defines it as someone who is a wise and trusted teacher or counsellor, whereas Mentor Scout (2020) describe a mentor as someone who is willing to use their time and expertise to develop and guide another person who may be less experienced than them. Mentors need to have certain qualities that can help their mentees to develop and flourish. But what are these qualities? Kerry and Mayes (1995) outline some of these as the ability to nurture, to be a role model, to encourage and counsel, to focus on the mentee’s professional development and to sustain a caring relationship over time.
While writing my book for Crown House, ‘Mentoring in Schools,’ I conducted a series of qualitative focus groups and individual interviews with over a hundred early career teachers about their experiences of being mentored during this crucial stage of their career. Many of them had enjoyed positive, professional relationships with their mentors and felt that this support had been instrumental in helping them develop. One of the most common threads that came up during the interviews, in addition to mentors being approachable, was that they need to be able to have a thorough knowledge of where the trainee is at in terms of their development and to have the ability to work collaboratively with them to recognise what their next steps should be, guiding them towards possible strategies they can trial, and then reflect on their success.
This collaborative and reflective process, which is the true essence of mentoring, fits well into an Instructional Coaching model. Instructional Coaching has been in the spotlight recently, as it has shown promising results in schools, with a recent meta-analysis by Kraft et al. (2018) which revealed positive effects of coaching on instructional practice. Furthermore, Gregory et al.’s (2016) qualitative evaluations revealed that it can help teachers to connect faraway, standards-based policy with their day-to-day teaching strategies. There is no standard coaching model for this approach, but Jim Knight’s model is particularly useful, as he espouses ideas about teachers needing to collaborate with their mentors and learn from their expertise. It follows the principle that coaching is a cycle, with student engagement and learning at the centre of it. There needs to be time for planning and observations, as well as time to enact change and reflect at the end of it. Instructional coaches must also be knowledgeable and bring what Knight (2016) refers to as a research-based ‘instructional playbook’, so they can be the expert colleagues that my book refers to them as, who bring the best practice pedagogy into their schools and pass their expertise onto their mentees.
Effects of poor mentors
Clearly, ensuring that there is a core content requirement and minimum expectation of school-based provision that all new teachers must receive, can only be a positive thing. The quality of mentors and support can vary widely from school to school and having a negative experience with a mentor can make it much more difficult to flourish as an inexperienced teacher.
I speak from personal experience, as in my second training school, my mentor belittled me and declared that my strong Northern accent wasn’t good enough to be an English teacher and that I needed elocution lessons. With the wisdom of fifteen years in the classroom, I now understand that it was her own issues which caused her to treat me in this way but at the time, it destroyed my self-confidence and it very nearly forced me to quit my Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).
Unfortunately, negative experiences with mentors can be common and some participants in my study recalled situations where they felt unsupported as their mentors lacked the time or experience to best advise them.
4 key tips how leaders can support early career teachers
1. Choose your mentors wisely
Often, the keenest mentors are early career teachers themselves as they may have more time to support others than their more experienced colleagues who could have extra teaching and learning responsibilities. Some inexperienced teachers have an amazing amount to offer and are often at the forefront of new innovations in teaching and learning as they are still refining their own craft. However, there is so much more that experienced colleagues can offer when mentoring new teachers in terms of providing a range of tried and tested methods and strategies to support.
In essence, a new soldier in a battle may provide the boost an army needs but it is those soldiers who have been in battle before who have weapons in their arsenal they can draw upon to help the fight. Your best teachers should be mentors, as they need to model the excellent practice that new teachers are striving for. If there are inexperienced colleagues who are keen to mentor, that is great news. Just ensure that the mentors themselves have experienced colleagues to support them if they are unsure of how to best mentor their Provisionally Certificated Teacher (PCT).
2. Give them time
Mentoring is a difficult job and previously, colleagues who volunteered have given up their time generously, often shoe-horning mentor meetings and providing an open door to early career teachers or even at break and lunch times. To be an effective mentor, time needs to be given for them to have professional discussions with their mentees and reflect on their progress.
Time should also be allocated for the mentor and new teacher to do some team teaching together or jointly observe other teachers in the school and look at best practice. As a mentor, it is key that you are aware of the best educational research on aspects of pedagogy that link to the PCT standards. Doing the reading and research for this takes time, which is why it is key that leaders recognise this and give mentors the opportunity to do this as part of your PLD provision.
3. Check in with your early career teachers
I recently interviewed a number of newly qualified teachers who had their first year in the classroom cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the closure of schools to some students. Suddenly, they found themselves adrift and alone, doing their best to know what to do in a brave new world of online teaching. Many of them acknowledged that their mentors had tried to keep in touch and still support, but not feeling part of the wider school family and connected to other colleagues was really difficult.
Of course, now more than ever, senior leaders are overworked and stressed at the sheer volume of work they are having to complete. So remembering to check in on early career teachers on top of all of this can fall to the bottom of the to do list in favour of more pressing issues. However, a quick message to see if they are okay can mean the world to a struggling PCT and after all, we are in the business of people in schools. As we so often say, relationships mean everything – including with colleagues. Making them feel part of a school family can make all the difference.
4. Dovetail your PLD provision
New teachers are bombarded with information and they need to see what the bigger picture is when it comes to best practice in teaching. It can be difficult if the training they have received in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is vastly different or contradictory from what they are being shown in PLD sessions, as it can lead to confusion about how they can best incorporate and adapt strategies in their own teaching. It is vital that your PLD leaders work with ITE providers to understand what knowledge base a PCT is coming to the school possessing, so that this can then be built on in a school setting.
The same applies for the mentor training. Explore how the training for mentors fits in with your whole school priorities in terms of empower them to get involved in delivering this training to other colleagues. If it fits in with other training sessions, such as on cognitive learning or behaviour management practice, then there will be a greater clarity on what the direction of the school is for people to get on board.
If you want to support your early career teachers and create an atmosphere of support which will hopefully foster better job satisfaction and retention, please ensure that you have the best possible teachers acting as mentors. These colleagues will be a vital support to new teachers and they will need to be given the time to do this job well and gain the expertise required to be a quality mentor.
Haili Hughes’ book ‘Mentoring in Schools’ is out now with Crown House Publishing.
Note: This blog has been altered for regional context. The original article can be found here.
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- Gregory, A., Hafen, C.A., Ruzek, E., Mikami, A.Y., Allen, J.P and Pianta, R.C. (2016) ‘Closing the racial discipline gap in classrooms by changing teacher practice.’ School Psychological Review, 45(2): 171-191.
- Kerry, T. and Mayes, A.S. (1995) Issues in Mentoring. London: Psychology Press.
- Knight, J. (2016) ‘Teach to win: seven success factors for instructional coaching programs.’ Education Digest, 81(5): 27-32.
- Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D. and Hogan, D. (2018) ‘The effect of teacher coaching on instruction and achievement: a meta-analysis of the causal evidence.’ Review of Educational Research, 88(4): 547-588.
- Mentor Scout (2020) ‘What is a mentor?’ Available online at: https://mentorscout.com/mentor.cfm.
- Merriam-Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1983) Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
- Weale, S. (2019) ‘Fifth of teachers plan to leave profession within two years.’ in The Guardian, available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/apr/16/fifth-of-teachers-plan-to-leave-profession-within-two-years.