Learning to teach always involves learning from and in schools, and all prospective teachers have to take responsibility for planning, teaching and assessment as well as ensuring the progress and wellbeing of their students in order to meet the Teacher Standards. This cannot be done in theory, at a distance or by proxy. It is done in person, in real time and with the very real challenges and opportunities that come thick and fast both in Abbreviated to ITT, the period of academic study and time in school leading to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and Education (Initial teacher training - the period of academic study and time in school leading to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS)) and for Newly Qualified Teachers (NQTs). One of the features of both the ITT and the NQT phases is the allocation of a mentor. In this article, I aim to help you consider how you can make mentoring a virtuous circle for professional learning and development that will carry you forward into a successful career.
While trainees often appreciate mentors as teaching role models, not all mentoring has the same positive and powerful effects. Mentors can be too busy to go beyond the required mentor meetings, lesson observations and feedback, tracking and target-setting (Lofthouse and Thomas, 2014). Mentors can be anxious about whether a trainee teacher might interrupt progress of classes for which the mentor has ultimate responsibility (Wilson, 2014). Mentors and trainee teachers can be instantly caught up with making and receiving judgements about the quality of the trainee teacher’s teaching and demonstration of meeting the QTS standards (Hobson and Malderez, 2013). The same problems can exist as teachers move into their NQT year.
So, how can you make the most of mentoring? Firstly, it is worth noting that not all mentoring is equal. Some mentors see their role as transmitting existing school cultures and behaviours to their trainee; others more readily allow trainee teachers to respond with creativity or innovation that might suit the school context; and some see their role as enabling the trainee to question beliefs and routines (their own and others’) and to consider how things might be, rather than how they are (Lofthouse and Thomas, 2014). In truth, most novice and early career teachers benefit from a mixture of all three mentoring paradigms, and some mentors naturally switch between them as the circumstances suit. However, you may find yourself in a mentor relationship that feels stuck rather than fluid, and if so it is worth asking yourself what you can do about it. Try not to adopt a passive role where ‘they instruct, you follow, they check’ and don’t allow yourself to be told to ‘sink or swim’ before you have had a chance to develop. There may be opportunities to nudge your mentor out of their routine behaviours through asking them different questions or bringing new ideas to your conversations. Don’t seek to undermine your mentor by blaming them when you struggle, but do take the view that you are there to be both supported and challenged, and seek advice if you feel that is not on offer. Be proactive and engage productively as a mentee.
Secondly, think about how ‘tools’ can help you learn to teach. ITT or NQT requirements can seem complicated because of the demands to write assignments, collate a portfolio of evidence, use online learning systems and ensure that you are formally observed teaching the requisite number of times. However, if your ITT course or induction is well designed, it will introduce you to a range of tools that allow you to learn most effectively on and from the job. A good lesson evaluation pro forma will guide you to account for teaching decisions you have made and to consider what the children in your class learned. A reflective journal gives you the means to look back on your progress and how you feel about it, and to notice successes or dilemmas that can inform future practice, and offer you insights into the teacher you are becoming. Video recording some of your lessons allows you to observe yourself in action and to spot opportunities missed as well as practices that are becoming well developed. These and other tools can impact positively on mentoring (Lofthouse and Birmingham, 2010). They give you evidence to share with your mentor and can ensure that mentoring is a two-way learning conversation from which you gain responsibility and confidence as a new professional.
Thirdly, remember that this is just the start, and you should not expect, or be expected, to be perfect. Professional learning carries on throughout every teacher’s career, learning through experience, through training and study, through professional participation and through the guidance, feedback, direction and support offered by colleagues and line managers. Every mentoring relationship should evolve, and should also be permeable to others. Don’t get locked into becoming reliant on your mentor; over time, they should be learning from you, and you should be positively influencing the school, its cultures and the opportunities that you can create for children and young people.