Gillian Acott, Curriculum Design Manager at Teach First
Gillian Acott
Curriculum Design Manager at Teach First

We need effective teacher mentoring - here’s 6 ways it can make a lasting difference

Not all mentors are made equal. Mentorship expert Gillian Acott highlights that it's the kind of support new teachers get that can drastically impact their careers (and whether they want to stay in the profession).

The origins of mentoring can be traced as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus leaves his home to fight in the Trojan War, he hands the care of his wife and son to his trusted friend Mentor, who took the role of teacher and overseer to his child.

Although our world has changed a lot over the last 1,300 years, the role of a mentor - particularly in the learning and development of novice teachers - is central and still reflects the principles of its origin. Mentors are expert teachers who guide novice learners on a personal and professional journey towards expertise – and they are an essential part of that journey!

Some of the benefits of mentoring include encouraging new teachers to develop more quickly, improved teaching and learning outcomes and enhanced job satisfaction. Significantly, research also indicates that working with an effective mentor has shown to reduce the likelihood of novice teachers leaving the profession (Howe, 2006; Ingersoll and Smith, 2003; Ingersoll and Strong, 2011).

However, whilst much of the research on mentoring focuses on its importance and benefits, there is also evidence to suggest that ineffective mentoring can be even more detrimental to novice teachers than no mentoring at all (Butts et al, 2010).

In my time as a teacher and leader in school, I’ve seen the good and the bad. My earliest, significant experience of mentoring was in my first term as a newly qualified teacher. It wasn’t a good one! I didn’t know then what I should expect of a mentor, but I know now it was opposite to the mentoring I received. Because of this, I struggled and thought about leaving many times.

So how does a struggling newly qualified teacher, who is considering leaving the profession in the first term of teaching, get from there to becoming a fully qualified teacher; staying and loving teaching; becoming a mentor; taking senior leadership roles and now having the privilege of designing curriculum to train new teachers? Quite simply – an ineffective mentor was replaced by an effective mentor. And in case you’re wondering about the impact an effective mentor can have? 18 years and counting, in my case.

I feel incredibly lucky to work for an organisation that’s committed to enabling trainee teachers to thrive and feel able to remain in teaching. At Teach First, we know effective mentors make a difference. The challenge for us is, as well as ensuring novice teachers have access to ongoing support and guidance throughout their training and early years of their career, ensuring that the mentoring they receive is effective.

To support our mentors to do this, we’ve reviewed our approach to mentor training and based on research around best practice, identified six areas where effective mentoring makes a difference. These features underpin our approach to mentoring and the design of our mentor training.

Here’s six areas our training will support your mentors to, in turn, support their trainees more effectively.

1. Building and Maintaining Relationships

We know that the breakdown or non-establishment of a positive mentor relationship is a commonly cited reason for early career teacher attrition. The ability to establish a positive relationship - and to continue to drive and maintain it - is a core feature of effective mentoring, providing the foundation for both the trainee’s and the mentor’s future development.

The establishment of a positive relationship needs to be intentional, and mentors need to take active steps to drive this from the outset. Relationship building takes time and effort, requiring subtle communication skills such as active listening, questioning techniques and body language. That is why our mentoring programme emphasises the importance of building relationships and explicitly focuses on developing the interpersonal skills that facilitate successful relationship building.

2. Feedback

The ability to provide high-quality feedback is fundamental in driving a trainee’s progress. At the root of this is the establishment of a positive feedback culture.  Research shows that where feedback is negative and/or focused on judgement, it can have a negative impact on wellbeing, confidence and ultimately the desire to stay the course (Hobson et al, 2020).  Mentors have a vital role in framing feedback as a motivating and learning-focused process to be welcomed (and not dreaded).

Once the culture is set, feedback needs to be the following in order to have impact:

  • Regular: As well as helping the trainee to progress more quickly, ‘little and often’ feedback builds confidence, helps to maintain the relationship, and allows the trainee to feel supported.
  • Small-step: A common mistake in giving feedback is for actions to be too general or large. Small, actionable steps that are tailored to the trainee’s needs allow them to make progress towards the larger goal - and most importantly, see the progress they are making.
  • Highest leverage: Trainee teachers often have a multitude of ‘next steps’ which can feel overwhelming and almost unachievable. One of the key skills of giving effective feedback is identifying the one key action that if the trainee focuses on, will make biggest difference to their teaching.

3. Deliberate Practice

The opportunity to practise the actions set encourages trainees to develop more quickly. This is often referred to as ‘deliberate practice’. There is considerable research evidence around the use of deliberate practice in the development of novice teachers, specifically within the process of giving feedback.

The Department for Education (2019a) explicitly sets out in The Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Core Content Framework that trainees should have multiple opportunities to practise and refine teaching practices. This approach is mirrored in the Department for Education’s (2019b) Early Career Framework. Giving trainees the opportunity to practise a specific skill outside the classroom in a ‘low-stakes’ environment, while adjusting the approach in response to feedback, builds confidence when trainees come to enact the skill in the ‘high-stakes’ environment of the classroom.

Practising core classroom skills regularly, such as gaining pupils’ attention, also helps embed them so they become automatic, freeing up the trainees’ mind to focus on the important business of teaching and ensuring what has been taught has been learned.

4. Reflection

Evidence shows that reflection and applying learning from reflection is a key in developing trainee progress. The ability to reflect meaningfully is a core skill that trainee teachers need to be taught and be encouraged to practise.

Meaningful reflection should involve a cycle of Experiencing (doing or having the experience), Reflecting (thinking about and evaluating the experience), Learning (drawing conclusions about the experience) and Acting (applying the learning).

Meaningful reflection for trainee teachers is challenging as novice teachers have difficulty in analysing their performance. Even with a clear model in place to support, novice teachers don’t yet have the pedagogical knowledge to see the link between their actions and their significance to the learning experience of their pupils. This is where an effective mentor can make a difference. An effective mentor can support the trainee to make the connections, developing the trainee’s own reflective practice and empowering them to start to think about their own developmental needs and setting their own actions.

This can be done most impactfully when the mentor models the process, reflecting on their own practice with honesty and openness and sharing their own personal areas for development as well as their areas of strength.  Our mentor training supports our mentors to do this.

5. Professional Expertise

The Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Core Content Framework sets out what trainee teachers should learn and how they should learn it. Central to this is a knowledge of learning theories, teaching strategies, pedagogy and how to teach these within the context of their own subject and phase.

The challenge for trainee teachers is often in linking the theory of teaching and learning to their own practice and context. Mentors have a vital role in helping them to do this. Mentors who are expert in the subject and phase (and know and engage fully with the curriculum content their trainee is being taught) can help them to make these connections. To do this effectively, mentors need the relevant knowledge, experience and skills and feel confident in their role and ability to support their trainee.

Our mentor training programme recognises that mentors are expert practitioners but that they also need support and development to be the best they can be for their trainee. As well as providing support and guidance for how mentors can develop their trainee, our mentor training helps them to identify their own developmental needs and continue to improve their own professional practice.

6. Wellbeing

The mental health and wellbeing of teachers has been a growing concern for some time now. The United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive (2019) in their Health and Safety Executive Annual Report and Accounts 2018/19 reported that compared with other professions teachers have some of the highest rates of work-related stress, depression and anxiety. In 2017, Education Support initiated research to learn more about the mental health and wellbeing of staff working in education and since then have produced annual reports setting out the stark statistics. Their Teacher Wellbeing Index 2021 shows that three quarters of staff experienced behavioural, psychological or physical symptoms of poor wellbeing due to work and that this figure has remained consistently high for the last five years.

Teaching is rewarding but it can also be extremely challenging and the pressures that come with this can lead to stress and burnout if not managed well.  Initial Teacher Training providers and schools have a responsibility to prepare trainees fully to meet the challenges.  This means helping trainee teachers to prioritise their own wellbeing from the start. Mentors play a vital role in making sure this happens!

Our mentor training emphasises the importance of trainees’ mental health and wellbeing, giving mentors practical strategies and resources to help support them. This is accomplished by identifying key levers that have been shown to reduce stress in trainee teachers such as managing workload, managing pupils’ behaviour and managing their own work-life balance. Our training also encourages mentors to reflect on and model how they manage their own wellbeing and by doing so, showing that a successful work-life balance is achievable and a career in teaching can be sustainable.

The importance of effective mentors

Effective mentors make a difference. They steer novice and early career teachers to progress their teaching more rapidly, increase their resilience, boost their self-confidence and most importantly create an environment where their trainees can progress, thrive - and remain!

Every trainee teacher should have the opportunity to be the best they can be, and an effective mentor is pivotal to their success. This can’t be left to chance - which is why we place, and must continue to place, as much emphasis on the training and development of our mentors as we do in our trainee teachers.

Continue the conversation with Gillian on the importance of good mentors on Twitter @gacottteachfir1, or tweet us your thoughts @TeachFirst.

 

References
  • Butts, M.M., Durley, J., Eby, L.T. and Ragins, B.R. (2010) Are bad experiences stronger than good ones in mentoring relationships?  Evidence from the protégé and mentor perspective. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Vol.77 (1), pp.81-92.
  • Department for Education (2019a) Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Core Content Framework [online]. Available here. [Accessed: 16 January 2021].
  • Department for Education (2019b) Early Career Framework [online]. Available here. [Accessed: 16 January 2021].
  • Education Support. (2021) Teacher Wellbeing Index 2021 [online]. Available here. [Accessed: 16 January 2021].
  • Health and Safety Executive (2019) Health and Safety Executive Annual Report and Accounts 2018/2019 [online]. Available here. [Accessed: 11 January 2022].
  • Hobson, A.J., Maxwell, B., Kaplar-Kodacsy, K. and Hotham, E. (2020) The Nature and Impact of Effective Mentoring Training, Education and Development (MTED) [online]. Available here. [Accessed: 1 September 2021].
  • Howe, E. R. (2006) Exemplary teacher induction: An international review. Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 38 (3), pp.287-297.
  • Ingersoll, R.M. and Smith, T.M. (2003) The wrong solution to the teacher shortage, Educational Leadership, Vol.60 (8), pp.30-33. [online]. Available here. [Accessed 1 September 2020].
  • Ingersoll, R.M. and Strong, M. (2011) The Impact of Induction and Mentoring Programs for Beginning Teachers: A Critical Review of the Research. Review of Education Research, Vol.81 (2), pp.201-233.
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