Teacher mentoring; rising to the challenge of the Early Career Framework
New teachers are often working at points of tension. They can feel the need to adopt practices which seem relatively safe.
I have been taking stock of the newly published DfE Early Career Framework (the ECF) through the lens of CollectivED; the Mentoring and Coaching Hub (our research and practice centre here at Leeds Beckett University). I note that mentoring of early career teachers (ECTs) in their first and second year in the profession is one of the new offers, and that there is a promise of enhanced mentor training and capacity to facilitate this. These seem both appropriate and necessary steps. In this blog post I will reflect on what this might mean if we are to rise to the challenge. I am not focusing on the logistics of implementation, but on recognising that mentoring for professional learning is a practice in need of a coherent conceptual base.
To do this I will draw on a conceptual model of professional learning for practice development which I have demonstrated through research can be applied to mentoring (Lofthouse, 2018). The model is based on two key aspects of professional learning; attributes which exist in both individuals and institutions which have the capacity to promote and support learning, and the learning behaviours and cultures that can result.
New teachers are often working at points of tension. They can feel the need to adopt practices which seem relatively safe (for example in pedagogy or managing potentially troubling behaviour). In this context encouraging early career teachers to explore new ideas for practice can seem challenging, when often what everyone seems to be seeking is the passing on of tips and routines which seem to be ‘what works here’. However professional learning and the development of new teachers’ practices can be enhanced if mentors create opportunity for creativity. This is perhaps best explained as mentors recognising the importance that to support their learning early career teachers need to be given permission to problem-solve; opportunities to innovate; and access to alternative practices and perspectives. Through this they can become open to a range of other ideas; gaining the capacity to develop original thinking and the confidence to go beyond routine practices. This is essential if new teachers are to thrive in a range of (often unknown) future professional contexts, and also opens up the two-way street of mentoring, from which mentors are also benefitting from the joint exploration of new approaches to teaching.
Secondly, mentors should offer solidarity. This starts with the emotional support that so many new teachers acknowledge and appreciate but goes further. Developing a sense of solidarity allows both new teachers and their mentors to understand others’ needs, to take responsibility for what matters and to be part of a democracy of accountability; and to do so by engaging with their peers, their students and the wider community. To develop solidarity which allows them to see beyond their personal experiences and immediate concerns ECTs and mentors need opportunities for professional dialogue, chances to engage in collaboration and joint enterprises with others, and the spaces to create shared values.
There is also a need for mentors to offer authenticity. What I mean by this is that they can help new teachers to seek to understand the socio-cultural characteristics of the broad educational and social landscapes within which they work and the details of the specific contexts of their emerging practice. This means recognising how these characteristics create tensions in, and priorities of, the educational setting in which teachers work. This is only possible if ECTs are motivated to learn and take account of the ethical dimensions and dilemmas of their practice. Both mentors and ECTs need to bring their own values into their practice, and also to let their learning result in the evolution of their values over time.
However, there are tensions in creating and sustaining these rich practices of mentoring and it is these tensions that need to be engaged with if the potential of mentoring in the ECF is to be realised. Firstly, it is important that mentors and new teachers have a chance to articulate their learning. In other words, mentoring should provide opportunities for both parties to explain their practices and their thinking to others and thus to make their professional learning public. It should provide genuine opportunities for them to contribute to an accessible professional knowledge base; and to develop a shared language with other education practitioners, for example between the early years, schools, college and university sectors, and between the professions and communities with whom we share responsibilities for learning and wellbeing.
Secondly, we need to be realistic about the importance of critique. Engaging critically is not the same as being the bearer or recipient of criticism. It means that ECTs and mentors need to put effort into analysing practice evidence, to reflect critically on practice, research and theory, and thus to become open to engaging in processes of critique. This itself depends on a culture in schools in which all professionals are invited not just to be evidence-informed, but also to critique the forms of evidence they are offered or asked to collect. We need to encourage new teachers to work slowly and intelligently, being allowed to tune, attune and refine their own practices, rather than be nudged or forced to adopt someone else’s at someone else’s speed. ECTs and their mentors need to engage with and create networks of critical friends, who provoke them to think, to experiment and to aspire. This requires that mentoring creates safe, two-way dialogue, which is not skewed by a tendency to pass judgement or criticism.
Unless we create these opportunities, the final unresolved tension will be that mentoring might foster or reinforce restrictive rather than expansive professional learning environments. If teachers’ learning throughout their career does matter (including our new teachers), it is because we have allowed that learning to expand educational practice, opportunities and outcomes. To enable this means that we have allowed ECTs to develop dialogic thinking and self-regulation; to develop personal theories and models to inform their practice and to make better use of sound evidence to contribute to organisational development (such as engaging with curriculum development or the consideration of new assessment policies). Mentoring needs to give new teachers the tools to do this and thus to develop educative values, cultures and practices based on professional moral capital.
So, will the introduction of the Early Career Framework be the moment when mentoring lives up to its potential to transform the profession? My response is that we need to guard against this opportunity being missed. This requires that mentoring is not a sticking plaster, or another busy activity. Mentoring needs to be situated in a professional educational landscape in which new teachers and mentors challenge professional working practices that are restrictive, too often performative and sometimes even punitive (not to mention fractured, unforgivably busy and underfunded). Enhanced mentoring could be the game changer. At CollectivED we hope to play a part in enabling this.
Lofthouse, R. (2018) Re-imagining mentoring as a dynamic hub in the transformation of initial teacher education: The role of mentors and teacher educators, International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-042017-0033. Available as open access document.
Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.