The legacy of mentoring
October 27th is National Mentoring Day. This is a day to acknowledge the impact of mentors across all walks of life, and to take time to consider our own role or potential as mentors to other.
I remember Gordon and Dave, my own PGCE mentors, who I was lucky enough to meet 30 years ago. They worked in two very different school contexts and mentored me through different phases of the PGCE year. The legacy of those mentoring relationships still lives with me; influenced by the conversations that we had and the opportunities that they created. I remember them teaching their classes and I recall that they were amongst the people that I wanted to emulate. As role models they were incredibly enthusiastic about our subject (geography) and perhaps even more importantly they were enthusiastic about their schools as communities of learners and were ambitious for the impact that their learners would have as they grew into adulthood. There was a genuine sense as they mentored me that we weren’t simply worrying about the lessons I was due to teach tomorrow or debriefing the lessons I had taught that week. Although my placements lessons mattered, we were thinking in a much more holistic and sustainable way about why my development as a teacher mattered.
This was in the very early days of partnership in teacher education in England, with newly developing formal management agreements between universities providing teacher education and their groups of schools. Since then we have gone through many iterations of ITTE partnership and seen many new versions of teacher education and training resulting in a complex landscape of provision. Mentoring within ITTE has been expressed through fresh ideas, ideals and structures in that time, but has been a constant, in recognition of the fundamental role that mentors play in shaping new teachers. We now have DfE national standards for mentors and the Early Career Framework with its expectations of mentoring wedded ever more firmly into the landscape. Each new structure helps teacher educators and mentors us to frame their work. It is thus easy to jump on a new programme, like the Early Career Framework and be very pleased about the fact that mentoring has been included in it. However, adding mentoring as an entitlement does not in itself give us a genuine sense of what mentoring can do within our profession.
A narrative for mentoring
The idea that mentoring creates a professional legacy should be central to our purpose moving forwards. This is a purpose that can be shared by all partners in initial teacher education, but also beyond that career stage. It is essential to recognise the real power and potential of mentoring in creating the future profession that teachers want and need and that our pupils and students deserve. As educators there is good reason to be advocates for mentoring. If we hold on to some truths about why mentoring matters and how it works well, we can be on firmer footing when we identify those cases where it isn’t working sufficiently well and where we need to make amends.
As a teacher, teacher educator and researcher when I think about mentoring, I think of about it as having a grand narrative. While we cannot romanticise mentoring because it risks creating rhetoric, but we need a narrative of purpose, nonetheless. How do I unpick this grand narrative? Each of the outcomes I identify in this blogpost would be beneficial outcomes of mentoring, but they can get lost in the bureaucracy of mentoring, one can trump another when we get into the day job, and we probably need to keep all of them balanced in order to the mentoring well.
Whatever stage of our teaching career we are at there is always scope to enhance our expertise. We can become more knowledgeable and more informed; we can build a greater, wider repertoire of practice. We are entitled to seek support to do that. Mentoring is part of the jigsaw through which teachers at all career stages enhance their expertise. Sometimes mentors mentor others at the same time as they themselves are learning the necessary expertise. If we think about the last six months of the pandemic, teachers have been thrust into so many different roles and have been teaching in different ways that at times they have been catching up with expertise they need. Sometimes the expertise is not solid, but it is being constructed along the way. As we enhance our expertise we develop the skill set and understanding that we need to work in the range of roles that we take on as teachers to the very best of our ability and to meet the challenges inherent in each role.
As professionals we evidently need to be accountable in our work. There will always be days when we question what impact our work has had, and worry about the mistakes we have made, but that is normal. What matters is that as we hold ourselves to account and allow other people to hold us to account, we do so in such as a way that is generative and thus developmental. To continue learning we cannot be in a place where our confidence has been undermined, or where we have become excluded from a role that we had hoped to develop in. Generative accountability is something we can enter into in a humane and supportive way through mentoring. It needs to be there early, so that as emerging professionals we develop a sense of comfort with it as opposed to a fear of, and mentoring can create this safe space.
Trust and belonging
It is very difficult to work well in an environment without a feeling of being trusted. If we don’t feel trusted, then we don’t step outside of our comfort zone or lean towards problems and challenges. If we don’t feel trusted, then we hide the mistakes that we make. When we feel trusted we are more likely to join conversations where problem solving is at the centre and where we acknowledge that we need each other to co-construct solutions for a better outcome. Without working in a situation in which we feel trusted it is unlikely that we will feel that we belong. A critical part of creating a professional legacy through mentoring in teaching is the transition from becoming a teacher to belonging in the profession. As we gain a sense of belonging, we start to feel at home and to feel welcome, and over time we start to feel skilled enough to meet challenges and we start to feel valued. Then we know that the contribution we are making to education is fundamentally important and we may find it hard to imagine not making that contribution. Mentoring that helps to create and sustain a sense of belonging is critical.
Solidarity, voice and inclusion
As we grow as educators, we learn better how to support others and can experience and co-create with them a values-based shared purpose. Mentoring, especially of those in the early years of their career, is such a significant opportunity to give time and energy to others and to allow their voices to be heard. It is a huge opportunity for professional conversations and actions which are inclusive. As such it can allow us to create a profession which is as diverse, multi-skilled and talented as we need. If we can raise up the voices of those people who enter our profession with such hope and ambition and allow their voices to contribute to the conversation mentors can start to create their legacy.
An ambition for mentoring
Thirty years after I began my own career as an educator, I would love to imagine it is possible to build a future profession in which all teachers identify as teachers and mentors. They may not have an official title or role or responsibility to mentor, but to be a teacher is also to be a mentor. Teachers and school leaders can appreciate that what they do in the education environment (real and online) in which new teachers occupy the same space, makes a huge difference to the ways that others can work and develop. Let us celebrate mentoring, put it centre-stage, not just on National Mentoring Day, but every day.
This blog draws on themes introduced by Rachel Lofthouse in her keynote talk on the 17th October 2020 for the Teacher Education and Development BERA SIG event ‘How could coaching and mentoring be reimagined by teacher educators to support Initial Teacher Trainees (ITTs) and Early Career Teachers (ECT)?’. This can be viewed here.
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.