High challenge and high support: a reflection on mentoring within a collaborative culture
I have had the opportunity to mentor both student teachers, newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and new staff members within my current role. Most recently, I am currently mentoring an NQT who completed their training, and started their first teaching role, within the context of a pandemic. Personally, I have always found that being a mentor is a brilliant opportunity to reflect on my own practice: as professionals we should never stop learning and reflecting on both what we do and why we do it.
Through this course, I have had the opportunity to discuss ideas around mentoring which have further made me reflect on my own practice. I think the theme of collaboration really resonated with me: as a school we have a strong collaborative ethos and our curriculum model is highly collaborative (we work in a partnership of 5 schools and regularly meet in curriculum teams). Furthermore, all of our teachers work in phase teams who are jointly responsible for the planning and the organisation of the phase. My NQT this year initially found this difficult: they expressed a loss of control over some aspects. In addition, more experienced team members naturally drive or steer decisions which can be daunting to challenge when you are new to an organisation or beginning your career. As their mentor, we spent time looking at the rationale behind this approach and helping to establish their role within the team.
There are many benefits of collaborative working in schools: it strengthens pedagogy, creates a collectivist culture, provides CPD through the sharing of best practice and can create a more manageable workload. Particularly for new teachers, they benefit from a collaborative approach to avoid teaching becoming ‘a lonely endeavour’ (Lofthouse, 2020). However, it is also important that this collaboration does not take away learning opportunities for the NQT through more experienced team members taking control (or them simply not experiencing some aspects of the jobs through the need for others to retain control or micromanage a process). By reflecting on collaboration, it has made me look at the ways we induct NQTs into a phase team and the importance of the mentor in ensuring they find their place within the team and do not miss out on crucial learning experiences. This also links to autonomy: we also need to ensure new teachers can build on their own attributes and skills, to enable them to find greater autonomy as they progress through their career.
Building the Relationship
Building relationships is key in any organisation and I very much believe that a relational culture should be at the heart of any school. Mentoring is key to this process as it helps to build and sustain relationships. As a mentor, I think it is really important to build a relationship based on trust, with both high levels of challenge and support. Through the mentoring process, it can help to create a shared vision that is understood and owned by all (Finnis, 2021). Mentors have the ability to lead; to lead trainees into a restorative culture. This in turn can help foster a sense of autonomy where key actions and objectives are owned by everyone. However, it is important that mentoring involves two-way communication and that the mentee feels safe enough to question and challenge to ensure we do not stand still and that they understand the vision and ethos of the school and have a voice to contribute to this.
As a side note, I have recently read Restorative Practice (Finnis, 2021) which really resonated with me, as some schools can be described as having a harmful or ‘toxic culture’ which can be damaging to trainees. Negativity in the profession can project onto trainees, which can, in turn, cause them a lot of additional stress in their early career. We need to provide both a high level challenge and support for trainees to help them flourish, but also to catch them when they fall or become overwhelmed so they feel safe to make mistakes and learn from these. I work in a school with a high-level of challenging behaviour which can be difficult for trainee teachers. However, we try to ensure that behaviour is a shared endeavour and that we provide space to reflect on incidents in a safe way to help us all learn from these experiences.
Enabling Insight and Learning
I think mentoring is a key ingredient in promoting professional learning at all levels within an organisation. The relationship between the mentor and mentee should be based on mutual respect and trust; it should be a safe space to reflect, challenge and support a colleague. There are so many talented professionals in the educational sector; however, it is also a sector which sometimes feels like it values competition over collaboration, particularly between schools. Through mentoring, the relationship should facilitate the goal of professional and personal development. The mentor does not need to hold all the answers, but, instead, should be a gateway to facilitating relationships with other professionals that may be able to support and develop the mentee. I think professional networks are also important and mentees should be encouraged to join these.
Finally, I would also argue that the mentor should develop through the mentoring process through reflecting on their own practice. If we do what we have always done, we will get what we have always got. Staying reflective is an important mechanism in ensuring that we create cultures of continuous improvement. By reflecting on the practice of others, we can also ask questions of the profession and challenge ingrained ways of working: just because we have always done it that way, does not always make it the right way.
Finnis, M (2021). Restorative Practice. Independent Thinking Press
Lofthouse, R (2020). How can we best support early career teachers: Can collaboration, a social life and autonomy make a difference? (Link: https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/blogs/carnegie-education/2020/02/how-can-we-best-support-early-career-teachers/).