Putting mentoring in the spotlight in the new school year
This blogpost accompanies a new Beckett Talks podcast from Leeds Beckett University in which Professor Rachel Lofthouse shares her optimism about the power of mentoring. Search our podcast series here.
September 2021 sees the national roll out in England of the DfE’s Early Career Framework (ECF) which is a two year professional development commitment for new teachers, who are now known as Early Career Teachers (ECTs). Mentoring is a key component of this framework. If successful, this will put personal support and individualised professional development at the centre of the working lives of new teachers. Mentoring is generally determined by the role and context of the mentee. The mentor usually has direct experience and a working knowledge of both the role and context.
Mentors can thus create structured opportunities for professional conversation and sense-making allowing ECTS to integrate the curriculum content of the Early Career Framework, their current experiences and the promise of a sustained career in which they can thrive and contribute. Mentoring can support schools as multi-generational communities, the role of teaching ‘elders’ in passing on the tacit knowledge that underpins the profession, the wisdom that is needed in our midst to enable complex, nuanced decision making to benefit staff, learners, families and the wider communities which are intricately bound to our schools.
So far, so good. Mentors matter and many teachers enjoy mentoring. However not all mentoring creates a positive professional learning environment. We typically conflate being a good teacher with being a good mentor, and while they are not mutually exclusive, they are also not inevitable. Being an expert colleague who mentors early career teachers means being aware of how novices learn in, and from, complex workplaces. It also requires the creation of reflective and productive spaces in which current practical and urgent tasks and dilemmas can be grounded in a robust professional knowledge base and where beliefs and values can be shared and shaped.
It is important to recognise that for new teachers this is not the beginning. Having a mentor to support their development is familiar to them. Neither is this unknown territory for schools. Initial teacher training and education (ITTE) has relied on an infrastructure of school-based mentoring for decades. The roles of mentors are evolving and there will be an initial surge in demand for mentors to support the ECF. The ECF and expansion of mentoring is a potential step change in the way the profession sustains and develops itself. However although much heralded as a core component of the ECF this is the only reference to mentoring in the policy document, and indeed there is no mentoring specific research or to the DfE’s own mentor standards (DfE, 2016) in the reference list. For a new policy that is heralded as ‘evidence-based’ this seems a significant omission.
Putting mentoring in the spotlight through the ECF is one thing. Keeping it there is quite another. As the ECF providers roll out their new provision and rapidly recruit and train more mentors it is important to keep sight of mentoring as an optimistic approach to building the profession. This is essential at a time of continuing pandemic-related pressures in all schools, with a real risk for further disruption in 2021-22 from which ECTs and their mentors will not be immune.
Despite the possible hurdles ahead it will be essential to remember that new teachers most benefit from being offered space to grow, reflect, continue to observe others, and to work collaboratively with colleagues. Mentoring is at its most powerful when it is built on positive personal relationships between novice teachers and those with more experience. Expert colleagues become good mentors (formally or informally) when they allow new teachers to test out their emerging identity and build their confidence through affirming their professional development and growth.
Good mentors ensure new teachers recognise that they should never feel isolated and to be assured that help can always be found in the profession. Learning to teach and staying in teaching is necessarily a social process and we need to look for ways to foreground this dimension in our work with new teachers.
To help keep mentoring in the spotlight you can listen to a new Beckett Talks podcast from Leeds Beckett University in which Professor Rachel Lofthouse shares her optimism about the power of mentoring.
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.