Dear mentors

It can be easy to gloss over the fact that first year Teach Firsters are mere PGCE students – particularly after Autumn term when our greenness has worn off a bit. The fact is, though, we’re still very inexperienced and need a lot of guidance and support.

Mentors are absolutely instrumental for this. They’re in school with us and see us every day. They have an hour a week of one-to-one professional development time. They may be the person most influential in shaping the type of teacher we qualify as.

As a participant, here’s my humbly proffered advice to mentors.

Be nice

It’s human nature to want to please. If you’re my line manager, or even just someone more senior in the department, my initial instinct will be to present my best side to you.

We’ve spent years being successful academically or in work. We’re usually not used to failing. We’re probably embarrassed by being bad at something.

But if you want the best out of me, I need to be able to be completely honest with you. So make that possible by being kind, by reassuring me, and by telling me that you’re there to support me rather than judge me.

That doesn’t mean lying to me. But it means not slaughtering me when I make mistakes, and giving me lots of praise when I improve.

Be around

When I asked Teach Firsters on twitter what they wanted from a mentor, the number one theme was being available to answer questions and to talk to. We have so many questions and burgeoning ideas, from the mundane to the philosophical. If you want me to feel supported, you need to be there to answer them.

I’ve experienced massive frustration with this over the past year. I adore my mentor: he’s a fantastic teacher. But he’s head of maths. That makes him one of the busiest people in the school. He has his own office; I never see him in the maths office. 50% of our mentor meetings are cancelled because he has been called to deal with a crisis of some sort. It sucks.

If you don’t think you can be around that much, you seriously need to think about handing your mentor role onto someone else. Ultimately, it’s not fair on the trainee and it’s not fair on the kids for them to be wandering around not knowing what they’re doing.

Tell me what I don’t know

We’ve had 6 weeks of Summer Institute. Recognise what that will and – more crucially – won’t have taught us.

I can talk your ear off about Prezi. I can quote any number of statistics about educational disadvantage. I can tell you the difference between leadership and management.

I have no idea how to explain ratio to set 5. Tell me that.

Even better: tell me what I don’t know I don’t know

We all start off being unconsciously incompetent. We look at outstanding practice and we can see how far off from that we are, but it feels so alien from what we’re doing in the classroom. Even looking at the teacher standards feels so overwhelming in that first term. We don’t know how to get started.

Your job is to give me kind, fair and specific feedback on the very next step I need to take. Just arriving at the mentor meeting period 3 on Thursday and being there to answer questions isn’t enough. We don’t know the right questions to ask yet. You need to know your mentee: their strengths and weaknesses, their potential, how they’ve improved over time.

Knowing your mentee boils down to two things: frequent (informal, quick) observations and making sure they can talk openly to you. How do you get them to talk openly to you? See “be nice”.

Set me proper targets

The Teach First journal can be a valuable tool for reflection, or it can be a tedious millstone round one’s neck. If it’s going to be the former, the mentor has a really important role to play in making the targets relevant, specific and actionable.

If you arrive at a mentor meeting and tell me to write “work on classroom presence” as my target, you’re not fit to be a mentor.

All that happens when you do that is the participant turns up next week, having forgotten what the target even was, writes some rubbish in the evaluation section and moves on.

Targets need to be incredibly specific, realistic and truly focused on the one thing that will make me improve from this week to the next.

Here are some hastily thought through examples (they may not be that good – apologies)

  • Unsatisfactory: improve quality and quantity of marking
  • Requires improvement: catch up on marking year 8 books, including next steps feedback
  • Good: set a piece of extended writing and mark it using two stars and a wish
  • Outstanding: set year 8 a piece of homework on extended writing about the Tudors’ dress sense (as discussed). Set up a meeting with Mrs Lee for her to show me her marking, and for her to model how she might use 2S1W on the Tudors homework. Bring this marking to the next mentor meeting.
  • Unsatisfactory: work on questioning
  • Requires improvement: try to ask more open questions in lessons
  • Good: plan 2 open questions for each lesson I teach this week
  • Outstanding: use the questioning grid to plan quality open questions for my year 7 lessons this week. Show them to mentor on Wednesday morning for checking. Plan to “pose-pause-pounce-bounce” these questions at the hinge points of lessons. Reflect briefly on WWW and EBI after each of these lessons and bring these reflections to the mentor meeting.
  • Unsatisfactory: tighten up behaviour management
  • Requires improvement: be more firm in my classroom interactions
  • Good: practice using the language of expectations and say thank you, not please, when giving instructions.
  • Outstanding: role play giving firm instructions for a few minutes every day with Laura, using the phrases “I expect” and “thank you”. Do a 5 minute starter swap with Laura in any lesson this week where we observe each other for the tone of voice and phrasing of instructions used.

Have faith

The final point I want to make is that while we will be quite terrifyingly awful at the beginning, we improve remarkably quickly. The progress isn’t linear: it comes in fits and starts. Keep believing in them, keep helping them, keep setting them proper targets, and your mentees will be admirably good teachers by Summer term.

9 thoughts on “Dear mentors

  1. hillsofnottingham

    Valuable advice, The further you get in the profession, the more you find on your plate. Yet mentoring presupposes that our students can utilise us as needed. Balancing the entitlement you have with our workload isn’t easy but I think some of us forget we were there once. I am planning to print this out and put it in the front of my mentoring notebook to remind me. We try so hard to avoid damaging the self esteem of children, why should our adult learners be any different.

    Reply
  2. Michael Tidd

    Dear Mentee,
    You’re right. I know you are. And I’m sorry. But this is a really challenging relationship and we’re going to have to work on it together.
    I am indeed very busy. Look around you: everyone is. You are too. And while this year is – for you – almost entirely focussed on your progress, I have to consider the other members of my department, my other responsibilities, and of course the many students I teach or otherwise have an impact on.
    An hour of my time every week is a massive demand. Of course in an ideal world that hour would have been taken away from previous commitments so that I could devote it to you. In reality it has merely been added to my responsibilities. And some days I wish I could just pass it on to someone else.
    That’s not to say that your being here is a burden. I may not always show it as well as I might, but you are valued. I appreciate the efforts you’re putting in; indeed perhaps sometimes when your effort is greatest to conceal it and appear to be swimming gracefully: the paddling beneath is not always evident!
    As for targets – here we have more of a challenge. In the early days the responsibility of course is very much mine. But as you rightly say, remarkably quick improvement is required. Within weeks I would be expecting you to lead your own development. I can signpost things: I can tell you who in the department to observe for effective marking, or classroom presence, or behaviour management, but I cannot answer all the questions for you. Partly because the responsibility for ones own professional development lies with you, but more importantly because I can only tell you how I would solve problems; you are not me. You might not appreciate that now, because you want to do so well, but in the longer term you need to find your own ways to tackle things. So by all means ask me follow-up questions: ask me who to talk to, or how you can manageably tackle a task, but if you don’t ask, I won’t direct. That’s not my role.
    Perhaps, of late, I’ve misread the signals, and you need more direct support than you’ve had? You’ve done the right thing in drawing it to my attention, so let’s see exactly where the problems are, and let’s work out some actions – for both of us.
    Although, can it not be immediately after school, as Dwayne Jackson’s mum will be gunning for me if I haven’t rung her by 4…

    Reply
    1. RedGreen Post author

      Ha ha Michael – I think you took this more negatively than I meant it. Mentors generally do a sterling job. You’re right that the responsibility falls to mentees more and more after the first half term, but the mentor can be invaluable in setting up good habits.

    2. ollieorange2

      Dear new born baby,

      This is not good enough, you were born a whole month ago. Within a few weeks I expect you to be leading your own development yet here you are still expecting to be helped. Will you still be asking questions when you’re five??? I’m a very busy man you know and truthfully I see you as a bit of a burden which I’ll do as quickly as possible.

      A very important man

  3. Michael Tidd

    Not taken negatively at all, honest! I just know that whenever I take on the mentoring role, I just feel like it’s another part of my job that I just can’t do as well as I’d really like because of the demands on my time!

    Reply
  4. Sue Cowley

    But doesn’t this highlight the value of a BEd or failing that of a PGCE?

    That way we get to make the mistakes and learn from them whilst in a reasonably supportive environment, and without too much potential negative impact on the kids.

    I know for a fact that I could never have been ready for my NQT year after 6 weeks of training, no matter how great that training was, because a huge part of what you need is to experiment and then reflect which takes time. I’m not convinced this is possible if you dive straight in, no matter how intelligent or aspirational you are. Even after 4 years of practice on a BEd I still needed my wonderfully supportive mentor to get me through the NQT bit.

    Reply
    1. Stephen McKelvie

      Do we read that as “sink or swim only works if you’ve spent some time learning to swim”???

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