Having just been at the national opening ceremony of the Teach First Summer Institute 2012, I have been considering the fate of all 997 of those smiling, fresh-faced new teachers. They are about to embark on one of the hardest journeys a young professional can experience; they are about to start teaching in tough, inner-city schools.
It is when I reflect on my own experience of starting to teach that I realise that I missed a fundamental aspect of my training as a teacher in my first year. In theory, I was supposed to have an in-department mentor and a professional mentor to ensure that was able to develop into a fully-fledged and functional member of the staff team. I had one mentor from my university provider, through Teach First, but the in school provision can only be summed up as a perfunctory attempt at ticking boxes on forms. It can’t even be described as half-hearted; it was more, for want of a better word, half-arsed.
When I looked at the new recruits at this opening ceremony, I knew that some of them would have excellent mentors and some would be stuck in schools where mentoring is a by-word for accountability and making sure someone does their job properly. Some would be in places that gave a peremptory nod towards the mentoring process by adding a timetabled hour to two individuals’ timetables and felt quite pleased with themselves. Anyone who has ever been passionate about the power of mentoring in fostering the latent talent in new teachers will know, as they read this, that mentoring is more than a timetabled hour. It is a commitment to the progress and welfare of another human being.
Firstly, the ambition of the mentor is vital. If you are a new teacher, there’s nothing more exciting than hearing someone tell you that the journey to being an outstanding teacher has begun. This mentor, the one that understands the need to motivate and enthuse, is responsible for that first moment of realisation: I can be excellent, with the right support. It is no different to being a teacher in a classroom – showing pupils that you care about their success. Our education system is fuelled by teachers who bring energy and ambition to their classrooms – can the same be said for the people who mentor beginner teachers? The perfunctory box-ticking mentor does not only destroy confidence and sap enthusiasm, they may inadvertently be setting or proliferating rot into a profession that has suffered more than a few blows recently. The future of education depends on talent in the classroom being nurtured – staff and students alike – but that can’t happen if those responsible for teacher development are totally unaware of the impact they may have on that future. One only has to look at retention rates for teachers in inner city schools to know that we have to be better at making sure they are able to stay in the profession for longer than five years – it is the only way to more stability and towards a new corps of experience in the profession.
Having been a mentor to new teachers in some way, shape or form for the past eight years, I am acutely aware now that meetings to manage the paperwork that comes with beginner teachers is the least productive way to use the time with them, and generates the least productive staff member. The true mentor is a combination, in varying parts, of ally, friend, crutch, critic, conscience and so much more more. The ability to move seamlessly between being partial and impartial, the ability to perceive the person beneath the role and experience – that’s what makes the mentor effective. Now that I train other mentors, I often ask them, three or four weeks in: have you asked your mentee whether they’re eating properly? Have you asked them what time they are going home and whether they have any evenings when they are just relaxing? The amount of times I have been met with blank faces and/or rolled eyes is baffling. The effective mentor nurtures, supports and challenges in equal measure.
Quite often, it is the responsibility of middle managers to conduct the mentoring process. In this, I can understand why mentoring is placed at the bottom of a list of a thousand other things to do – precisely because there are a thousand other things to do. If you run a department, chances are you are dealing with what the late Steven Covey, author of ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’ calls ‘Quadrant 1’ thinking – the fire-fighting of every day in a busy school. This mentor may even be deceiving themselves into believing they do have time to support another teacher because they are engaged in ‘Quadrant 3’ activities – checking mail, dealing with interruptions and so on. The effective mentor is the one that sees their role as the embodiment of ‘Quadrant 2’ thinking – the time taken to invest in another member of staff will pay for itself in the long run. Time now, spent nurturing a relationship and the whole teacher, will mean a proliferation of time for more ‘Quadrant 2’ thinking in the future – and who doesn’t want that?
Mentoring is less of a social science than it is an art. Imagine your mentee as a block of clay – the absolute raw material you have to work with. They are very much a lump of clay at the start, with bumps and cracks you didn’t have anything to do with. A hands on, every day, working at details, making the time approach means that one day, your lump of clay will end up looking like Michaelangelo’s David.