How to be an effective mentor

Written by: Kathy Oxtoby | Published:
Image: iStock

Mentoring new teachers and colleagues can be challenging, but also a valuable learning experience for both mentors and mentees. Kathy Oxtoby looks at how to fulfil the role effectively

Most teachers can expect to be mentored, and the mentoring experience can happen at any point during their career – whether as a PGCE student, an NQT, or after a promotion.

Anne Swift, the president of the National Union of Teachers, describes a mentor as a person “who acts as a support to whoever they are mentoring – whether a student beginning teacher, colleague, or fellow professional”.

She continued: “The mentor holds up the mirror to their mentee to illustrate what’s good about their practice – and highlights ways to develop further.”

For Kim Knappett, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and a secondary science teacher in south London, mentors are “people who walk alongside you that are prepared to watch you teach, to listen to you talk about your teaching, and your professional career, and then help you to shape your career”.

Mentors and role-models

Being a mentor can be confused with being a role-model. While a mentor and a role-model could be the same person, the influence of these roles on an individual’s teaching career is different.

“Mentoring has a formal outcome and is about improving practice and getting you to be increasingly competent as a skilled and highly professional teacher,” explained Julian Stanley, chief executive of the charity Education Support Partnership. However, a teaching role-model could be someone who you admire because of the way they teach, and who you try to copy, suggests Ms Knappett.

How teachers become mentors

Being a mentor is an integral part of being a teacher. According to Ms Swift, “teachers already mentor young people every day, encouraging them, supporting them, and through assessments, working out what young people need to learn next”.

A formal mentoring role for a teacher could be allocated through a school’s senior management team. Some schools have programme leadership teams that identify people who could be mentors.

However, sometimes teachers can be assigned the role of mentor, and not from choice.

Mr Stanley explained: “What we hear from people on our helpline is that mentors may have been given this role, although they may not want to do it, or may not have the time to do it.”

Time and additional commitments are issues for most teaching staff. Mr Stanley advises that people who have been appointed as mentors need to be honest with their managers and must ask: “Have I really got the time and ability to deliver this commitment?”

Time, commitment and relationships

Those who lack the time or who are not committed to being a mentor may find it hard to be effective in that role. For example, a mentor who is not engaged with the role may advise a mentee about a possible solution, then leave them to carry it out, whether that particular approach works for them or not. And sometimes a mentor’s expectations of the outcome of their advice may not be aligned to that of the mentee.

But for those mentors who are able to dedicate themselves to this role, Mr Stanley advises that building a strong relationship is “critical”. He believes a good mentor is committed to the process, and strikes up a relationship with the mentee to help them develop.

Mentors need to share their experiences with their mentees, and use those experiences to enhance learning, Mr Stanley continued. Mentoring is “about finding a way that helps the teacher to become more competent professionally”, he added.

An effective mentor can help mentees with the challenges of teaching, such as when they may have had a difficult time with lesson-planning, classroom behaviour, and relationships with other colleagues.

“Mentors can give mentees hope and optimism to cope with the frustrations and difficulties of the job, so they don’t become isolated,” Mr Stanley said.

Being an effective mentor involves more than offering advice, but also remembering that the learning process “is a two-way street”, Ms Knappett said. “Mentoring needs to be about a relationship of respect – in both directions. You need to both have mutual respect, and if you have that then you can both learn and grow.”

Anyone considering being a mentor should look at the impact that this role might have on them in the long as well as the short-term. The mentee might have an issue that can be easily addressed such as a simple query about marking. Or they may have more long-term problems, such as how they are feeling about their career.

“When you’re mentoring it’s not always a quick fix,” Ms Knappett warned.

A rewarding role

While being a mentor has its challenges and demands, it can be a rewarding role. Ms Swift said: “There are great benefits to being a mentor. It’s a privilege to have mentored lots of students and beginning teachers. To see them develop their confidence, to help develop their skills and see the outstanding teaching and learning taking place is a great thrill.

“And you always learn something yourself, because mentoring is an opportunity to develop your own thoughts and ideas and to keep up-to-date with your professional development.”

For Ms Knappett, her experience of being a mentor has allowed her to “pass on her knowledge, and love for learning”.

“Teachers want people to be lifelong learners – it’s a part of our DNA. And when mentoring we’re trying to help colleagues to work out the best way to be effective teachers,” she said.

Whether working with PGCE students, NQTs or colleagues, for an experienced teacher being a mentor can inspire, refresh, and change the way they teach, helping them to come up with new and innovative ways of helping students learn: “You go on learning, and you also think about the way you do things,” said Ms Knappett.

One of the highlights of her mentoring experiences is the teaching student she gave advice to about a lesson he had given, who also taught her about how to use interactive whiteboards. She recalled: “There was mutual respect. We were both learning.”

As Mr Stanley says, the best mentors “know they are learning too – and that they don’t have all the answers”.

Five tips for effective mentoring

  1. Build a strong relationship with the mentee. A good mentor commits to the process, and helps the mentee to develop their teaching.
  2. Help mentees with the challenges of teaching, such as when they may have had a difficult time with lesson planning, classroom behaviour, and relationships with other colleagues.
  3. Consider that the role might have a long, as well as short-term impact. Mentoring is not about quick fixes.
  4. Remember that the learning process of mentoring is a “two-way street”. Mentoring needs to be about a relationship of respect in both directions.
  5. Learn something yourself. Mentoring is an opportunity to develop your own thoughts and ideas, and to keep up-to-date with your professional development.
  • Kathy Oxtoby is an experienced freelance journalist and former secondary teacher.

Further information

The Education Support Partnership provides free, independent and confidential support for teachers. Visit www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk


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