NQT special: Mentor and mentee relationships

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The mentor-mentee relationship is crucial for new teachers. Amy Benziane reflects on what makes an excellent mentor and the qualities that mentees need to bring to the relationship.

When I joined the teaching profession, it was ingrained in me that I should, at all times, be showing that I was in possession of one key characteristic – resilience. 

There were others, of course, but that is the one which stuck with me when it was dark on my way both to and from work. Not wanting to give up, I actively asked for help and listened hard when colleagues, who I saw as far more worthy of a place at the front of a classroom than myself, imparted teaching expertise. It is this same keenness to reflect on and always find a solution to arising challenges, which guides my work now as a mentor. 

What makes a marvellous mentor?

Unless our end goal is a conveyor belt which creates identical (and most probably dissatisfied!) teachers at the end of an NQT year, developing and nurturing individual style and talent is key as a mentor. In order to develop our colleagues we must remember the adage that freedom brings responsibility. 

So, how do we as professionals accurately interpret a situation so that, while giving our mentees freedom to experiment, we do not allow them to blindly continue down a path that we know, from experience, may lead to more problems than solutions? Looking back on what I appreciated from my mentor, I feel that there are three key aspects to success – shared responsibility; strong, supportive relationships; reflective target-setting.

1, Shared responsibility 

Whether you have never mentored or whether you have mentored year after year, there will always be a different set of challenges each time around. Therefore it is important to share the burden and ensure that both mentor and mentee take responsibility for developing the NQT as a teacher. 

For example, if your NQT misses a meeting or a deadline, while irritating this should equally spark in the mentor a time for reflection. Was I clear in my communication? Have I been approachable? Did I mention it on the corridor in passing or in a clear email? Has my mentee been caught up with something else due to time-management problems – in which case, what can we do about it? 

If there is no way you as a mentor could have foreseen and intervened then perhaps there are other issues at work – ones which need to be investigated through honest discussions. Which leads me onto my next point...

2, Strong, supportive relationships

As mentors, we do not need to be accessible at all hours, available to listen to streams of moaning and ranting to be supportive. Mentees, as colleagues who are a few years behind us in their career, are not there to be counselled, but are there to be guided. 

Listening to ideas respectfully and using your expertise to question and suggest ideas is key in building a strong and successful relationship. As a teacher, I try to avoid dominating the classroom and taking over with too much of my own “talk” and, as a rule, I try to do the same with my mentees.

There is no way that a mentor relationship will be the same with every trainee or NQT and so it is important to discover how to build a supportive relationship. Does the mentee prefer email communication so that they can reflect on an issue before a meeting, or would they appreciate a quick face-to-face chat instead? 

Finally, your mentee already knows you are more experienced, but you don’t want them thinking that you are the only one to always have all the right answers. It’s intimidating.

Sometimes it is okay to act like you have just heard of that wacky-sounding technique. You were genuinely impressed with it the first time around so why dash their hopes by making them think they are doing something boring when it’s innovative? Giving praise where it is due acts as an important part of raising your colleague’s confidence in their ability as well as helping to strengthen your professional relationship. 

3, Reflective target-setting

At some point over the year, perhaps even in the first week, there will be a time when you need to break some bad news and start to set some targets for improvement. A few tips have been thrown my way by more experienced members of staff. 

Two of the key tips for target-setting are to use “headlines” and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based) targets. When you have just had someone watch your lesson the last thing you want to hear is 10 minutes of fluff before you get to the answer of whether or not the lesson was acceptable, good even.

Headlines are exactly what they sound like; they involve giving a brief overall comment to set the tone of the feedback. Such as: “Thank you for that lesson. It was obvious that you had a clear plan and I would like to talk about how we can tighten up your timings to make sure you fit everything in.” 

After which, using open questioning techniques, both mentor and mentee can then work to co-construct targets and review times. This reflective cycle is important to avoid mentees feeling as though they are being dictated to and to allow them to develop their practice how they want. 

Such an approach may mean reflecting on our own practice while developing your colleague, something that should be seen as a perk of the role. However, sometimes there needs to be explicit direction, both to ensure the NQT is able to progress adequately during their induction period, and to ensure that student wellbeing and progress are prioritised. In which case, the mentor needs to be confident enough to direct rather than merely act as a springboard for ideas. 

What makes a marvellous mentee?

Reflecting back on my training year, I would describe myself as naïve, enthusiastic, underprepared, inspired – there are probably a few more negatives I could come up with too. Perhaps you can recognise yourself in that description too. I found that three key approaches helped me to survive.

1, Organisation

There is absolutely no point in a to-do list unless it is colour-coded, or at the very least uses subheadings. This is no joke, the to-do list is a powerful thing. When you look at it midweek and it’s grown from a small sticky note to a sprawling mess of colourful pieces of paper that are more confusing than helpful, you know you are in trouble. 

Prioritising your needs can be simple using a “Priority Matrix” rather than a regular to-do lists. These work on the premise that there are four different types of tasks:

  • Urgent and important: making sure today’s lesson resources are printed.

  • Urgent and not important: a conversation with a colleague who has lost their favourite mug.

  • Not urgent but important: completing reports due in a week.

  • Not urgent and not important: Non-work-related Facebook/Twitter browsing.

If all your tasks are falling into the “urgent and important” category, perhaps you need some forward planning in your life. Make sure you check deadlines and enter them onto a calendar, you can do it electronically and have reminders sent to you a few days before. 

2, Be honest and reflective

Whatever it is that makes someone a great learner or a marvellous mentee, it is not simply nodding along when people tell you, “don’t worry, it’ll be easier by Easter”!

Your mentor may have the best intentions but if you try to hide away the gaps in your knowledge (whether subject or pedagogical) they won’t be able to support you as well as if you were honest.

Acting infallible only seems to set you up for failure. This doesn’t mean butting into your mentor’s classroom every five minutes wailing that it is all going wrong. It is about being smart and asking yourself what you have done to rid yourself of this challenge before you give up and decide that it is always going to be as difficult as it currently is. 

For example, reviewing the targets you have set with your mentor and thinking about who can support you in achieving them is an important part of improving your practice. The induction period has you at its centre, so it is important that you drive it, preparing yourself for training sessions or meetings and ensuring you are building your relationship with your mentor so that you feel positive about your time as an NQT.

3, Think of the children! 

The best and perhaps most obvious reminder I can give is that you are working for the students. Although they may show their appreciation for your hard work in the quirkiest of ways, they will appreciate your consistent hard work. 

However, part of this is knowing why you are doing things. If you are not doing it for the students then why are you completing the task? If those under your pupilage will genuinely progress further in your subject because you arrive at work earlier than other colleagues and leave later then brilliant, but if they would be better off with a less sleep-deprived teacher then have a rest!

If someone’s given you some feedback that you don’t quite appreciate, remind yourself why they are trying to help improve your practice. I once had someone comment that: “One of the girls was doodling for the first eight minutes of the 15-minute task you set.”

How did I respond? Did I take it as a personal attack on my lack of 360 vision? Did I try to defend myself about the artistic merit of the doodles and link them to the learning which was obviously going on? 

Or did I take the time to think and understand that yes, as I am there for the students, it makes sense that I should be informed of what they are doing, so that next time I will keep the girl on task and she will have more of a chance of progressing?

Conclusion

Having the experience of being an unqualified teacher so recently and taking on a mentoring role for both PGCE and NQTs I feel I have a reasonable overview of both sides. 

Being a mentor is a brilliant role to have and we should feel humbled to be a part of shaping the future of the education system. As such, both as mentors and as mentees, we must remember to be professional, grateful and honest with one another in order to allow the relationship to blossom and be fruitful so that every teacher feels like they deserve a place at the front of the classroom and stop feeling like a participant on Faking It, as I did at the start of my career! 

  • Amy Benziane is teaching and learning co-ordinator within the English department at Woodside High School in north London.

Further information
Priority Matrix: http://vimeo.com/19138421
 
NQT Special Edition
This article was published as part of SecEd's June 2013 NQT Special edition, produced in association with the NASUWT. The edition features eight pages of best practice and advisory articles aimed at supporting NQTs and trainee teachers across the UK. Download the free PDF of all eight pages here.


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