The Teacher Trainer Diaries: Mentoring

This post is part of a reflective series called The Teacher Trainer Diaries, in which I write about my experiences as a teacher trainer.

One problem that I think occurs in both teaching and training contexts is that we far too often view the class, staff, group, etc. as a whole unit, forgetting that each person within this entity has their own needs, wants, motivations, etc. This continual ‘overlook’ and over-simplification of teachers’ needs can have a range of negative effects on training, development, performance and teacher satisfaction. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, it reduces a teacher’s need / ability to participate in a professional community.

So, how can training programmes be adapted to meet the needs of both the teachers and the institution? Whilst there is no one simple answer and every institution is different, one approach, alongside existing teacher training, could be to include mentoring in the programme. In this post, I briefly go over what mentoring is, my experience with being a mentor, and it’s importance now regarding the COVID-19 situation.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is in part an extension of coaching, which originated in sports (no surprises there) and then slowly evolved into what we know it as today – that which can be found in most businesses, companies, etc. In his book, Coaching for Performance, Whitmore (2013, pp. 10) explains that ‘coaching is unlocking people’s potential to maximize their own performance‘ and he contrasts this with mentoring, which is when one more experienced person tells/instructs a less-experienced person on a certain subject, topic, etc. Throughout the literature regarding coaching in ELT specifically, I have seen these terms used interchangeably, however for the purpose of this post, I would like to focus on Diaz Maggioli’s (2019) definition of mentoring.

[Mentoring] is a mindset. It’s a disposition and every teacher who’s been in a staffroom has in, one way or another, established mentoring relationships with peers. […] Basically, [mentoring] is an ad-hoc process where individuals self-select each other to support each other in their professional development. Participants [can also be] assigned, [which] can also be a good thing.

Maggioli contrasts mentoring with coaching by saying that mentoring is non-evaluative and two-way. I think this is an extremely important distinction, and perhaps the only distinction that really matters. There are many other areas of development where teachers will be evaluated, however when it comes to the brainstorming of ideas, reflections and sharing through conversation, evaluation should be the last thing on their minds.

Within ELT, mentoring is something of a rarity, in my experience. Not in that it is a new concept, however it is a concept that is rarely implemented in schools (I am speaking from my own experience here, however if you feel differently I would like to hear about it!). That being said, when it is implemented, it follows the same principles as laid out by Whitmore and Maggioli. That is, a teacher spends time with another teacher (be it a supervisor or peer) and speaks about their teaching, reflects on things that have happened, and then together they discuss how best to approach issues or challenges (Malderez, 2009).

What are the benefits of mentoring in ELT?

As stated previously, mentoring can be seen as a developmental opportunity for both the mentee and mentor (Rossner, 2017). I’ve compiled a short list of the main benefits for both the teacher and mentor:

Mentee: Teacher

  • Novice teachers are provided with an opportunity to ‘pick the brain’ of a more-experienced teacher
  • Teachers gain confidence
  • Teachers are encouraged to experiment with new techniques, activities, etc. whilst still exercising autonomy
  • Teachers improve their pedagogical knowledge
  • Teachers feel part of a community of practice
  • Teachers can benefit from speaking to another teacher from the same school context

Mentor: Teacher or Trainer

  • Increased confidence in teaching and understanding of pedagogy (learning through teaching)
  • Opportunity to develop leadership abilities
  • Opportunity to build the community of practice within the school
  • Increased awareness of how other teachers are feeling with and how they are approaching the content from the syllabus

My experience

The following two ‘experiences’ are short summaries of my time mentoring in two different contexts. I’ve also tried to include a list of positive points and learning points from each of them.

#1

My first experience with mentoring was when I first moved into teacher training. I, alongside my DoS, was tasked with developing and implementing a development programme for the academy. We decided that mentoring was something we wanted to include, however we used the term coaching – I will come back to the importance of this later. The year in which we implemented this programme was a big learning curve – we went from 0 to 100 in a very short time and, to be honest, it was not that well-received by a lot of the teachers. We constantly reviewed and evaluated the programme as it was progressing and, in meeting teachers’ needs and wants, we reduced it somewhat and made it much more ‘personal’. As such, coaching was the main focus of our programme. We paired teachers with other teachers (level coordinators in this case), myself or with my DoS. Each teacher then had one coaching session a month, and this was (usually) timed so that it would fall before any observation (formal, focused or peer). These sessions lasted between 45 – 60 minutes, and they were supposed to be focused on the teachers’ objectives for the year, what they were planning to focus on in their observations, and general chats regarding the content of the courses they were teaching.

Positives

  • Community: Teachers had a lot more time working together. When asked for feedback, teachers commented that this helped reduce stress regarding certain aspects of the course, increased their confidence, and made the school feel ‘closer’.
  • Feedback: As the school was quite large, it was impossible for the DoS or me to have constant and detailed contact with every teacher, so the feedback from the mentors was vital in ensuring we understood how teachers were feeling.
  • Observation support: Teachers felt supported with regard to observations and tasks they needed to complete. As we moved away from conducting formal observations every term to conducting focused observations, teachers felt that they were supported when they had another teacher to ‘bounce’ ideas off.

Learning points

  • Terminology: Many experienced teachers perceived the term ‘coaching’ as something that meant their ‘coach’ was better than they were. I think that the fact that we chose coordinators to take on this role, as opposed to any teacher within the academy, made this even more of an issue. With regard to why we chose to have coordinators take on the roles of mentors, we did so because we felt that they were some of the most experienced with regard to the levels they were teaching, and they had a slightly reduced timetable so as to be able to carry out numerous mentoring sessions.
  • Year of experience vs. knowledge: Teachers with many years of teaching experience felt they would not benefit from being coached, especially by teachers who had been teaching for less time than they had, regardless of experience and/or qualifications. I remember reading once that no matter where you go, there will always be teachers who feel that they cannot benefit from development or development opportunities (I think the writer even included: ‘even if they have a rocket behind them, they won’t move‘). These teachers, at least in my case, were the hardest to work with. That being said, they made the reflective and evaluative stage of the programme even more important. It made me realise that, perhaps one of the best things to do is to task them with mentoring other teachers or getting them to take a more active role in the development programme.
  • Mentors were not prepared: One thing we looked over was preparing the mentors to be mentors. Most of the mentors felt that they were not supported enough with regard to training and confidence in asking the ‘right’ questions. In our minds we thought all we need to do was set aside time for these sessions; in reality, we needed to focus on developing mentors into effective mentors.

#2

My second experience with mentoring is from the current academic year (2019-2020). This year I am working closely with a number of novice teachers. We have at least one mentoring session a month, generally for about 60 minutes, and we discuss their classes, any doubts they have, and we take a look at upcoming observations or tasks and see how they would like to tackle them. As with the last experience, these sessions are timed so that they fall before observations, however they are also done when teachers ask for them. Overall, the mentoring has been very well-received, and has been extremely beneficial in creating better learning dynamics within classrooms and increasing teacher confidence. This year is not over, however, and so I will continue to reflect and evaluate the programme – it is still not perfect and there are many things that will no doubt be changed in the coming months.

Positives

  • The teachers feel they are benefiting from the sessions.
  • Teacher are experimenting with and reflecting on new ideas, activities, etc.
  • Teachers appreciate the opportunity to clarify doubts with a more experienced teacher.
  • They have helped ensure that teachers are equipped with the tools to meet the needs of their learners, especially with regard to understanding of exam formats and what learners are required to do in order to pass these exams.

Learning points

  • Focus points: It is good to have a focus for the mentoring session, and ensuring that the teacher understands what the main focus will be. I have found that if this is not done, often it is difficult to get much out of some teachers as they simply do not know what to say. So, ensure the mentee understands the main point of the mentoring session before the session (e.g. we’re going to have chat about your classes in general and how you are feeling, however we will also talk about the experimental activity – this will be the ‘main’ focus). Then, when you are conducting the session, let them speak about the topic (use guiding questions), but do not be afraid to go off-topic if need be.
  • Input: We have a very small staff (5 teachers), so input from various sources is obviously difficult. The teachers appreciate the input, no doubt, however it would be nice to have other experienced teachers in the academy to carry out mentoring session as well.

Coronavirus and mentoring

As you know, this year has not finished yet, and we are still teaching – 100% online. This shift has been difficult for many of us, especially novice teachers, and so mentoring in this difficult time is of even greater importance. Combined with teacher training workshops, our mentoring sessions have ensured that teachers feel just that little more prepared to take on the online classroom, and that they are aware of where to find resources and activities that they can use. We are carrying out experimental activity and reflection tasks this month, and so the mentoring session are mainly focused on those – what they plan to do, when, why, etc. They have also been like a virtual stress ball – teachers have been able to get things off their chest about classes, and get some advice on issues they are having.

Questions I have…

In the scheme of things, I am relatively inexperienced with mentoring. I have tried a number of things and on the whole they have worked well; however, I strongly believe that I can improve my understanding of and my approach to conducting mentoring. Some questions for myself include:

  • What types of questions are most effective in getting mentee teachers to speak about their problems and recognise potential solutions?
  • What is the most effective timetabling of mentoring sessions? Once a month? Twice? On an ad-hoc basis?
  • Is mentoring the new and more effective form of teacher training? Should the programme simply include mentoring sessions and focused observations?
  • How can more experienced teachers benefit from both being mentored and being mentors?
  • Does mentoring play a role in staff retention? If so, should it not play a more important role?
  • Should a teacher be paired with the same mentor for the whole academic year?

I would love to hear about your experiences, either as being a mentor or being mentored by another teacher or trainer. Feel free to comment on the post or go to this Trello board (playing around with new tech and apps is great!).

This will not be the last post on mentoring – I will try to write another at the end of this year reflecting on the year as a whole and writing down some action points regarding mentoring. Until then, take care and watch this space!

References

Cambridge University Press. (February 05, 2019). Gabriel Diaz Maggioli on mentoring. [Video] Retrieved from link.

Malderez, A. (2009). Mentoring, Second Language Teacher Education (pp. 259 – 268). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Oxford University Press. (2017) Richard Rossner on English teachers mentoring. [Video] Retrieved from link.

Whitmore, J. (2013). Coaching for Performance – 4th Edition. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

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