Mentoring – collaborative approach

It’s not just a one-way thing. They should be equal partners sharing ideas in a collegial setting.

A good mentor and mentoring partnership is absolutely crucial for a beginning teacher. It can help make the difference between success and failure in their career,University of NSW Education Lecturer Neville Ellis told IE Journalist Sue Osborne.

Dr Ellis’ research and teaching interests are in teacher development, professional learning, practitioner research, and the quality of feedback students receive from mentors during professional experience.

Dr Ellis said over time the role of the mentor has evolved.

“Across the globe teacher quality has become a focus of education bureaus and governments, including in Australia,” he said.

“The idea is that to improve student outcomes we must improve the quality of teachers. With that comes the idea that once you graduate from your teaching degree, you embark on a lifelong learning journey.

“We have moved away from the model of ‘professional development’, where an outside expert such as a university lecturer might come into a school and give a presentation, to one of ‘professional learning’.

“With professional learning we acknowledge there is expertise within the school, teachers share with each other, they reflect on their ongoing learning in the classroom or from other’s practice.

“The needs of the learner are taken into consideration, within the context in which they function so that they might improve practice in that context.

“Nowadays, the majority of professional learning often incorporates some form of mentoring,” Dr Ellis said.

Traditionally a mentor was seen as a coach or an ‘imparter of wisdom’ but that role was now changing, with the mentor/mentee relationship becoming much more collegial and collaborative.

“The contemporary discourse sees both parties as having something to offer. It’s not just a one-way thing. They should be equal partners sharing ideas in a collegial setting.

“For instance someone fresh out of uni or a preservice teacher could have a lot to offer in terms of fresh ideas and theory or use of technology. I’ve seen that happen myself.”

Dr Ellis was recently involved in a program at Macarthur Anglican School on the outskirts of Sydney, where a group of preservice teachers from UNSW joined experienced teachers at the school to take part in a team mentoring project.

“The preservice teachers were valued for their input and everyone, experienced teachers and students, reported very favourably on the project and the learning they gained from the experience,” Dr Ellis said.

There was some funding provided by the Association of Independent Schools for the project, which allowed the working teachers release time for the project.

Macarthur Principal David Nockles said: “The training of preservice teachers is the responsibility of the wider teaching profession as much as it is that of the tertiary provider”.

“The mentoring program provided wonderful opportunity for outstanding teachers to pass on their expertise and yet, in the spirit of a learning institution, be prepared to reflect on their own practice through the mentoring of the preservice teachers and thereby continually seek to improve their own teaching.”

Dr Ellis said: “Time, or lack of, is a major barrier to successful mentorship, and time usually equates to funding to allow for release”.

Mentoring, and particularly collaborative or team mentoring, can be a matter of survival for beginning teachers, who can be overwhelmed by their new role, and need that support and guidance to build resilience.

A good mentor or mentor team should be advising a beginning teacher to:

• maintain a life balance

• seek nurturing and supportive relationships

• persevere to achieve goals

• work through difficult situations

• sustain an optimistic outlook, and

• rebound after a setback.

A good mentor or co-mentoring team can make all the difference to a start of a teachers’ career, but there are limitations.

Not all expert teachers who are great at teaching students are good at teaching adults. Mentor and mentee may have unmatched expectations of what the roles entail.

Dr Ellis said there is an element of luck to a mentor and mentee being able to work well together.

Not everyone enjoys being observed while they are teaching in the classroom, and beginning teachers may not ask for help because they do not wish to appear incompetent or unprepared.

But overall Dr Ellis said there are a lot of selling points to a mentoring partnership, which generally overrides the limitations.