Mentors must be flexible

Kerri Carr

Teachers learned about the importance of communication and feedback when mentoring others

Mentoring practices should be adapted to an individual preservice or beginning teacher’s learning needs, participants at a Centre for Professional Learning (CPL) course heard last month.

This requires mentors to have a repertoire of skills so they can adapt their mentoring practice to what they know about their mentee and what should be learned, course presenter Nicole Hart said.

Good teachers do not automatically become good mentors, and a repertoire of skills should be learned.

Course participants were referred to an article from the American Journal of Education, “The Professional Practice of Mentoring” by Sharon A. Schwille (November 2008), which outlines a range of mentoring skills:

  • coaching and stepping in
  • teaching together
  • demonstration teaching
  • brief interactions or mentoring on the move
  • mentoring sessions and debriefing sessions
  • co-planning
  • videotape analysis
  • journal writing.

The article warns that “rather than simply choosing a form of mentoring from a list, mentors must learn to improvise and adapt practice to suit the situation and the novice’s learning”.

“Educative mentoring is a dynamic, not static, practice that relies on strategic knowledge and judgement,” the article, based on a study, states.

“Mentors who thoughtfully and purposefully structure opportunities for their novices’ learning bring their novices further along in their learning than do mentor teachers who view their role as simply providing advice, emotional support, and technical pointers or just opening their classrooms for novices to perform teaching strategies.”

Ms Hart told course participants communication is a key mentoring skill and mentioned key pointers.

Actively listen: Mentors should spend 50 per cent of their time actively listening to their mentee.

Clarify: One course activity highlighted the importance of clarifying a person’s understanding of a conversation — participants had to communicate instructions while sitting back-to-back. The exercise revealed the different perspectives people can take away from a conversation. Ms Hart recommended the Professional Teaching Standards as a common language/reference point.

Give good feedback: Mentees need to understand goals such as the Professional Teaching Standards and what they look like in practice; be focused — mentors should negotiate with their mentee about what Teaching Standards will be focused on during a lesson/observation and proceed to offer feedback on those specific standards.

Written feedback helped the mentor distil salient points and mentees valued it as they might not remember everything said.

Course participants examined a mentor’s portfolio of their mentoring activities in which the mentor states it is helpful to “anchor qualitative feedback from observations to specific Descriptors of the Professional Standards”. The mentor says it provides an external reference for evaluating the mentee’s professional teaching practice and future development”.

Citing advice from authorities in the field, the mentor identifies guiding principles for mentoring conversations that most influenced their mentoring practice, including:

  • providing the mentee with “honest and direct, rather than tentative, appraisals”
  • providing evidence to support concerns
  • understanding the mentee’s personal theories as they relate to teaching practice
  • that more progress comes from the shared action plan.

The mentor advocates that schools establish a group organised around mentoring practice. Reasons include:

  • A pool of mentors provides an individual mentee with the opportunity to observe a range of teaching strategies from a range of staff: “It takes a community of mentors to professionally shape a quality teacher” (Hudson, 2013)
  • A group provides peer sessions for all mentors, experienced and novice, to collaboratively reflect and share ideas to improve their practice: draw from their collective strategic knowledge to suit the situation (Schwille, 2008).

The Mentoring course is being conducted by the CPL in partnership with the University of Sydney. Day two of the course will be held on December 1. Presenter Nicole Hart is a Head Teacher K-12 (PDHPE and Sport) and lecturer, Teaching Focused, at the University of Sydney (Professional Experience and Human Movement and Health Education) and a Tertiary Mentor (Professional Experience).

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