It can be easy to gloss over the fact that first year Teach Firsters are mere PGCE students – particularly after Autumn term when our greenness has worn off a bit. The fact is, though, we’re still very inexperienced and need a lot of guidance and support.
Mentors are absolutely instrumental for this. They’re in school with us and see us every day. They have an hour a week of one-to-one professional development time. They may be the person most influential in shaping the type of teacher we qualify as.
As a participant, here’s my humbly proffered advice to mentors.
It’s human nature to want to please. If you’re my line manager, or even just someone more senior in the department, my initial instinct will be to present my best side to you.
We’ve spent years being successful academically or in work. We’re usually not used to failing. We’re probably embarrassed by being bad at something.
But if you want the best out of me, I need to be able to be completely honest with you. So make that possible by being kind, by reassuring me, and by telling me that you’re there to support me rather than judge me.
That doesn’t mean lying to me. But it means not slaughtering me when I make mistakes, and giving me lots of praise when I improve.
When I asked Teach Firsters on twitter what they wanted from a mentor, the number one theme was being available to answer questions and to talk to. We have so many questions and burgeoning ideas, from the mundane to the philosophical. If you want me to feel supported, you need to be there to answer them.
I’ve experienced massive frustration with this over the past year. I adore my mentor: he’s a fantastic teacher. But he’s head of maths. That makes him one of the busiest people in the school. He has his own office; I never see him in the maths office. 50% of our mentor meetings are cancelled because he has been called to deal with a crisis of some sort. It sucks.
If you don’t think you can be around that much, you seriously need to think about handing your mentor role onto someone else. Ultimately, it’s not fair on the trainee and it’s not fair on the kids for them to be wandering around not knowing what they’re doing.
Tell me what I don’t know
We’ve had 6 weeks of Summer Institute. Recognise what that will and – more crucially – won’t have taught us.
I can talk your ear off about Prezi. I can quote any number of statistics about educational disadvantage. I can tell you the difference between leadership and management.
I have no idea how to explain ratio to set 5. Tell me that.
Even better: tell me what I don’t know I don’t know
We all start off being unconsciously incompetent. We look at outstanding practice and we can see how far off from that we are, but it feels so alien from what we’re doing in the classroom. Even looking at the teacher standards feels so overwhelming in that first term. We don’t know how to get started.
Your job is to give me kind, fair and specific feedback on the very next step I need to take. Just arriving at the mentor meeting period 3 on Thursday and being there to answer questions isn’t enough. We don’t know the right questions to ask yet. You need to know your mentee: their strengths and weaknesses, their potential, how they’ve improved over time.
Knowing your mentee boils down to two things: frequent (informal, quick) observations and making sure they can talk openly to you. How do you get them to talk openly to you? See “be nice”.
Set me proper targets
The Teach First journal can be a valuable tool for reflection, or it can be a tedious millstone round one’s neck. If it’s going to be the former, the mentor has a really important role to play in making the targets relevant, specific and actionable.
If you arrive at a mentor meeting and tell me to write “work on classroom presence” as my target, you’re not fit to be a mentor.
All that happens when you do that is the participant turns up next week, having forgotten what the target even was, writes some rubbish in the evaluation section and moves on.
Targets need to be incredibly specific, realistic and truly focused on the one thing that will make me improve from this week to the next.
Here are some hastily thought through examples (they may not be that good – apologies)
- Unsatisfactory: improve quality and quantity of marking
- Requires improvement: catch up on marking year 8 books, including next steps feedback
- Good: set a piece of extended writing and mark it using two stars and a wish
- Outstanding: set year 8 a piece of homework on extended writing about the Tudors’ dress sense (as discussed). Set up a meeting with Mrs Lee for her to show me her marking, and for her to model how she might use 2S1W on the Tudors homework. Bring this marking to the next mentor meeting.
- Unsatisfactory: work on questioning
- Requires improvement: try to ask more open questions in lessons
- Good: plan 2 open questions for each lesson I teach this week
- Outstanding: use the questioning grid to plan quality open questions for my year 7 lessons this week. Show them to mentor on Wednesday morning for checking. Plan to “pose-pause-pounce-bounce” these questions at the hinge points of lessons. Reflect briefly on WWW and EBI after each of these lessons and bring these reflections to the mentor meeting.
- Unsatisfactory: tighten up behaviour management
- Requires improvement: be more firm in my classroom interactions
- Good: practice using the language of expectations and say thank you, not please, when giving instructions.
- Outstanding: role play giving firm instructions for a few minutes every day with Laura, using the phrases “I expect” and “thank you”. Do a 5 minute starter swap with Laura in any lesson this week where we observe each other for the tone of voice and phrasing of instructions used.
The final point I want to make is that while we will be quite terrifyingly awful at the beginning, we improve remarkably quickly. The progress isn’t linear: it comes in fits and starts. Keep believing in them, keep helping them, keep setting them proper targets, and your mentees will be admirably good teachers by Summer term.