Think about anything you have been successful at in the past. This could be something related to your career or profession, or something as simple as an everyday household chore (cooking, for example). No matter what it is, at some point, someone took the time to discuss how best to approach the task and likely pointed out some of the potential challenges that would be faced along the way.
Whether we knew it at the time or not, these people represent one in a long line of mentors that we will have over the course of our lives. Within teaching, mentors become so much more than just a confidant, trusted advisor or sounding board: at times, a mentor can make or break a career.
The benefits of a mentor
With the right mentor, teachers (and leaders) feel safe and have the freedom to operate within a safe environment. With a mentor who does not provide this, teachers feel anxious about taking risks or trying new approaches or innovations – they fear they may not recover from the failure.
With this in mind, many of us find mentors across the settings we work in. This can be those who are formerly assigned to us as part of a mentoring programme (when we first enter the profession or gain a new role) or those that we naturally collaborate with (such as a Head of Department, senior leader or a highly experienced colleague).
The formal mentors we are allocated form an integral part of our careers – they provide a structure and framework for reflection, and they clearly make an impact on the teachers and leaders we become, as well as a heathy sounding board for any future decisions. There can be limitations within this relationship, however. At times, we may feel that this relationship is built on reflection and critical evaluation – these mentors are assigned to help us improve, so it is natural that they will regularly discuss areas for improvement within our practice. There are obviously also times when mentors need to complete relevant paperwork, reports and written evaluations – as a result, there is a level of formality attached to this relationship. This is why new teachers and leaders must reach out and form relationships with other potential mentors within their setting.
This can usually be found even within the same department, in an experienced colleague with years of knowhow and corrected mistakes to their name. These highly experienced practitioners can often be overlooked by new leaders and managers, who may feel that they lack the relevant leadership experience to give effective advice or guidance. This is clearly a mistake.
Anyone can have a mentor
At times, as a new manager or leader, seeking the opinion and advice of an experienced member of staff (whether experienced in leadership and management or not) can be the key final piece of the jigsaw in making a decision. Gauging how the team will react to a message or decision or giving feedback on the proposed delivery style or message, are all part of a well-worn repertoire of skills that experienced staff have used. As a new teacher or leader, relationships with experienced teachers is key to improving and being successful.
As an extension of this, continuing these relationships having left a school or college can provide some of the most authentic relationships that you will experience within your career. At times, it can be difficult for in-house mentors to give guidance on all areas of practice – as much as they want to support, they will remain guarded around some topics, and can’t always give honest feedback and reflection as they are bound by the responsibilities of their role within that organisation.
With mentors who work within another setting, this is not the case. They can give honest feedback (whether we agree with it or not) and they are able to have much more challenging conversations at times as a result. They know us well, and are also able to take into account our responses and reactions to situations before giving vital feedback. Without their input, we run the risk of repeating old mistakes in new settings – something which we would all wish to avoid.
To be successful in any teaching role, it is so important that we keep a mix of these mentors: the formal, the experienced and the remote (i.e. working within another environment). Mentors will continue to act as a vital supporting and guiding light – whatever stage of a career.
About the author
Jonny Kay is Head of Teaching, Learning and Assessment at a college in the North East. He has previously worked as Head of English and maths in FE and as an English teacher and Head of English in Secondary schools. He tweets @jonnykayteacher and his book, 'Improving Maths and English in Further Education: A Practical Guide', is available now.