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In this blog, the first in a series looking at how student-teachers are supported through their journey to becoming a qualified teacher, Laurence Thomas reflects on the benefits of effective mentoring for all those involved



As student-teachers’ second placement approaches (Professional Teaching Experience, hereafter ‘PTE 2’), we celebrate the role of the mentor at this critical and unique time in beginning teachers’ learning.

Despite being widely recognised as a vital component in Partnership working (Furlong and Maynard, 1995), the benefits of mentorship for the mentors themselves, can be lost. Consequently, before PTE2 begins, it is an opportune moment to restate and promote the benefits of being a mentor in the Athrofa Professional Learning Partnership (APLP).

The opportunity to help and guide learners is a motivating factor when entering the education profession. Teachers, by nature, want to support and aid the development of children and as such, are often spinning a number plates at any one time. An additional plate, in the form of a student-teacher, could be perceived to unsettle and challenge well-established routines and standards. As a result, it is vital that we challenge any preconceptions that may be held with regards to student-teachers entering mentors’ domains. We must acknowledge and indeed celebrate, that the skills developed in mentoring and supporting a student, in turn, feed into improved learning opportunities for children and staff alike. When framed in this way, mentors should be left in no doubt as to the significant contribution to education that they are making. 

Mentoring develops a wide range of professional skills which are of vital importance for educators, namely: the ability to reflect on learning; to make the implicit, explicit; to stay abreast of pedagogical developments; to give purposeful feedback; and to develop purposeful relationships with learners, are just a few examples. Giving effective feedback, as John Hattie describes below, is a skill which can be developed and honed through mentorship. It is also naturally transferrable from the mentor/ student-teacher relationship to the teacher/ learner relationship:

Feedback serves various purposes in reducing the gap: it can provide cues that capture a person’s attention and helps him or her to focus on succeeding with the task; it can direct attention towards the processes needed to accomplish the task; it can provide information about ideas that have been misunderstood; and it can be motivational so that students invest more effort or skill in the task.

(Hattie, 2012, p. 67)

As a result, the opportunity to develop skills such as these should be grasped and utilised for the betterment of all learners. The impact of supporting student-teachers on a school more widely is described by Laura Morris, of Ysgol Nantgwyn, in an ITE guide developed by the Central South Consortium:

Our staff team recognise the responsibility that we have to support each other’s’ learning and how, by working together, we can contribute to the development of our staff in order to positively impact on pupil outcomes and experiences; coaching and mentoring is key to this at Ysgol Nantgwyn. It is important that our staff are agile and responsive to the needs of our pupils as part of our own 3-16 curriculum continuum and, to support this, there is an expectation that everyone has regular, identified meetings in which they work with one other colleague to focus on an aspect of their development. This discussion may tend towards mentoring or coaching or perhaps include elements of both; however, all discussions in these meetings will support staff in reflecting on their practice, exploring possibilities and making decisions. This commitment to a whole school culture of coaching and mentoring means that student teachers become an integral part of whole school coaching and mentoring arrangements and a staff team that has a commitment to developing others in this way.

(Morris, 2022, p. 14)

Expectations around the arrival of student-teachers at the onset of PTE2 in the Spring term differs considerably from that of PTE1 due it coming much later in the academic year. Mentors will inevitably have higher expectations of student-teachers on PTE2 as they have already spent time teaching in another school and are much further along in their student-teacher journey (see appendix I). Additionally, mentors may well be anxious about the prospect of ‘starting from scratch’, having established strong working relationships and routines with their existing student. As a result, hitting the ‘reset button’ on their relationship with a new mentee may feel uncomfortable at first. The expectations that are held may also not be wholly fair and, as we in education are well-aware, progress is not linear.

For the student-teacher, arriving in a new setting with a new cohort of children in a different Key Stage may well be jarring. As a result, it is very important that time is taken to build relationships with the new student-teacher that will lead to a purposeful relationship for the duration of the placement. Taking the time to signpost the different individuals that support the student is a worthwhile conversation to have. Mentors are by no means alone: senior mentors; network leads; professional, curriculum and personal tutors; Welsh development and Student Support services are all working in tandem to support student-teachers.

Spending time to understand why student-teachers are training to become teachers is a similarly powerful way to get to know your student and also to address any preconceptions. This can be particularly useful for student-teachers when integrating into new settings:

Taking time early on to ask about those previous experiences and sources of inspiration will give you important insights into some of the views that our trainee holds about teaching and learning, and into the contexts in which they were developed. Understanding those roots will help you to appreciate the emotional attachment that your trainee might have to those ideas and enable you to support them in evaluating their relevance and meaning in their current context.

(Burn, Hagger, Menter and Mutton, 2015, p. 49)

PTE2 presents unique opportunities for mentors that would not have been accessible in PTE1. As student-teachers become increasingly responsible for leading teaching sessions, the chance to observe children’s learning in the classroom becomes apparent. The modelling of reflections on these observations of how best children are learning is a powerful way to demonstrate that teaching is a profession in which continual reflection is required. Signposting this, and encouraging the student-teacher to make similar reflections on their Professional Learning Portfolio (PLP), is a purposeful way to enter a dialogue around reflection.

Similarly, at this stage of the year, student-teachers have been exposed to a number of academic studies and have participated in theoretical discussion, which should spark purposeful dialogue with mentors. Taking the time to enquire as to what has been particularly impactful on practice is an effective way to establish student-teachers’ ability to reflect on learning and their own progress, whilst informing that of mentors. Student-teachers also begin PTE2 having been at a different educational setting in PTE1 and should be able to reflect and share best practice from different learning environments. It is critical that mentors are open to these opportunities and the potential to ‘magpie’ aspects of provision that are transferable to their own contexts.

The relationship between mentor and student-teacher has been likened to that of ‘master and apprentice’, given the nature of their roles and contrast in career experience. However, this dynamic may prevent mentors from sharing invaluable insights into their own decision-making process:

…mentors, especially those new to the role, assume that assured declarations of principle or reference to particular theoretical ideas, will boost their trainees’ confidence in their knowledge and understanding. While trainees certainly need to know how research-based understandings can inform practice, they will not really be able to make sense of what they see unless the explanations that they are offered actually reflect the highly nuanced and context-specific understandings on what that practice has been based.

(Burn, Hagger, Menter and Mutton, 2015, p. 27)

Throughout the year, observations undoubtably provide a valuable learning opportunity for student-teachers. However, in order for these opportunities to be maximised, student-teachers must be made aware of what they are observing and why.  If this reasoning is not made clear, it could in fact have a detrimental impact on the observer, as explained below:

Despite all there is to be learnt from it, the fluency of experience teachers’ practice means that beginners often report feeling bored by classroom observation. As we have already noted, what they see seems obvious to them; what they cannot see is all the knowledge embedded In the thinking that underpins teacher’s practice.

(Burn, Hagger, Menter and Mutton, 2015, p. 26)

In any given lesson, Kennedy argues that teachers are trying to balance as many as six competing elements at any one time:

  1. Covering desirable content;
  2. Fostering student learning;
  3. Increasing students’ willingness to participate;
  4. Maintaining lesson momentum;
  5. Creating a civil classroom community; and
  6. Attending to their own cognitive and emotional needs.

(Kennedy, 2006, p. 205)

Therefore, making impromptu decisions accessible and understandable to an observer is challenging, but mentors must be aware of the pitfalls of not attempting to make the implicit, explicit. Often student-teachers fall into the trap of mimicry due to a lack of fuller understanding of the processes involved in implicit classroom-based decision-making:

Students, it seems, may well adopt and adapt the strategies their teachers use for a number of reasons – as an attempt to disguise their lack of understanding, to gain approval, or because they lack knowledge of alternative approaches.

(Furlong and Maynard, 1995, p. 87)

In PTE2, observation is deemed to be an increasingly powerful learning tool for student-teachers. At this later stage of the year, it has been noted that student-teachers:

…are more aware of the complexity of teaching and can appreciated the diverse needs of individual learners and the competing objectives that teachers may be seeking to prioritise. Using focused observation at this point, particularly in conjunction with planned opportunities to discuss the lesson afterwards with the teacher concerned, asking non-judgemental questions about the reasons for their decisions and their reaction to the outcomes, offers a tremendous insight into the process of clinical reasoning.

(Burn, Hagger, Menter and Mutton, 2015, p. 53)

If skills such as these are developed in schools through mentoring and Partnership work, the effect it could have on internal staff development through peer observations, for example, could be significant. Similarly, using effective and purposeful feedback strategies, as described below, can be used in the wider school setting outside of the mentor/student-teacher relationship:

…another highly effective strategy, as we have noted, is that of inviting your trainees to contribute first whenever you are giving feedback on their teaching… even If your trainees find it difficult at first, makes it much more likely that they will recognise and embrace the responsibility that they have to make their own judgements and to identify the implications of those judgements for their future development – rather than simply relying on your for affirmation and direction.

(Burn, Hagger, Menter and Mutton, 2015, p. 55)

Indeed, many parallels can be drawn here with Hattie and Timperley’s model of Where am I going? How am I going? and Where to next? (Hattie and Timperley, 2007, pp. 88-90) and Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam’s suggested strategies around dialogue and reflection (Black and Wiliam, 1998, p. 12). The impact of feedback has been shown to feature at number 10 on ‘a list of influences on achievement’ (Hattie, 2012, p. 266) and if mentors are able to grasp opportunities to enhance their feedback skills, it too will surely have an impact on classroom practice.

This is undoubtedly an exciting time of the year for the APLP. The onset of PTE2 brings a new set of opportunities for student-teachers, mentors and others in the Partnership to further enhance their own professional development. It is important that these opportunities are recognised and indeed grasped, as there is no doubt that our combined actions continue to have a profound impact on learners across Wales. I thoroughly look forward to embarking on this journey with you all.

  • Laurence Thomas is a Senior Lecturer and Strategic Lead for Partnerships in the Athrofa.


References:

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box. London: Nelson.

Burn, K., Hagger, H., Menter, I. and Mutton, T. (2015) Beginning teachers’ learning.

Furlong, J. and Maynard, T. (1995) Mentoring student teachers. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J.A.C. (2012) Visible learning for teachers. London: Routledge.

Hattie, J.A.C & Timperley, H. (2006) The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research March 2007, Vol. 77, No. 1, pp. 81 – 112

Cscjes-cronfa.co.uk. 2022. 10 Ways to Support Initial Teacher Education in Schools – CSC. [online] Available at: <https://www.cscjes-cronfa.co.uk/repository/resource/82b44064-9b68-4423-9871-6fb1f2e5e9a2/en> [Accessed 25 January 2022].

Appendix I:

John Furlong and Trisha Maynard (Furlong and Maynard, 1995, p. 181) list the following stages of mentoring and student development:

Beginning teaching

Focus of student learning ……….. rules, rituals and routines; establishing authority

Mentoring role ……….. model

Key mentoring strategies ……….. student observation and collaborative teaching focused on rules     and routines

Supervised teaching

Focus of student learning ……….. teaching competences

Mentoring role ……….. coach

Key mentoring strategies ………..observation by student; systematic observation and feedback on student’s ‘performance’; mentor facilitates reflection-on-action

From teaching to learning

Focus of student learning ……….. understanding pupil learning; developing effective teaching

Mentoring role ……….. critical friend

Key mentoring strategies ……….. student observation; re-examining of lesson planning

Autonomous teaching

Focus of student learning……….. investigating the grounds for practice

Mentoring role ……….. co-enquirer

Key mentoring strategies ……….. partnership teaching; partnership supervision

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