I have a video of myself teaching in the first term of my teaching career. Looking back, it’s a brutal two minutes of unending failure, shame and embarrassment. I only feel those things now because I recognise how clumsy and ineffective a teacher I was, and I only have the perspective to recognise that because of mentoring. And, the mentoring I received was only as successful as it was because of Teach For Australia’s commitment to it.
My experience so far is that mentoring, at a personal and professional level, is deeply enriching.
One of my first mentors was a man named Grant Forrest, a retired primary school teacher who was incredibly elegant in the way that he mentored me. Grant had an amazing ability to help me realise things without saying very much at all. For Grant, it seemed that he would pluck just the right word, just the right question, put just the right nudge in the right place and I’d be having a revelation.
While writing this, I started to make a list of the different lessons that Grant taught me: nice bite-size, listicle type lessons, ones I could expound on and give examples of.
But, here’s the thing: there are too many, and that type of reductive explanation would not do justice to how great mentoring works – it’s a holistic and deep engagement with just one person. It’s not a method, it’s not a lesson, it’s not a perspective. It’s a year (or two) long process where someone builds you up in dozens of ways.
Mentoring did not just help me be a better teacher, but a better person.
So, why is mentoring important? And what made the mentoring I received especially successful?
To put it simply: mentoring is the process that helps a teacher go from knowing what they are supposed to do to knowing how they are supposed to do it – and how to do it well.
Teachers know what they are supposed to do: ensure that each individual in a class learns a lot in an engaging and safe environment. No one I’ve met knows how to do that from the get-go. That’s hardly surprising, really.
Mentoring also keeps new teachers motivated and re-invigorates more experienced teachers. In the same way enthusiastic and alive teenagers can make a boring day wonderful, energetic and alive peers make the profession better. Mentoring, I think, keeps that energy lasting longer and that’s ideal as far as I’m concerned.
Now onto the really important part of this blog post: why was the mentoring I got so exemplary?
It boils down to two things: lots of mentors and lots of time. In some schools that I’ve worked with, mentors have had a scheduled 1 hour a week mentoring session. In reality this turns into one hour a month. I had 2-3 hours of scheduled mentoring a week that was usually 2-2.5 hours a week (sometimes, at my request, we would cancel a session so I could mark, call parents, see students, contemplate the utter futility of writing reports, etc). As a TFA Associate I also had at least two mentors, or was it three? Maybe four? All combined with 2 full years of support.
The shame of the lucky situation I found myself in, is that this is something all new teachers should get. All new teachers require mentors to become excellent teachers. All new teachers deserve committed mentors with appropriate time to observe, be observed, debrief, read together, discuss teaching, discuss being a teacher and to get to know each other and the work in a deep and genuine way. Mentoring cannot be done well in a single hour a week.
To even conceive that a pair of professionals can establish a truly meaningful collaboration and use that to successfully enter a challenging profession in an hour a week is insane. That many graduate teachers receive only one hour a week of mentoring is simply leaving new teachers high and dry and, in some cases, dooming them to fail.