Bonnie is an English teacher from Bristol who has worked in a number of different secondary schools since qualifying in 2012. As well as being an NQT and trainee teacher mentor, Bonnie is an examiner. She’s passionate about reading and high expectations, and will often be writing something about teacher wellbeing. Find her at @MsBHarrington where she’ll share positive education tweets and pictures of her cat.
You’re an experienced English teacher. You know exactly what you’re doing in the classroom (well, mostly). You’re established, reliable and overworked. So, if you’re asked to mentor a trainee teacher, how should you reply? Before you agree to take a fragile, malleable trainee under your wing, here are the realities you need to know.
The workload isn’t lessened, it’s just different. You might be tempted by having your lessons planned and books marked- who wouldn’t? Handing over a stack of assessments to an enthusiastic trainee while you swan off to a spa do other work is a treat. However, a trainee taking your classes won’t necessarily equate to lessening your workload. It’ll mean your workload is different. Initially, the lessons may not be well planned, and books may not be well marked. You’ll need to see planning in advance, discuss pedagogy, model marking and check for accuracy. You’ll be meeting your trainee weekly, but realistically, you’ll be speaking daily to reassure, answer questions and support. Observing a trainee might take a PPA session, and feedback might take place after school. Report writing can be laborious (twice per placement) and deadlines can be tight. Be prepared to receive late emails, field early questions and even repeat yourself. Trainees will ask advice on job applications, and in the past I’ve held practice interviews. Inevitably, trainees will have bad days, and as their mentor, you’re the one who picks up the pieces. Staying at school later, not finishing marking a set of books, or spending time listening to them, all come under the umbrella of mentoring. Ask yourself- is this is a price worth paying for less marking and fewer lessons?
Your class may lose the routines you’ve taught them. I struggle each year to give ‘my’ class to a new teacher. Don’t mistake this for jealousy- far from it. Simply, it’s frustrating to watch the class stray from the routines and expectations which I had instilled in them. Importantly, it’s not the trainee’s fault! Can you remember that overwhelming feeling during training- directing the class to their starter, taking the register, handing out books, making the PowerPoint work and noticing when students were late ALL AT THE SAME TIME? Discombobulating. The trainee is in that exact position. Naturally, they aren’t going to be as efficient as you are. As a mentor, you need to strike the balance between stepping in and letting the trainee handle things themselves, even if that means it’s not the way you’d do it.
You might have “difficult” conversations. This is not something you can shy away from, or delegate. You may have tell a trainee they are acting in an unprofessional manner. They could be failing to meet targets. Perhaps they are messy, unreliable or defensive. It’s your responsibility to bring this to their attention in a supportive, clear, and effective way. Surprisingly, this is actually a positive of being a mentor. You might baulk at the prospect of holding someone to account, but when else will you have the opportunity to shape and support someone’s progress, if you’re not a line manager already? Usually, trainees overcome their difficulties and pass their placement. If, however, they aren’t on track, you will gain first-hand experience of leading conversations usually led by line managers or SLT. In the past, I’ve had to honestly and sympathetically discuss with a trainee how effective they are, how they are coping, and if they’d be happier in another career all together. Knowing when to encourage, and when to step back is never easy, but you’ll gain essential leadership development as you find your path.
You get lessons planned, and books marked! I wrote above that mentors will generally have no decrease in workload, but there is a magical moment, towards the end of placement A and for most of placement B where the trainees have just ‘got it’. Knowing the pupils are in safe hands is a wonderful feeling. Then, you can enjoy having fewer lessons to plan and books to mark, without having to reassure your trainee constantly.
You guide one of the next generation of teachers. Perhaps your mentor was wonderful during your training and you look back fondly at the person who moulded you into the teacher you are now. As a mentor, you can now be that person for someone else. Alternatively, you may have had a horrible experience (I’ve heard many a horror story) and you were criticised, abandoned and unsupported in your training. This is your chance to be the mentor you never had, and ensure the next generation of teachers know what real support is. You get to treat someone how you wish you were treated. Don’t underestimate what a powerful and healing process that can be.
You get CPD on how to observe and give effective feedback. This. Is. Invaluable. Personally, it honed my understanding of what observers are looking for. I reflected on some unhelpful feedback I’d been given after observations and ensured I only gave timely, constructive feedback, with small, measurable targets. Supporting a trainee to consistently make progress in their teaching is so fulfilling, and as a mentor, you are directly sharing in their success.
You’ll learn a lot. Watching teachers teach is the best CPD. Each year, I learned from passionate, engaging, hard-working trainees. I saw lessons where I thought “the kids’ll never get that”, to be proven utterly wrong. A trainee this year taught yr7 kennings and I worried it would be too complex. Wrong! She was surrounded by a forest of hands up, and pupils were desperate to share their kennings. It was brilliant! Conversely, I’ve seen well- planned lessons fall flat, and then had a diagnostic debrief with the trainee, to unpick why. Each time, I developed as a teacher, a leader and a mentor.
With this advice in mind, if you do take on the challenge of being a mentor, I guarantee the trainee won’t be the only teacher to benefit.