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What do successful mentoring conversations look like?

What do successful mentoring conversations look like? I feel like this is a question which has been weighing on my mind ever since I became a mentor. The first time I had a teaching student in my class, I wasn’t sure where to begin, I often felt like I was making it up as I went along, drawing upon the only experience I had – being mentored myself through my own teacher training and NQT year. I wonder how many other teachers feel like this when they first get a trainee? The scary thing is, I know how important good mentoring is, having nearly dropped out of teacher training myself due to (what I now know is) poor mentoring.

Over the past year, I have been involved in a project through Exceed School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT), where I have recorded videos of my own mentoring conversations (Training Tutorials) in order to analyse and develop my own practice. In addition to this, I have studied a vast amount of research surrounding effective mentoring conversations and attempted to apply a number of strategies to help me improve my conversations as a mentor. Through this research, I have developed seven suggestions for successful mentoring conversations:

Seven suggestions for successful mentoring conversations:

  1. Not just a relationship, a good relationship.

As the mentor, it is your role to establish and maintain the relationship with your trainee. You will have a relationship with any trainee that you have, so it is easy to overlook its importance and focus on other aspects of mentoring. However for mentoring to be successful, having a relationship is not enough, it has to be a good relationship, where the trainee feels that they can be open and honest about their practice, and the mentor takes a supportive, not a critical role. Building a relationship will look different depending upon each trainee, however, like any relationship, the most important aspect is trust. (Kutilek & Earnest, 2001; Mincemoyer & Thomson, 1998). Once you have established trust with your trainee, they will be more comfortable and open to your advice and feedback. Some ways to establish trust are: to outline what the trainee can expect from your mentoring relationship and ensure that you meet those expectations; explaining about what they can expect from the course answering any questions that they may have about this; asking the trainee questions about their wellbeing; and sharing experiences of your own teacher training.

  1. Don’t just hear, listen!

As a mentor, one of the most important skills to develop is the ability to listen to your trainee so that you are able to completely assess their understanding and develop questions/next steps that meet their needs (Parsloe, E. and Leedham, M, 2009). You can use some simple techniques to help you to do this. One of these is to maintain eye contact with your trainee when they are speaking, this is something that I found challenging during my own training tutorials as often I would be filling in parts of the trainee’s action plan. Therefore, I began to make a conscious effort to do this and found that it allowed my trainee to reveal more about what they were thinking and gave me the opportunity to address their misconceptions. Another useful strategy is to briefly summarise your understanding of their response when they have finished speaking and ask questions to clarify relevant points if there is something you’re unsure of.

  1. Ask the right questions for them – not for you.

Through reflecting on the effectiveness of my own practice, I have noticed that the success of a mentoring conversation depends on the quality, not the quantity of questions asked. They should prompt the trainee to engage in some genuine self-reflection and achieve greater insight into the situations and challenges they are facing, rather than give you an insight into what they are thinking. If the mentee needs to take some time to answer a question properly, you should allow them to do this and avoid the temptation to fill the silence with yet another question. Silence provides you and the mentee with the space to think and reflect, so it is important to allow it in your mentoring conversations. You may need to model being reflective to your trainee. If they are in one of your lessons, and you make a mistake or the children don’t make as much progress as you would like, why not use it as an opportunity to model being self-reflective.

  1. Give feedback with tangible actions

I can remember clearly sitting with my mentor, during my own teacher training, and her telling me that I had to improve my pace… again. And thinking to myself: How on earth do I do that? I think that this is one of the most challenging aspects of mentoring, but also one of the most important (Brookhart, S, 2008). You have to break things down into tangible actions which are achievable for the trainee. For example: write down three questions that you want to ask in your input. Wait 5 seconds for a response, then bounce the question to another child. Send the children who understand to their seats and only input those who need extra support. Put your resources out before the lesson. Break up the lesson with a short active task. All these things might be things that as an experienced teacher, you do without even knowing it, however most trainees will need strategies like this to support them as they grow in their role.

  1. Explain WHY!

Sometimes, when mentoring, it is easy to forget that actually, a lot of the key principles are the same as when you are teaching children. One of these principles is the idea that knowing the reasons behind decisions and processes gives the learner the deeper understanding to not just complete the tasks that they are given, but to adapt and improve them (Stone-Wiske, M, 1998). Explaining why we do various things in school can help your trainee to both remember how to do the process better, and to ensure that the outcome is what is expected. This could be as simple as explaining what the purpose is of the homework that they are setting or why the children are sat in a certain way.

  1. Adapt to your trainee

Every trainee is different and will require a different amount of support. At first your conversations may be very mentor-led as you are teaching them a variety of new skills, however, a more experienced trainee may require a more guiding role, where you ask them questions to stretch and challenge them, but the sessions may become more trainee-led. (Kutilek, L. M., & Earnest, G. W, 2001). In addition to this, you may have a trainee who is very shy, who you may need to support, through additional questioning, to be reflective and open. The thing to remember is, that whatever the personality of your trainee, you must always work with them positively and constructively.

  1. Share your own experiences – including your mistakes

Sharing your own experiences with your trainee has a number of very important effects on both their learning and your relationship: it can help the trainee to understand that it is OK to fail, and that even experienced teachers make mistakes; it can increase their trust in you and promote more honest dialogue; it can substantiate what you are trying to teach them and increase their confidence in what you are saying; and it can help them to avoid making similar mistakes to you.

Bibliography

Brookhart, S. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Virginia, Association for supervision and curriculum development.

Ensher, E. and Murphy, S. (2013). Power mentoring. San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.

Kutilek, L. M., & Earnest, G. W. (2001). Supporting professional growth through mentoring and coaching. Journal of Extension [On-line], 39(4) Article 4RIB1.

Mincemoyer, C. C., &Thomson, J. S. (1998). Establishing effective mentoring relationships for individuals and organizational success. Journal of Extension [On-line], 36(2) Article 2FEA2.

Parsloe, E. and Leedham, M. (2009). Coaching and mentoring. London [u.a.]: Kogan Page.

Smith, M. V. (2005). Modern Mentoring: Ancient Lessons for Today. Music Educators Journal92(2), 62–67.

Stone-Wiske, M. (1998). Teaching for understanding. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Yin-Che Chen, Enhancing teaching competence through bidirectional mentoring and structured on-the-job training model, Mentoring & Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 10.1080/13611267.2018.1511948, 26, 3, (267-288).

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