What Should A Mentoring Experience Provide?

by Lesley K. Petersen
April 2007

This article begins with two questions: ?What is the essence of mentoring?? and ?What distinguishes a mentor?

In a traditional sense, the mentor has a given or assumed role as a guide or advisor to someone seeking help. In the academic education environment, this is invariably a new, less experienced teacher wanting or needing assistance with aspects of their teaching practice. However, mentoring can also involve more experienced teachers who are looking for a space to reflect on their practice, check out their current practices against an established framework (provided by the mentor), find resources or seek another opinion.

The role of the mentor in my institution mainly follows the traditional pathway. A large percentage of my time is spent with new, less experienced teachers who really need advice and guidance on more generic areas such as how to teach, how to manage challenging students, how to teach a diverse student group, using group dynamics, establishing a context for the learning, inclusion of students with English as their second language. The list is extensive and varied.

Some of my time is focused on the experienced teachers who are seeking help in all or some of the areas just outlined. This is a much smaller percentage of time and ?customer? and I am finding this an interesting phenomenon to explore, that is, why don?t experienced teachers access mentoring for their own practice? In fact, there are a few key questions that can be asked here, such as, ?Do experienced teachers believe they do not require mentoring because of the stage and level of expertise they have attained in their field?? ?Do these teachers not want to admit they need help?? ?Is it the system within which they work that doesn?t support or encourage them to have access to mentoring?? ?Do they work in a systems where mentoring is only available for new staff??

With regard this last question, one further area must be explored and that is ?Is it the individual teacher?s perception that they cannot access mentoring or is it that the institution is unclear about the purpose of the mentoring provided, a lack of clarity caused by lack of policy, procedure and/or understanding of the concept (or a misrepresentation of the concept of mentoring).

As Sweeney (2003) points out, is mentoring supporting instructional improvement or does the organisation want to create or change the culture of the work environment? These questions form the basis of what mentoring means and why and how it occurs in an organisation. When these questions have been answered, the role of the mentor can be determined and defined.

What does a mentor do?

Taking into account this discussion, highlighting the need for a framework to be created for mentoring as a support mechanism in an organisation, here are a few activities I have been involved in as a mentor for academic teaching staff. There is only one designated mentor (me!) for all teaching staff regarding generic teaching and learning matters.

Observing a teaching and learning session to evaluate the student group and their interactions with the teacher, and vice versa
This often occurs as a result of a teacher working with some (or a whole group) of challenging students and needing some corroboration of the challenging behaviours and then strategies/advice as to how to manage the situation

Referring teachers to teaching and learning related resources: websites, articles, texts, other teachers on campus, research in teaching and learning

Working with new, inexperienced teachers as a mandatory part of their induction (see my article on MLRN, ?A Mentoring Programme for New Teaching Staff?, 2007)

Facilitating a team meeting, helping a group of teachers from the same discipline to coordinate their teaching strategies and approaches.
This is often in response to a challenging student situation, where all teachers within this team have as a student in their classes

Providing general teaching tips and strategies

Offering advice on a particular teaching and learning strategy a teacher wants to use but firstly wants to check out.
This request often comes from experienced teachers as a much as a the new teacher

The role of the mentor has been clearly distinguished in my organisation, as mentoring for teaching and learning specifically rather than mentoring for the whole induction process; mentoring is a strategic part of this process. This has resulted in a definitive resource for teaching practice and has been a worthwhile point to reach.

Why? When the teacher-mentor role was first established, the word ?mentor? was just one in a list of responsibilities but not specifically defined. Through a process of research, reflection, literature searches and a concentrated focus on developing the job description and profile, the responsibilities, activities and tasks of the teacher-mentor role have been identified and are now embedded in the relevant institutional policies and procedures.

Establishing a mentor position in isolation to these systems and processes results in significant difficulties evaluating the impact of mentoring on teachers, on learner outcomes, learner satisfaction, learner achievement and success - the ultimate goal.

Lesley is the Teacher Development Advisor at the Eastern Institute of Technology (EIT), a medium-size polytechnic on the East Coast of the North Island, New Zealand. EIT offers a wide range of programmes from Certificate to Masters level qualifications; many of the programmes have a vocational emphasis.

Contact Lesley K. Petersen
Email: lpetersen@eit.ac.nz
Phone: 0064 6 974 8000 ext. 5064