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What makes a great mentor? - Stephanie Marshall-Whitley

09 May 2024

By Stephanie Marshall-Whitley, Research Further Scholar, and lecturer at Truro and Penwith college

In the dynamic landscape of further education (FE), where every lesson shapes futures and challenges become opportunities, one factor often stands out as a defining force for good: mentorship. It’s the invisible handhold through innovative pedagogy, it supports the development of ownership over one’s practice and positively impacts upon professional development. But what defines this relationship and how does it shape the trajectory of teaching careers?

Mentoring is a term that is often debated in conjunction with coaching; ETF’s (2023) Guide for Mentors in Further Education defines it as “teachers... supporting colleagues on a one-to-one basis, over a sustained period, to bring about professional learning and development” and suggests that a skilled mentor is able to utilise both coaching and mentoring activities in response to the individual needs of the mentee. Mentoring transcends mere advice giving; it’s about creating a nurturing environment wherein teachers both new and experienced can thrive, innovate and evolve.

Mentors serve as guides, confidants and advocates, offering a comprehensive support system that reflects the unique needs of their mentee. They shoulder the responsibility of pitching feedback at just the right level for the emerging teacher or seasoned individual faced with a new challenge, they find the time to facilitate reflective practice and demonstrate best practice at every opportunity – even during that rainy Friday afternoon in February. At the core of mentorship lies the mentor's commitment to improving teacher effectiveness and enhancing job satisfaction for all and this shines through in the safe space they create for reflection, encouragement and skill-building. Building a safe space is a challenge in itself. Professor Hobson and his colleague Dr. Angi Malderez identified 'judgementoring,' a mentorship approach characterised by being excessively directive, critical and performance oriented as having negative effects on both the professional growth and wellbeing of mentees. By providing a nurturing space, mentorship ultimately emerges as support not only for pedagogical development and professional growth but also for creating a culture of ongoing improvement that shapes individual trajectories and the collective excellence of the FE community.

Trust and collaboration are the foundations of the mentor-mentee relationship. Trust establishes a sense of security and openness, enabling mentees to share vulnerabilities and seek guidance without fear of judgment. Likewise, collaboration encourages mutual respect and a shared ownership of situation specific goals that ends in more effective problem solving and innovation; two heads (or more!) are better than one. To establish trust and encourage collaboration, mentors can employ various strategies. Active listening, empathy and confidentiality are key components that signal to mentees that their concerns are valued and respected. Regular communication and consistency in support reinforces trust and builds rapport over time. Trust and collaboration are integral to the success of mentorship in FE; when mentees feel supported, they are more likely to engage in reflective practice, embrace feedback they consider to be actionable and use innovative pedagogy with confidence.

Furthermore, mentors can encourage mentees to take ownership of their learning journey by involving them in appropriate goal setting and decision-making processes. One framework often used for goal setting is the SMART criteria; making goals specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. Mentors play a lead role in guiding mentees through this process. They can assist mentees in identifying meaningful areas for growth in the FE context by supporting them to self-assess using the ETF (2022) professional standards tool and reviewing the results together. By understanding mentees strengths, challenges and aspirations, mentors can help mentees to create goals that are SMART. Former principal and teacher Kim Marshall suggests SMART goals drive significant improvements in teaching by providing a framework for focusing efforts, tracking progress and celebrating achievements. With the guidance and support of mentors, mentees can navigate their career trajectory with clarity, purpose and resilience.

In the mentor-mentee relationship, the provision of ongoing support and constructive feedback is paramount for teacher development. Mentors are pillars of support, offering encouragement, guidance and valuable insights to their mentees as they navigate the complexities of teaching in the modern-day FE landscape. Effective communication strategies are essential for mentors to deliver feedback that is conducive to growth. By framing feedback in a positive and specific manner, mentors can inspire mentees to engage in reflective practice and embrace opportunities for improvement with resilience; there's always room for improvement, but how and when it's presented can determine whether the mentee perseveres or lets the opportunity slip away. The impact of timely feedback cannot be overstated; education researchers John Hattie and Helen Timperley argue that feedback is most effective when it is provided promptly. According to Hattie and Timperley, timely feedback allows learners to make immediate connections between their actions and the outcomes, facilitating a deeper understanding of the situation and promoting continuous improvement. This directly translates to the mentor-mentee relationship, and it is recommended that feedback must be produced in a timely manner to maximise its effectiveness.

In conclusion, effective mentorship supports professional development in the teaching profession and can be utilised through all stages of a teaching career. Mentors play a vital role in supporting teachers by providing guidance, feedback and encouragement on a level playing field. It is essential for teachers to actively seek out mentorship opportunities and embrace the invaluable guidance mentors offer in their journey towards excellence in the FE community.

There is a pressing need for FE institutions to prioritise mentorship programmes; they are not just the remit of other phases of education. By encouraging a supportive and collaborative teaching community through mentorship initiatives, institutions can cultivate a culture of continuous learning and be an example to others in that the support of their teachers is a priority. The influence of my teacher training mentor continues to resonate in my career and scholarly activities; it's a testament to the profound and lasting impact of effective mentoring that continues to support me through the years.