Mentoring

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Image courtesy of Christoph Rupprecht

Today marks the beginning of another week of TESL practicum observations for me. While I have enjoyed watching these new ESL teachers starting off their journey, I have to say I am a getting a bit tired. I realize that this is an important step for these trainees, but I feel like this is taking a whole lot more out of me than I had anticipated. It is funny considering that I’m not the one doing the lesson preparation and having to teach the class. I am not entirely sure why it takes so much of my energy, but I think I have a partial reason. I think it is because I care about helping them.

Long ago, I was in their shoes. I remember being that energetic, enthusiastic, nervous-to-the-core, rough-around-the-edges teacher in training. I distinctly remember the disaster of my first class and the not-so-interesting second class. But what I remember the most was the support I received from my TESL instructor, Gail Tiessen. I am so thankful for her. She was kind, firm, direct, and quick to help. Her comments kept me going, thinking, and improving. I am happy to still call her my mentor.

Yesterday, I was in church and the pastor was using the analogy of a pair of oxen being yoked together to work the fields. These oxen would not be able to finish the work on their own. Also, young oxen might not know what is expected of them without the support and guidance of the more experienced oxen by their side. The yoke isn’t there to punish them, or to say they can’t do it, it is there to give them support and guidance.

This analogy got me thinking about how we support and mentor those who don’t have the same amount of experience as ourselves. Other than a brand-new teacher, there is always going to be someone who is less experienced than you are. This is an opportunity to help them by being their mentor. The Ontario Ministry of Education has put out a handbook for mentors. In the introduction, I found this quote:

We don’t learn to teach. Rather, we learn from our teaching. As teachers, we continue to refine our expertise and expand our knowledge through professional relationships and conversations with colleagues, and through applying and adapting information and strategies within the context of our own classrooms.

Too often, we get through our training and are set loose in the classroom. Teaching is a bit of an interesting profession in that we play out the majority of our work in separation from our colleagues. Sure, we have the staff room, PD session and observations, but our end result is rarely seen by those we work with. I believe mentoring should be a part of every workplace, but I think it most needed in teaching.

So, why should we become mentors? It seems on the surface that mentoring is fairly one-way, but that is not what the research says. I found an excellent article from Yuly Asención Delaney (2012) called Research on Mentoring Language Teachers: Its Role in Language Education. Asención Delaney analyzes the most recent research on mentoring in language teaching and pulls out the salient points. Here are some things that struck me while reading it:

  • “[M]entoring is believed to contribute to both the professional development of experienced teachers and the formation of professional networks among teachers.”

  • “Mentors grow by talking about teaching with their mentees, participating in mentor training, self-reflecting through action research and class observation, and learning new instructional techniques.”

  • “Mentoring relationships also lead to increased collaboration and collegiality among teachers by fostering a culture of professional support.”

  • “[M]entoring is considered a good way to introduce positive change into educational programs.”

Coming back to my observations this week, I think the real reason I get so tired is that I am constantly thinking about what is being done, how effective that is, and how this compares to what I believe to be important. I then reflect on how I do things and whether or not my beliefs are matching to what I do in order to provide examples for the new teacher. I then consider how I can make changes to match my teaching to my philosophy of learning. And to think I thought it was just about observing a new teacher.

I would suggest reading over these two documents and think about how you can get involved in mentoring. Please share your mentoring experiences with us by adding a comment below or sending me tweet at @nathanghall. Thank you.

References:

Asención Delaney, Y. (2012). Research on mentoring language teachers: Its role in language education. Foreign Language Annals, 45(1). 184-202. doi: 10.1111/j.1944-9720.2011.01185.x

A resource handbook for mentors. (2010). Ontario Ministry of Education. Retrieved from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/teacher/ntipmentor.pdf

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7 thoughts on “Mentoring

  1. Nice post, Nathan. I don’t have much mentoring experience, so I can’t add to the discussion in that way. One question did pop-up in my head while reading through your post, though: Do you think the word ‘mentoring’ implies too much of ‘superior/inferior’ division? Sure, there’s the difference in experience…but, as you describe your own observations with mentoring, there is significant learning & reflection taking place on your side of the relationship.

    I’m not sure there’s actually a better term than ‘mentoring’ out there, but thought it was a worthwhile consideration.

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      I agree that the word mentoring is often misused to focus on the ‘superior/inferior’ division. While is is true that a mentor will have more experience or knowledge in an area, the focus should be on the mentee and what they are able to accomplish and their potential for growth.

      I will give you an example of where I think this works well. This last January, I was an assisting instructor in a curriculum development course that is part of an MA TESOL. The main instructor is a really well respected and very knowledgable part of the ELT community. She obviously knows way more than I do about curriculum development (along with pretty much every other area), yet she never focused on that. She was always encouraging and helping me to grow. We both were aware of the differences in knowledge and experience, but she continually focused on what I could do now and what she saw me growing into as a professional. If anything, she made me feel like we were equals; we were both professionals in our field. She made an effort to let me take things on instead of stepping in.

      I know that is a long answer, but I think it is best summed up with another quote from Asención Delaney (2012): “Research findings showed that student teachers most valued the following: (1) making expectations clear, (2) receiving advice before attempting to teach, (3) hearing constructive criticism instead of just emotional support, (4) recognizing that student teachers need to develop their own identities and teaching styles, and (5) making mentees feel welcomed, accepted, and recognized as individuals.”

      Thank you for commenting. I hope you are able to share with us your thoughts in the future. I look forward to hearing and learning from you.

  2. I was just thinking this over again. Do you think there needs to be an inherent focus in the mentor relationship? Even in your example, the main instructor surely got a lot out of the interaction, even as it focused on the mentee…and so she should, she’s putting in her time and effort. If something is mutually beneficial, and billed that way, it becomes much more sustainable.

    Anyway, just a follow-up thought.

    1. I think we agree on the principle, but are just looking at the word mentoring through a slightly different lens. If that is the case, so be it. I never cared much for labels anyway. 🙂

      Mentoring needs to be a two-way street. There is going to be disparity between the two in regards to knowledge and experience, even if the two are considered ‘equals’ in regards to position. I have experience in the use of technology and my one colleague is far ahead of me in teaching pronunciation. I can mentor this person in technology, they in reply mentor me in how I teach pronunciation. This has little to do with power since we maintain our positions in the power structure, but we help one another grow as instructors.

      Thanks for sharing Glen. I look forward to hearing from your again.

  3. Yes, Nathan, I do think we are agreeing – maybe exploring, or building on the idea. This is one of those ‘fine tune’ discussions that have opened up as education has gone widespread and distributed online. We can dive deeper into terms like ‘mentoring’ and start to not only unveil the multi-purposes involved in the concept, but act on them as well. Exposing the benefits for the less-visible mentor side of the relationship can encourage more people to become one and maybe make the relationship more efficient. Maybe it will for me, if I find something to mentor about.

    It’s interesting to think of the mentor exchange as a kind of barter system. Anything that takes the power structure out of it is good by me. 🙂

    1. I like your comment of ‘fine tuning’ an idea. This is what makes this type of exchange so valuable. I appreciate the time you are taking to think about this and to comment.

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