Teacher mentoring can be a powerful tool for CPD and school improvement – if it is done effectively. This article first appeared here This is one of the articles in the TDT October Newsletter (sign up here).

Since the 1980s and 1990s, in-school mentoring has become an increasingly important part of teachers’ initial training and subsequent induction into the profession in the UK and internationally.

Effective mentoring has been found to have a range of benefits for teachers’ professional learning and can help teachers take control of their own professional development. However, in-school mentoring across England is failing to realise its full potential, as Andrew Hobson (Professor of Education at Sheffield Hallam University) and Angi Malderez (Education consultant on mentor development) explain in their recent paper “Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school-based mentoring in teacher education”.[1]  Drawing on interviews with mentees and mentors in schools across England, the report highlights certain concerns with the process. So what is going wrong?

For best results, mentoring should tie colleagues teaching the same subject or age group and be removed from all formal performance management. The authors’ suggestions for effective mentoring focus on two key concepts:

  • “legitimate peripheral participation”[2]: mentors help mentees move from the periphery to full participation in the school community
  • “scaffolding”[3]: mentors provide pedagogical assistance so that mentees begin to make their own conclusions and decisions.

Hobson and Malderez suggest that good mentors also:

  • act as a good professional model
  • broker professional opportunities and relationships on mentees’ behalf
  • offer emotional support as mentees adjust to their new role.

When these roles are meaningfully filled, mentoring becomes a powerful tool, enhancing skills in classroom management, self-reflection and also improving job satisfaction.

When practised ineffectively and without consideration of relevant research evidence, mentoring can severely limit mentees’ professional development.

The most damaging failing is what Hobson and Malderez term “judgementoring”. This occurs when mentors are predominantly concerned with evaluating and passing judgement on mentees, and fail to create a “safe and trusting relationship”. Mentees then feel reluctant to acknowledge difficulties or seek help, for fear of appearing weak or incompetent. Some mentees described feeling “demoralised” and “isolated”, deciding (in the worst cases) to drop out of their training courses or the profession altogether.

Worryingly, Hobson and Malderez’s research suggests that judgementoring may be a growing phenomenon. However, mentors themselves are not necessarily the only ones to blame. Many shortcomings can be traced back to institutional and policy-level failings. For example:

  • Weak selection criteria for mentors means that candidates’ willingness, aptitude and expertise are often not sufficiently considered
  • Ineffective or insufficient training leaves mentors ill prepared
  • Mentors are given insufficient time to meet procedural demands
  • Schools task mentors with conflicting mentor/assessor roles
  • Little effort is made to build effective partnerships with relevant higher education institutions.

The prevalence of such failings is hard to estimate but Hobson and Malderez claim that, overall, many schools are guilty of not taking the process sufficiently seriously. Such failings may be partly explained by policy-related factors, such as the relative absence of mentoring from career progression and salary frameworks, and administrative tasks stemming from a general culture of accountability.

How can we now create conditions conducive to effective mentoring? Hobson and Malderez suggest three main priorities:

  1. Policy makers must use research findings to create and promote a consensus on the purpose and nature of mentoring
  2. Links between mentoring and formal assessment must be removed to show that judgementoring should not be the norm for mentoring relationships
  3. Provision for mentor training and development opportunities must be improved to promote overall mentee/mentor satisfaction.

But the article also issues a note of caution. While schools need to take the mentoring process more seriously, this must not entail a drive on surveillance and accountability. These elements contribute, after all, to current problems. Mentors must be encouraged to become less judgemental without themselves feeling judged.

If mentoring schemes across the country can be changed and improved in these ways, the process has some chance of reaching its full potential as a tool of professional development built on meaningful communication and trust.

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[1] Andrew J. Hobson, Angi Malderez, (2013) “Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school-based mentoring in teacher education”, International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 2 Iss: 2, pp.89 – 108.

[2] Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991), Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

[3] Wood, D., Bruner, J.S. and Ross, G. (1976), “The role of tutoring in problem-solving”, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 89-100