Mentoring as a way to solve problems together

Teacher Mentoring and Coaching
Nina MK, Ph.D.

There are a few well-developed and quite simple provisions for all teachers in my country.

* A newcomer without previous work experience gets the beginner grade. Usually the school administration suggests a mentor; an assistant principal or head of the department visits the first lessons, and generally any more experienced colleagues are on hand to help out if needed. A district methodologist conducts seminars or arranges open lessons for anybody who wishes to attend. Thus a beginner teacher has an opportunity both to visit their colleagues’ lessons, and to have visitors at their own lessons who can provide feedback and useful pointers afterwards.

* I was a newcomer with previous work experience at the university; I also had a Ph.D. degree when I came to teach at school. Thus I found myself in a dual position from day one. My degree automatically ensured my getting the highest category and pay in the school system. My beginner status meant that the administration, the methodologists and anybody else would often visit my lessons. I believe that many people were also curious about a Ph.D. in their midst. I would regularly get more visitors than there were pupils in my classes, so that some lessons were held at the school assembly hall. I was also a well-established author of various educational articles. The outcomes were quite fascinating.

* The regional educational authorities asked me to conduct teacher-refresher/teacher training courses regularly; in a few years’ time I was offered the position of the district methodologist, in addition to my full-time job at school. I delivered a series of lectures and seminars to the regional EL teachers on Saturdays, mostly at the local ICT centre, teaching how to use the technology in the classroom, where to find the resources, and how to take part in international internet projects. Since I have always been perceived as a practicing colleague and not as an official from any level educational authorities or a specialist in methodology who never taught any actual lessons, I was asked by my listeners to develop workshops on certain themes which happened to present difficulties or which were more interesting and up-to-date than some of the theoretical lectures. Thus both I and my audience got a much needed hands-on experience. I got a better understanding of the challenges that all teachers faced, and they had an opportunity to air out the concerns which they would not perhaps share with their superiors. I continue doing this kind of workshops to this day whenever asked.

* Once in five years absolutely every teacher has to take a teacher-refresher/teacher-training course. This in turn is part of the procedure to either confirm an existing category/position, or to apply for a higher one. For instance when a person wants to go from Category 1 to the highest one, they need to take a course and fulfil all the final tasks successfully. They also are required to submit a methodological article, a lesson plan or plans or an essay on the issues at hand and their solutions to problems raised. They may also submit a description of a project they are conducting as part of their curriculum or as an extra-curricular activity. A panel comprised of senior pedagogues and local education authority representatives then evaluates all the submitted documents, invites the applicant to a meeting, listens to their presentations and asks questions. A simple vote is held and the applicant is notified of the result. Usually a district methodologist or a school administrator accompanies the applicant to the meeting and takes part in the discussions. If there are any doubts about the applicant’s being worthy of a higher grade or category, the school representative may argue in their candidate’s favour.

* One of the drawbacks of the teacher’s job is a constant lack of time. When a teacher is to take up a refresher course in addition to all the usual tasks, the lessons, the preparation, the endless paperwork, the PTA meetings, the new students et cetera, it is always a huge overload. One has to attend lectures and seminars after work, perform homework, write the required essays, make presentations and probably create new sites. Amazing but true: not every mentor turns out to be friendly. Truth be told, not every over-loaded teacher is thrilled at being appointed a mentor to a newcomer. Usually mentoring is regarded as an obligation; it is free. Considering that lots of teachers supplement their income by private tutoring, the necessity to visit a young colleague’s lessons and have feedback sessions afterwards is not always a welcome addition to one’s heavy workload. I think it is a question of being able to organise one’s time and schedules so that this task is not too taxing. For me, communicating with younger colleagues, helping them sort out and deal with the many new challenges is an integral part of my job. A friendly attitude, a kind word, a willingness to share work wonders.

* Here is a secret trick. I know perfectly well that my younger colleagues tend to regard me as a person who knows all the answers. They come to me with their professional problems; young mothers also ask me about bringing up children. Naturally I do not always know what to say. At times I feel baffled. But I can use reference books in several languages, and I can find any information on the internet with one click. I taught myself to keep a straight face no matter what. There is no shame in saying, “Why don’t we check the internet and see what the others are saying about it?” There is a certain magic in the fact that so many people list the familiar difficulties and work at solutions together. “I am not alone in this!” exclaims my young colleague. Sometimes just this knowledge is enough to do away with a negative emotion and work out a positive approach. A problem shared is a problem half-solved.

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