I recently stopped being a mentor.

This isn’t one of those homily type analogies where I go on to say something about becoming a friend, it’s more prosaic than that. In October I changed teaching jobs and while last year being a mentor was in my job description, this year it isn’t.

This year I’m on the receiving end of the mentor / mentee relationship and my director of studies has the pleasure of chatting with me about this and that every so often. I find it quite a useful forum. Obviously, as a busy person with lessons to plan and homework to mark and all of the other 101 things that go along with a teaching job, I completely and utterly resent the intrusion on my time that these meetings represent, but when I’m actually there and chatting to my DoS I do find it’s quite a helpful process to go through.

Our mentor meetings take the form of a sort of guided reflection on our professional lives. We talk about students, classes, levels and materials, our teaching and of course our administration. There’s even a checklist!

And that’s why I’m not sure I was ever a particularly brilliant mentor. Because from a management point of view, the mentor meeting process isn’t just about helping teachers develop, it’s about making sure that the teachers and the teaching reflect the pedagogical and administrative values of the school – to make sure that everyone is working with the same processes, and that everyone is keeping to the administrative timetable of the school – and I’m not sure that this works very well with the core concept of the mentor-mentee relationship.

Last year, the twitter group #ELTCHAT discussed the topic of mentoring and there were lots of useful points made about the nature of the relationship, but three in particular that strike a chord; mentoring is a symbiotic relationship that both sides should be benefitting from, it is the mentee’s agenda that should be paramount, and that the more formal or institutionalised the relationship is – the less chance of success it has. These are important points because as soon as the focus of any mentoring is determined by anyone other than the mentee, it stops being about mentoring and starts being about other issues – quality control, managing, oversight etc – and I think you lose the focus.

On the BBC business podcast “The Bottom Line” about leadership, John Timpson described inverting his management model and flipping the pyramid hierarchy upside down. Management, he said, should not be about the top brass telling the frontline workers how to do their job, but it should be about the frontline workers telling management what they need to do their job better – and management helping them to do that. This makes an awful lot of sense to me and while it might not work in every aspect of business, it seems to be the most sensible approach to take in education.

Certainly, if I ever find myself in a mentoring role again, it’s an approach I’d like to try.
To read the rest of the #ELT Chat on Mentor Teachers, in which participants discussed how to define the role of a mentor and came up with a comprehensive list of Do’s and Don’ts for people in mentoring situations, check out this summary.

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