Mentoring: supporting professional development from the top-down

Published on Tuesday, 14 September 2021
Last updated on Monday, 13 September 2021

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There is clear evidence that mentoring builds competency and capability for educators throughout their career in early childhood education. But to be successful there needs to be enabling structures and planning, as mentoring is not a one size fits all model.

An effective program requires leaders to wrap support around the mentoring process. This is backed by a committed culture, specialist training for mentors, and a design that allows positive relationships to develop.

Effective mentoring supports the professional learning of both individuals and the team, which leads to positive learning outcomes for children and their families. Successful mentoring for new educators can be extraordinarily effective, leading to a lower rate of turnover, boosting the quality of teaching and learning, and ramping up levels of professional satisfaction.

The models for mentoring relationships can vary from formal to informal through to a traditional one-to-one or a team approach. There’s even a business model called reverse mentoring that could be relevant in some settings.

Traditionally in a mentoring relationship, a more experienced person provides a less experienced person with information, support and guidance. Reverse mentoring flips this relationship so a new educator supports a more experienced educator’s in pursuit of teaching new skills, knowledge, and understanding.

This structure can bridge the gap between generations in the workforce and can be useful for technology or cultural learning.

Benefits include the development of leadership skills within new team members while building inclusivity and bettering understanding of different perspectives or cultures within the team.

Understanding mentoring

When defining mentoring, an interesting fact about the term “mentor” is that it comes from Greek mythology. In “The Odyssey”, Odysseus entrusts the protection and education of his son to one of his dearest friends. The name of that friend? You guessed it: Mentor.

In early education mentoring is part of the professional development process, and can be considered a valuable means of facilitating learning through reflection on personal experience, developing confidence and skills, and dealing with problems in professional relationships.

Mentoring often gets confused with coaching and while both are supportive they differ in their approach and methodology.

Mentors can still use coaching techniques but the mentoring role is structured to broker access to a range of self-directed learning opportunities, reflection on practice and provides ongoing support. Coaching is used in a more targeted way and promotes the development of a specific aspect of a professional learner’s practice.

Mentoring is first and foremost a structured learning relationship and, like all relationships requires commitment and effort. It requires a foundation of trust, respect, open and honest communication, flexibility and understanding of perspectives.

This all requires quality time and resourcing to allow a learning relationship to flourish. Mentoring needs to be scheduled as education and care settings are often time-challenged.

Expert advice on effective mentoring

Education consultant and former Senior Researcher for NZCER, Jenny Whatman, penned an article on mentoring, outlining the following guidelines for setting up and maintaining effective mentoring relationships:

  • Leaders need to carefully identify and select mentors: it is important that mentors want to do the job, are willing to make their work public, and have the right knowledge, skills and dispositions (for example, they are approachable, non-judgemental and trustworthy)
  • Mentors need specific and timely education and training, as not all effective teachers make effective mentors: this includes the provision of professional learning and development (PLD) to help them develop their identity and build their knowledge and skills as a mentor
  • Mentoring partnerships need to be supported by leadership and the wider ECE setting, as many teachers in leadership roles lack the time and resources to mentor others effectively, and leadership support for timetabling, resourcing, release time and PLD is critical to success
  • Leaders need to ensure that mentees and mentors are carefully matched in terms of both their inter-personal relationship (they need to get along) and their professional relationship (there is some support for matching like with like, especially in relation to having similar teaching philosophies, although others suggest that learning comes from diverse mentor/mentee relationships)
  • Mentees need to value the mentoring relationship and contribute accordingly
  • Roles and responsibilities must be carefully negotiated and agreed, and mentors, mentees, senior leadership and the wider organisation all need to contribute to effective mentoring relationships
  • As mentor and mentee roles and relationships change and develop over time, partnerships and PLD opportunities need to adjust accordingly

Capturing the organic nature of mentoring, Australian education leader, Rhonda Livingstone, wrote in her article Mentoring Matters:

“Professional growth and development involve change. Mentoring can transform knowledge, skills, behaviours, attitudes and perspectives of mentees and mentors.  Change is not usually linear, being uniquely shaped by the purpose and context”.

Mentoring generally involves distinct phases:

  1. Getting to know each other and building trust
  2. Goal setting and action planning
  3. Developing professional skills and tracking progress
  4. Evaluating progress and outcomes
  5. Moving forward – either completing the process or returning to Step 2 to repeat the cycle.”

Livingstone states that ‘effective communication underpins successful mentoring,” including the following components:

  • Active listening
  • Open, reflective questioning
  • Probing and paraphrasing
  • Reflective conversation
  • Evidence-informed conversation
  • Goal setting
  • Clear and shared understanding of roles, responsibilities and expectations
  • Explicit, constructive exchange and feedback
  • Negotiation and debate
  • Understanding of non-verbal communication
  • Cultural awareness.

References and further resources:

Teaching Council New Zealand: Guidelines for Induction and Mentoring and Mentor Teachers

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