Sinéad Mc Brearty

At Education Support we exist to support and improve the mental health and wellbeing of anyone working in education across the UK. Through our counselling services we help individuals experiencing emotional and mental health challenges. We also offer practical support via the provision of financial grants.

We provide expert advice to education leaders and employers so they can improve their ability to give appropriate emotional support for their colleagues. We carry out research into the education sector, and use these insights to inform our campaigning and advocacy work. You can see our latest report on Covid-19 and the classroom.

We want to raise awareness among everybody working in education about the importance of prioritising our own mental health. This might include making time to journal our thoughts and feelings to contain our anxieties; limiting social media use; or, working with a counsellor to help you evaluate anxieties more objectively. If you need to talk, qualified counsellors are available 24/7 via our helpline on 08000 562 561. This service is free to anyone working in education. You can also listen to my anxiety management tips in more detail via the TEMZ podcast that I contributed to over the summer here.

In this podcast we discussed the importance of managing difficult conversations between mentors and mentees and, as we continue our second period of national lockdown, there is a heightened need to handle these scenarios with sensitivity. We spend a lot of time thinking about effective communication at Education Support – and I have been a line manager in many high-pressure environments – so here are my five top tips for handling difficult conversations with care:

  1. Always evidence your feedback

Make sure that you are not basing to your feedback to mentees on assumption, belief or biases. The fact that somebody approaches things differently to you is not always cause for concern. Always ensure that your feedback is based on clear examples, and data if possible.

  1. Be empathetic

We’re all human – even in the workplace. You are much more likely to receive a positive response from a mentee if you empathise with what they are going through. Simply asking ‘how are you doing?’ can open people up and build the trust needed for a strong mentor/mentee relationship. This inquiry has to be authentic: it can be damaging to ask the question unless you are really interested in the answer.

  1. Collaborative inquiry

Creating the space for collaborative inquiry is the most effective approach for discussing an issue. This means moving away from the blame game, and working together to solve an issue. There are times when that is not possible such as when performance is extremely poor, or somebody has done something that is unequivocally problematic and wrong, but for most issues – especially if there is time to resolve them – taking a collaborative approach is better.

  1. Show you care

Mark Rowland, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation, introduced me to a model called Radical Candor. I have found this tremendously helpful to me in dealing with difficult conversations. The first axis of this model asks you to consider the extent to which you care personally and demonstrate that care. This is particularly useful in the context of mentoring, as mentees are far more likely to respond well to your advice if they can see that it comes from a place of care, even if it is challenging.

  1. Challenge directly

Still on the Radical Candor model, how much you care is plotted against the extent to which you challenge directly. We want to be in the segment where we both visibly care and are challenging directly. This allows the mentor to create a safe space in which growth is possible because areas for development are always acknowledged and a path forward is created together.

If you are interested in hearing more about Education Support’s work, you can find us on the details below. Don’t forget to share our free and confidential helpline with education sector colleagues. A reminder that qualified counsellors can be reached 24/7 on 08000 562 561.

Sinéad McBrearty is Chief Executive Officer at Education Support

You can listen to more of the Teacher Educator and Mentoring Zone (TEMZ) podcasts with Sinéad, and other episodes. Transcripts are also available to download.


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