New DfE funding to pay for mentor time is much needed, says Haili Hughes – Covid has left many teachers struggling alone.

The Department for Education has just confirmed that it will commit £22 million to help to continue to improve the quality of teaching. Part of this will include funding for mentor time.

This is amazing news. Quite frankly, it’s massively overdue and cannot come soon enough.

Mentors matter. Especially in the currently shifting sands of the Covid-19 education climate.

Many NQTs who started their teaching career last academic year have had to grapple with challenges that most new teachers never have to face. From juggling online teaching with family life, to getting to grips with new technology, early-career teachers not only had to navigate the storm of uncertainty about how they should be doing their jobs, but they also had to do it alone.

Coronavirus: NQTs stripped of support

Recently qualified teacher Sarah Dearden spent much of her NQT year last year educating students from home, and found it difficult without the support of her colleagues.

“Drawing upon the expertise of my colleagues during my first year teaching was what I found the most comfort from,” she said. “Even snatched conversations in the corridor or staffroom, or a quick hello in the morning, meant that I felt supported and that I was on the right track. Having this taken away so early in my career was both unsettling and daunting.”

Teaching is such an all-encompassing career that it presents an emotional rollercoaster in any one week. How effective your mentor is can be make-or-break for a new teacher.

I speak from personal experience. In my first placement, way over a decade ago, my mentor was passionate and knowledgeable about English. Although she was busy, she always made time for me. I learned so much from her. But I was also encouraged to create my own style of pedagogy, and not to become a carbon copy of her.

In my second school, however, the experience was very different. After a lesson with some Year 10 girls, I was informed that the best I could ever hope for was to be an “adequate” teacher, and that I needed “elocution lessons” to eradicate my broad Mancunian accent if I was ever to get a job anywhere.

Needless to say, when the school had a vacancy towards the end of my placement, I didn’t bother to apply.

What makes a good mentor?

Unfortunately, I am not alone in having these experiences. While I was writing my book Mentoring in School (released in February with Crown House), I conducted some qualitative research with more than a hundred newly qualified practitioners about their varying experiences with mentors.

Many had enjoyed fantastic professional relationships with their mentors, and felt that they had been real drivers in keeping them in the profession.

But some of the horror stories I heard about others’ experiences made me realise that it is no wonder that one in three teachers leaves the profession within five years.

So what actually makes a good mentor? The remit is huge: from being a professional role model, pointing new teachers to evidence-informed research on the best practice, to being a shoulder to cry on after a terrible lesson, mentors need to be somebody who – despite being busy themselves – are also always willing to listen and motivate when needed.

Luckily, the Department for Education has realised that mentors are massively important to teacher recruitment and retention, and have launched the Early Career Framework to ensure that there is a standard for mentors to work towards.

This will – hopefully – mean that new entrants to the profession will have more of a consistent experience when it comes to mentor quality and support.

Recognising the vital role of mentors in schools

The framework is definitely long overdue. Professor Rachel Lofthouse, who runs CollectivED, the centre for mentoring, coaching and professional learning at Leeds Beckett University, has been fighting for more time and training for mentors for many years.

She said: “For too long, mentoring has been the Cinderella profession in education, creating busy work for mentors whose impact is often overlooked. We use the hashtag #MentorsMatter because mentors can be change-makers.”

Of course, this can only be good news for the hundreds of trainees who now find themselves completing placements in schools that are struggling to remain open in the face of staff and student absences. The difficulties they must be facing, as inexperienced teachers, are incomprehensible.

Student teacher Emily Clayton feels that her mentor has been invaluable in supporting her to keep on track: “Having a mentor to support and monitor my progression has meant that my development has been carefully guided. Having my mentor there has prevented me from becoming overwhelmed. I feel like I am focusing on improving my skillset steadily, as opposed to trying to achieve everything at once.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the teaching profession could now face a crisis. So many practitioners are feeling the stress and crawling to the Christmas finish line. The news about mentor funding is hopefully a sign (albeit a small one) that we are being listened to, and that the vital role of mentors in schools is finally being recognised.

Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester.

Mentoring in School, by Haili Hughes, is currently available on pre-order direct from Crown House or from Amazon, and will be released in February

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