It suddenly occured to me that I’d not posted what I planned to about mentors. In fact I was writing my lit. review (again!) today, and decided to look at the blog, to see what I thought about mentoring (it’s not so bad when you’re cutting and pasting from the internet, if you’re cutting and pasting something you’ve written yourself). So, I looked and found that “The Problem with Mentors (3)” was missing. It just goes to show that the main problem with mentors is that they don’t have enough time. Well, here it is.
It seems (from earlier discussion) that learning to be a teacher means learning, importantly and predominantly, in school. The central importance of the mentor’s role therefore comes into immediate and sharp focus. The risks to the developing practice of student teachers, and the concomitant risk to the learning of the pupils they teach whilst learning, and whilst practising upon qualification, of poor mentoring is thus an extremely grave one.
Poor mentoring is however a theme in early research studies of mentor practice. Burn (2003) sets out in her review of literature a “catalogue of shortcomings” (p.11) that would seem to prevent mentors making infinitely more difficult the kinds of contributions to initial teacher education that the internship principles, or even those PGCEs professing to encourage “reflective practice”seem to expect.
For instance, a 1994 study by Edwards and Collinson found that mentors rarely challenged the student teacher’s interpretation of events in classrooms. Neither did they make explicit their own understandings of how children learn, relate classroom practice with theories of pupil learning. [Refer to this in conclusions – I don't know how children learn myself!] Edwards and Collinson also found that student teachers sought, in their relations with mentors, to present themselves as “polite guests presenting gifts” in the form of ‘good ideas’ for classroom activities. Mentors on the other had wanted to present themselves as efficient operators, and didn’t place high demands on trainees. All together, these behaviours and attitudes brought about a “reduction in the opportunities for student teacher learning” (p.12). Similar problems were found by Elliot and Calderhead in their 1993 study and Trish Maynard in her 1996 study. In summary, Burn tells us how a culture of ‘high support and low challenge simply confirmed the novices in their existing images of teaching” (p.13)
These problems might be related to ones of knowledge and confidence. For instance, whilst reading the descriptions of the “shortcomings” of mentors I was struck with three thoughts of recognition about my own mentor practice. Firstly I recognise my own desire, and the desire of other teachers in my department to be seen as an effective professionals. I know that this leads to feelings not only of panic and resentment when students are placed for observation with teachers in the early phase of school practice, but it also means that teachers and students are unwilling to question or discuss lessons beyond the superficial ‘thanks for having me, that was a really good lesson’ – because the teacher’s professional expertise is a given, almost closed and finished thing, that teachers are to display, and students are to observe. Interestingly this superficial ‘summative’ (Benson 1993) evaluation of lessons irritates teachers in my department, because they don’t think that student teachers have the experience or abilities to judge lessons on their own, let alone at the early stage of their school based experiences. These attitudes, in mentor, student and teacher, might therefore present significant barriers to the discussion of lesson outcomes and plannings.
Secondly I realise that my own personal theories about how students learn are patchy, and would be very difficult for me to discuss with or present to students in a meaningful way. Beyond muttering ‘constructivist, erm brain is an organic organ, atmosphere of reflection, comfort and, erm risk taking”, I’d have to think much more carefully before feeing able to talk properly about this with anyone, let alone a person I’m mentoring. In fact, I’m not sure whether I really have a theory, or a set of theories about how children learn.
Thirdly, the culture of “reflective practice” that pervades ITT (anecdotally, I have heard of prospective ITT students being asked at an interview for a place on a course “so, tell me, what is a reflective practitioner?”), might mean that students are confirmed in their own preconceptions because mentors and even tutors don’t understand the dangers of relativism inherent in merely teaching student teachers how to reflect, rather than suggesting criteria against which they might be encouraged to assess their own practice.
Benson, Ann Mentoring in Action: Normal Times, in Allsop and Benson Eds. Mentoring for Science Teachers (1997) Buckinham: Open University Press.