A couple of months ago I put out a call on Twitter to say that I was interested in mentoring teachers who thought they might benefit from it. To be utterly transparent, I was interested in the conversation between a less/differently experienced teacher and me, the grizzled journeyman. I was not disappointed.
I won’t say my mentee’s name here, but I will say that they are far too modest about their experience and knowledge. They have a first degree in TESOL and unlike arrogant/ignorant younger me who thought teaching in a foreign country would be a lark and finance my novel writing, they are volunteering to build experience before seeking paid work. And still they want to get better at what they do.
So far we have chatted about giving learners more responsibility and taking a bit more agency in selecting what parts of the class materials are used, not used, and how this can still be cohesive and assure student parents and managers of the organizational that everything is educationally sound.
We have also wondered about online teaching of older children and teens and how to engage them more than just going through the motions, which is probably quite a lot more complex than it seems.
Anyhow, I look forward to our next meeting and email. I get the chance to reflect about things that I haven’t really considered at a deep level for some time. Hopefully I have shown a bit of a possible route ahead.
I thought that maybe we’d get some sense of community to work through problems we face in society, it looks like the status quo is still very much alive and well. Instead, so many people crave normality. Normality was unfair and rubbish.
The tools are there to be had in our little corner of English language teaching. We’ve got pay-what-you-want services, open source software, and even beyond that, we have exchange of services and knowledge. We should be more open to this if we truly believe that teachers can learn from students and that it isn’t just one-way transmission of knowledge. Yes, I know I have a Patreon; am I not allowed to be paid for things I write?
Anyway, talk costs nothing. Deeds matter. I am going to try a low-stakes experiment. I think that starting in September or October, I have time to mentor about two people, probably a mixture of email and video chat, or even Discord, for about four months. Let’s leave it open at the minute to see what happens. It costs nothing. All I want is permission to blog about what I learn from the experience over that time. You get my 17 years of experience working in education, and I get what you bring.
This is a post that has been fermenting for a while, a lot of it coloured by long-term experience, but much of it much shorter term. The stimulus for getting it out was this great post about teacher beliefs by Mike Griffin.
Teaching EFL can be a weird thing. We look at our classes and wonder about how to make our classes better and reminisce about our students who did something notable. It’s all rather insular. To develop, often we need to see outside, if only to see the inside again but from a different perspective.
Some people don’t want to see the outside, though. Comfort zones are difficult to push through. Unfortunately for me, in one of my teaching situations, my work depends upon somebody who needs to be forcibly removed from their comfort zone.
Remember this blog started as a mission to make my little freelance corner of TEFL a bit more conducive to being better. Making myself better. I suppose I am lucky in that most people I work with share this orientation. Unfortunately, the one person who doesn’t has a knock-on effect on my work.
I have observed. I have been observed and team-taught. I have supplied a file full of materials and an unwanted copy of The Practice of Teaching English. Yet things have not changed.
We have a grammar syllabus with carrier topics, which I fudge by choosing ‘structure trapping’ tasks (Skehan, 1998). I wouldn’t care if my partner teacher taught PPP, Test-teach-test or even Suggestopaedia. Instead there is a 20-minute warm-up about something strange and unrelated to the topic or grammar of the lesson. It’s highly teacher focused. When the part of the lesson comes to deal with the topic/grammar it basically involves students taking notes in Japanese and resulting in poor output all round. I shall make the point that our remit is speaking and writing, but mainly the former, and all English. There is no effective monitoring of students or elicitation of correct output after error treatment. There is no rationale behind the chaos, just a smile and knowing that this has always seen them through every lesson.
When challenged, my partner gets defensive. “I’m a great teacher!”, “I’m a good person.”, and “The students like me.” have all been used to defend their position.
Myself and another colleague have attempted to engage them in conversation about teaching and learning but this has been shot down. I don’t know if the problematic colleague has any beliefs beyond ‘Students must be motivated’. I would agree to an extent, but how they are motivated by chaotic lessons unrelated to their tests or ordinary situations puzzles me.
I know that teachers have to want to develop but what about if they have to develop but just don’t want to? Help has never been requested, though offered several times. Lesson plans and materials supplied have been ignored in favour of “Which Disney princess should I fight?” and “Do I look more like a cat or a dog?” where ‘I’ is the problematic colleague.
Should I attempt to talk about teaching beliefs and philosophy? I have no idea. I only know I’ve done almost all I can. References Skehan, P. (1998). Task-Based Instruction.Annual Review of Applied Linguistics,18, 268-286. doi:10.1017/S0267190500003585
There is a ton written on mentoring as part of professional development. It seems like it’s pretty much a ‘good thing’ all the time, and I’m kind of tempted to go along with that because of one of the reasons I’ll give below.
You get to see another approach to the job
Everyone has preconceived ideas about teaching when they start, based on the teachers that taught them. Just as not everyone has the same experiences, not everyone has the same approach.
Some mentors will be great about this and understand that not everyone needs to do the same thing to get the intended results. Some mentors won’t be great about it and will insist you should teach their way.
You can learn a lot about your own teaching by trying to teach according to someone else’s approach. Even the bits that you might not have attributed merit toward may have hidden utility in the classroom.
You get another point of view
This is better the more mentors you have. Behaviour issues in the classroom? There are endless possible solutions. Experienced mentors probably have several techniques to counteract negative behaviour. And that’s just one example.
Avoiding too much introspection
Reflective practice is something I think is beneficial but too much reflection is worthless. Think of a mirror maze as a metaphor. If you are part of a mentoring relationship you get used to making sure your thinking and rationale are clear. People are working, and while most mentors and mentees are positive, if you get ready for a meeting with a half-baked idea people will show you that they think their time is being wasted. You get forced into habits of rigour.
Bad is Good
If your mentor is dreadful you get to see them as a cautionary tale. You get used to assessing what authoritative voices say and filtering it (which is excellent practice for books by both ELT and general Education gurus).
If your mentee is bloody awful, you get the chance to really take a hand in helping them develop and can take a hand in stopping unproductive practices through explaining better ones (and perhaps demonstrating them, too).
Finding mentors and mentees
I have a great mentor at one of my workplaces, in that he is very practical, does lots of professional development but not much theory. We get to duel a little bit on the theoretical applications I might espouse, and it helps me refine and reflect upon my beliefs.
I also have other mentors on Twitter, miles away working in different settings but still supporting me, feeding ideas and even just lending a virtual ear when I need to vent.
Mentees sort of drift, due to the peripatetic nature of my working life, but basically I have a couple of mentees, one a very new teacher who needs to go with the flow more (which leads me to practice what I preach and not obsess over minuscule annoyances at the stupidest workplace) and another who has such abundant ideas but needs a push to be bolder or just reassured they are on the right track (and who has helped with a few lesson ideas and made me justify choices leading to more confidence in my own teaching).
You might want to check out the iTDI blog mentoring issues, Giving Back and Giving Back II, too.
Hopefully this has helped you think about what mentoring is (or can be). Any more ideas?