The term ‘mentoring’ can be traced back to Greek mythology and the Homeric legend wherein Odysseus entrusted his infant son, Telemachus, to the care of Mentor, an old friend, and Athene, the goddess of wisdom. In Odysseus’ absence, Mentor and Athene were to prepare Telemachus to become the next king. This reference to Greek mythology foregrounds the attributes of advice, care and wisdom necessary in the fulfilment of the role of mentor (Colley, 2002; Whitehead, 1995). In its modern use, ‘mentoring’ is a term used to describe the activities of qualified and experienced practitioners involved in the professional development of students and newly-qualified or newly-recruited personnel through on-the-job training or support (Whitehead, 1995). In this modern sense, mentoring is used widely and in many different contexts.
A definition of mentoring In an effort to arrive at a consensus on the concept of ‘mentoring’, Roberts (2000) conducted a meta-analysis of mentoring research and debate covering the period 1978-1999 across several disciplines. As a result of this effort, he offers the following synthesis:
A definition of mentoring:
Mentoring is a ‘formalised process whereby a more knowledgeable and experienced person actuates a supportive role of overseeing and encouraging reflection and learning within a less experienced and knowledgeable person, so as to facilitate that person’s career and development’ (p. 162).
Mentoring, as a phenomenon, has the following essential attributes (Roberts defines ‘essential attributes’ as attributes that cannot be removed without removing the very nature of mentoring):
The contingent attributes (those which mentoring can do without but still be called ‘mentoring’) are:
An informal process.
The following processes make up the ‘mentoring process’:
Establishing rapport (initiation)
Direction setting (getting established)
Progress making (development)
Moving on (finalising/maintenance).
Finally, these are the ‘phases of mentoring’:
Note that Roberts conceptualises mentoring as a ‘process’ – a formalised process, an informal process, a helping process, and a career-development process – and not as a ‘structure’.
A definition of the ‘good mentor’ Witte and Wolf (2003, p. 97) defines a ‘good mentor’ as
…an individual being effective in different interpersonal contexts, committed to the role of mentoring, skilled at providing instructional support, and a model of the continuous learner. Additionally, a good mentor also enhances various forms of interactions and student perceptions as these constructs specifically relate to the educational experiences of the learning community members.
Using his experience helping school districts design mentor-based, entry-year programs, Rowley (1999) identified what he calls six basic but essential qualities of a good mentor. He also noted the implications that these qualities have for mentor-based entry-year programs for new teachers and for mentor training for experienced teachers. These six qualities include:
The good mentor is committed to the role of mentoring – the good mentor is committed to helping beginning teachers find success and gratification in their new work; they show up for and stay on the job; they understand that persistence is important in mentoring; commitment flows from a resolute belief that mentors are capable of having a significant and positive impact on another person’s life; this belief is founded in the knowledge that mentoring is challenging and requires significant investments of time and energy.
Implication: To increase the odds that mentors are committed to the role, formal mentor training is required. Committing to undergoing training weeds out those who are not committed to the role, as well as providing specific roles and responsibilities associated with being a mentor. The training would also require the mentor to maintain logs or journals of mentor-mentee activities. Finally, mentors must be compensated for their work (such as a stipend, release from extra duties, and extra opportunities for professional development): compensation makes a statement about the importance of the mentoring work being done.
The good mentor is accepting of the beginning teacher – an important element of a mentoring relationship is empathy, that is, accepting a person without making judgments and temporarily setting aside personal beliefs and values. The good mentor accepts that the beginning teacher is a developing person and professional.
Implication: A training program for mentors needs to engage prospective mentors in reflecting on the qualities of effective helpers by reading the works of Carl Rogers (1958) and Combs, Avila and Purkey (1971). The training should also include: understanding the problems and concerns of beginning teachers, theories on adult development, revisiting mentors’ own first years of teaching.
The good mentor is skilled at providing instructional support – that is, mentors need to provide coaching in improving instructional design and delivery (this is equivalent to coaching to improve a tennis serve or golf swing, i.e., specific instructions to improve performance).
Implication: The mentor training program should equip mentors with the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary for effective coaching, such as: the value of description over interpretation.
The good mentor is effective in different interpersonal contexts – that is, good mentor teachers recognize that each mentoring relationship occurs in a unique, interpersonal context. This requires mentors to have a deep understanding of their own communication styles and to be willing to objectively observe the behaviour of the mentee.
Implication: A mentor training program that asks mentors to complete and reflect on self-inventories of their leadership and supervisory styles.
The good mentor is a model of a continuous learner – good mentors are open to learning from colleagues, including beginning teachers.
Implication: Give mentors extra opportunities for professional development and support to attend professional conferences related to their work.
The good mentor communicates hope and optimism – mentors should have the ability to communicate a belief that a person is capable of transcending present challenges and accomplishing great things in the future – that is, the human potential of their mentees.
Implication: Mentor training programs should make sure that they recruit veteran teachers who have not yet lost their positive outlook.
The benefits of mentoring The literature on mentoring often discuss the reciprocal benefits to both novice teachers and mentors: mentoring supports new professionals while revitalising experienced teachers’ reflective practice, professional development and the capacity to impact the educational system (Buysse et al, 2003; Boyer & Lee, 2001; McCormick & Brennan, 2001; Moir & Gless, 2001).
Katz (1977) noted that teachers of young children experience different stages of professional development. Beginning teachers are in survival mode, focused on day-to-day survival in the classroom and often experiencing anxiety about their ability to meet classroom challenges and realities. This survival stage may last the first whole year of teaching, during which they need support, understanding, encouragement, comfort and guidance. On the other hand, experienced teachers experience a stage of renewal or maturity, during which time they are confident in their skills, and become more reflective and interested in widening the scope of their professional knowledge and skills. Experienced teachers can benefit from opportunities to network with peers and examine issues and problems in the early childhood classroom and field. Thus, a mentoring program would be a suitable framework through which supportive relationships between beginning and experienced teaches could form and ultimately enhance their professional work and improve early childhood practice (Pavia et al, 2003).
Holloway (2001) also notes that experienced teachers benefit from mentoring beginning teachers because they (experienced teachers) believe mentoring allows them to help others, improve themselves, receive respect, develop collegiality, and profit from novice teachers’ fresh ideas and energy. That is, the benefits of mentoring are both career-related and psychosocial. Holloway also proposes, as Rowley (1999) does, that in order to be effective mentors, prospective mentors need to undergo training that includes: professional development about the mentoring process, understanding what is expected of them as mentors, support, and opportunities to discuss ideas, problems and solutions with other mentors.
Mentoring can also play a part in the socialisation process for beginning teachers. Da Ros and Swick (1995) noted that the initiation of people new to teaching occurred without much thought or preparation. They argued that the socialisation of beginning teachers should be planned, with the neophyte being supported towards increasing competence, and the experienced staff supported in utilising the new staff as sources of strength and enrichment in the classroom. Their case study of a teaching assistant’s socialisation into a preschool environment confirmed the need for five teacher socialisation processes: (1) the development and use of planned, continued professional growth strategies, (2) the development and support of meaningful mentoring programs, (3) the use of affective support that allows new teachers to build confidence and competence, (4) the use of personal narratives to increase understanding of self and self-other dynamics typical in classrooms and schools, and (5) the use of reflection strategies to engage teachers in individual and collaborative assessments of their teaching.