Saturday, 31 May 2014

Can I be that little bit better at......being an NQT mentor

In my personal opinion, one of the most rewarding aspects of a teachers career is becoming an NQT mentor.  I have been in this privileged position for a number of years now.  Each year you learn something new as you help support a new member of the profession in their initial year.  No two NQT's are the same and it takes genuine thought to tailor the provision you provide.  The role, like many, has great responsibility.  It requires you to demonstrate a number of characteristics and approaches.  With your NQT you share days of successes, days when things click, days when things don't click, days when they question if they're in the right job, and days of difficult conversations.  You need to have the ability to strike the right balance and provide multiple roles at once.

Looking back to my experience as an NQT I was lucky enough to have a mentor who had such a balance.  They had the drive to push and challenge me.  The experience to direct me.  The confidence to give me a good ticking off when I wasn't performing.  In fact there were days when even I questioned what I was doing as a teacher.  There were times when we didn't see eye to eye, but the majority of the days were ones where I felt truly supported.

The role does create times when as a mentor you really need to reflect and learn.  Even after a number of years there are still times I feel that I could have, or should have, done something different.  Something that would have helped my NQT refine their practice.  In fact even with all my experience, I am still a million miles away from where I think I should be.  And so with this thought, I collaborated with my current NQT to pull out some key things we feel could help make us be that little bit better as an NQT mentor.

Regular drop ins with feedback

At times the regular or scheduled observations can seem too intermittent.  Weeks can pass before we see our NQT's and in that time things can change immensely.  There may be areas of success that we can reinforce and develop into habits.  Alternatively there may be times when our NQT's are struggling and support is needed.  We have to remain mindful that sometimes our NQT's won't come to us if they are struggling.  If we don't know then how can we act?  Keeping the fluency of observations through short informal drop ins can help immensely.  It allows us to keep the finger on the pulse and allow us to have a more structured dialogue.  We know what is happening therefore we can talk about what is happening.  We can set a variety of objectives throughout the year which are meaningful and relevant because we understand.  The main feature though is that these are informal (unless agreed otherwise) so that we see our NQT's in as natural an environment as possible.  These shouldn't feel pressurised and shouldn't impose on observation guidelines.  They are there to support.

Make the meetings count

Time is very precious and our NQT's benefit from it more than usual.  Many of us have scheduled meetings every week or fortnight.  It is imperative that these meetings have a purpose and action is taken.  Talk about what really matters.  Whether this is about improving behaviour, developing questioning techniques, refining planning or applying feedback methods, this time is valuable and so crucial for NQT's.  Spend as much of the time as possible reflecting on how they have been developing and then look at how to move forward.  Almost every setback has a solution so spend time learning from mistakes.  If things are going well, use this time to stretch them and focus on the next element of pedagogy that will develop their teaching.   How you use this time is bespoke to your personal situation.  But remember that this contact time could be the vital cog in helping your NQT develop in the direction they wish to go.

Tell them what they don't know

NQT's are fantastic at asking questions but this is usually based around areas they have some knowledge about.  As an NQT mentor it is your responsibility to help them find out the things they haven't even thought about.  Use your knowledge and experience to make them see the bigger picture.  I remember when I was entering my teaching career.  I would openly admit that I was quite naive.  Compare that to where I am now and there is a wealth of information, systems. strategies, knowledge and experience that I didn't even consider.  A lot of it I didn't even realise existed.  As a mentor it is up to us to ask timely questions to make NQT's think about things they hadn't considered.  You did 'x' but what would happen if you did 'y'?  Where are you planning to go next and will this help them achieve 'z'?  If you had added 'a' to your lesson after your first activity, what would you think would have happened?  Help NQT's see beyond where they currently are.  Share you experience and knowledge.  Don't impose but instead challenge.  Allow your NQT's to develop their own style and personality but under your guidance.  You play a bigger role than you think.

Remember the basics

There are so many times that we observe, we analyse, we feedback, we set targets.......yet this is usually based around the fundamentals of teaching.  Whether this is behaviour management, planning, questioning or 'rapid and sustained progess' (don't get me started!).  Sometimes though our NQT's need help with the basic systems within a school environment.  What does a good Year 8 report look like?  How do you access KS3 assessment data?  What do you do with it once you've found it?  How do you add detentions to the school system?  What is the feedback policy?  These are the things that happen throughout the term but are easily bypassed as we focus on meeting the various teaching and learning standards.  Don't forget these.  Instead make them a priority as things like following behaviour policies and setting detentions can be invaluable to NQT's as they seek to develop their relationships with classes.

Shared observations

It is very easy, normally due to time restrictions, to say "Why don't you go and observe Tim teach his Maths lessons.  He's really good".  The problem though is that NQT's can go to these lessons and not know what to actually observe.  There is so much going on, so many dynamics, so many subtle practices and interventions that NQT's can struggle to pick them out.  Where possible (and I know time plays a huge part) try and go with your mentees to observe a lesson.  Give a live commentary and explain what you see.  Ask questions to your NQT as you go on.  What have they noticed.  A key thing we found was that the experience of the mentor and being able to discuss and then apply it to NQT's own practice was invaluable.  Find the time.  Cover managers, line managers and even Heads of Departments should be able to free you up to help observe lessons with your mentee and make the experience more useful.

Plant seeds

This is personally from our NQT experience, but one of the most valuable things they have found is the sharing of ideas which has made them go away and think about their own practice.  At times, as a more experienced member of staff, we forget how much we have picked up.  Things become second nature and our teaching style becomes habit.  Discussions about teaching and learning came high up in things our NQT's liked the most.  They loved drawing from our insight, knowledge and experience.  Don't force your own preferred style on them but instead ask questions and direct them to possibilities.  There may be times when a firmer hand is required, but having a conversation that makes an NQT walk away and think about what they could do next is so powerful.  Reflection is such an important part of the profession.  Direct them, link to others, share resources, provide reading, give examples and network around the school.  Help plant the seeds so our NQT's can go away and try, adapt, refine, evaluate and develop.

Help them grow

The continued support you offer as they refine their practice is important.  Being available for a quick chat about things they are trying can be helpful (and it doesn't have to be formal).  If they are working on one of their targets they may just want to bounce ideas around.  Work with them and help map out the next few lessons, weeks or months.  Set short term targets and have measures to tick off when they get there.  Along with areas you have identified, talk to them and find out what areas they would like to develop professionally.  What mechanisms can you put in place to help them get where they want to and need to go?  They really value independence to go forward but the role you play in supporting them to get there is key.

Be prepared to prune if needed

There will be times when you may need to have difficult conversations.  The important factor here is to know your NQT.  As I was training my mentor knew I could take a tough talking to as I would be motivated to respond.  This approach wouldn't work for everyone and may actually do more harm than good.  The thing to remember is that there may be a time that you need to be assertive.  Talk things through, explain the issue/concern, plan steps to go forward and at all costs be reasonable and professional.

Know the standards

Throughout the year there will be so many times that evidence for a standard could have been collected, only for us to miss it during the hustle and bustle of day to day teaching.  Having an eye on the standards and knowing them will help you direct your NQT to things they are doing but might not have thought of.  Our experience helps us identify evidence that may not be apparent to them.  Collecting evidence can be a bit retrospective if we are not careful.  I remember the mad few nights (as an NQT) trying to tick off standards I knew I had achieved but couldn't readily find evidence for.  Use your meeting time to quickly reference standards and keep up to date.  Little and often does the trick and makes the final signing off a smooth process.

The standards shouldn't also dictate what we do.  It shouldn't be a robotic process.  In one 'not so good' example, I have seen written lesson observation feedback simply being a list of standards.  I'm not sure how helpful this is at all.

Finally, don't see standards as the end product.  I value them as a benchmark but try to go beyond them whenever possible.  Expand and raise the bar where you can but ensure you don't overwhelm your NQT.  

Target setting which works

Target set together every time.  Use observations and drop ins to form the basis of your targets as they are the clearest bits of evidence you collect.  Have discussions about practice and areas of development.  If you have seen that the level of feedback wasn't great in a number of lessons, spend time to discuss it and form a target around it.  Map out steps to improve.  Direct them towards resources.  Break larger targets down into manageable chunks.  Set a time frame so that you can see an improvement.  As you have noticed a lot of these points come under setting good old SMART targets.  The process of using the SMART method makes the process of target setting clear and manageable.

One important point raised by my NQT was having these targets very focused and specific.  Together, as a target area, we looked at stretch and challenge for all.  Instead of saying that every student in his classes must be catered for, we identified a group of four to focus on in each.  A few weeks down the line and after trialing some ideas he felt confident he could do this.  We then identified another group of four students and began the process again.  The process helped him to gradually develop good habits rather than overwhelm him.  He could spend time focusing improving his practice for a target group (more able, FSM, PP, less able....) which he could then replicate elsewhere.

Be approachable and give time

As a mentor you are probably the 'go to' person for your NQT.   The regular meetings you have are a great opportunity to discuss their progress.  However, on a day to day basis issues may arise.  A lesson may not have gone so well.  A student may be causing problems.  The photocopier might not be working.  Their plan may not be challenging enough.  As a mentor you need to make sure you are approachable.  To an extent, let your NQT know that they can catch you throughout the day to ask you anything.  I would rather they felt confident about going into each day than unduly worrying.  The quick 2 minute chat in the staff room, office or classroom can be so valuable.

Be professional

You are their mentor and not simply a friend.  Developing a positive relationship is needed if the year is going to be a success but be sure that you remain professional.  It's fine to grab a beer now and again or to socialise but be aware there may be times that you need to have difficult conversations or tackle issues in their practice.  Keep that in mind.  Also, if you yourself are not a role model then it may be difficult to expect them to make changes or respect your opinion.

Know the school you work in

Your school and the teachers within it are a great resource.  I guarantee you could probably list a few teachers in your head who are great with 'challenging' classes, who give really good feedback in lessons, who are fantastic at getting students to develop their written responses.....  Know the strengths of the teachers around you and set up times for you and your NQT to observe them.  Stretch outside of your department area as well.  Seeing teaching and learning in a different setting can really help you pull out similarities, differences and core strategies being used.

Coach or guide?

I have been extremely lucky to have worked with Neil Suggett whilst learning the process of coaching.  When working with any teacher across the school I always have this method underpinning how I have discussions.  It allows the individual to unpick their practise and work out future steps themselves.  You simply ask questions to keep the process moving.  Coaching with NQT's can also be equally effective but you do need to be wary that they might not yet have the knowledge base to form their own development.  They may need you to share your knowledge and experiences to help inform decisions.  This is where maybe guiding them more directly would initially be beneficial.

And finally...

This list is not exhaustive.  It doesn't even cover all of the basics.  What is does though (we hope) is pick up on things we sometimes might forget.  One statement from my NQT summarised these points overall was this:

"All of these really revolve around one thing which is sharing ideas, knowledge and practice by discussions and observations.  That would be the most valuable thing I have taken from this year and how I have adapted my teaching based on others"