Why being a mentor is hard. Here’s how to help

By Allison Byth

In my PhD research, I set out to understand how mentoring works within Initial Teacher Education (ITE) for pre-service teachers (PST). I found that qualified teachers who were appointed as mentors for trainee teachers (PSTs) must adapt their skills to mentor adults. It’s a very different set of skills. We use the term pedagogy to discuss teaching children. We also use the term andragogy when teaching adults. My research analyses a collaborative initiative implemented by a small team of school teachers and me to support and enhance mentoring practices across a school-university partnership (TAPP).

The government recently reported through the National Teacher Education Expert Panel (TEEP) a need for high quality professional experiences under the guidance of experienced and expert teachers. 

Beyond five years

The report noted high quality experiences are essential to preparing, not only graduate teachers, but also teachers who will commit to the profession beyond the critical five year juncture. This report serves as a timely reminder to turn our attention to supporting and valuing mentor teachers’ practices, particularly as mentor teachers shoulder much responsibility for the professional experience component of ITE programs.

Without action, this report could potentially join the long list of Government funded expert reviews, reports and recommendations dating back to 1979, that share similar concerns about the quality of professional experience. Equally important, most reviews and reports acknowledge that the shared delivery of professional experience is both complex and resource intensive, requiring considerable effort and commitment from both schools and ITE providers. 

A pressing challenge

A particularly pressing challenge at this juncture is the need to provide mentor teachers with additional time, structures, and support appropriate to the task of mentoring pre-service teachers. Interesting, across NSW and Victoria Government funded initiatives are resulting in collaborative efforts that are reaping rewards, particularly those that are engaging educators to work in hybrid ways to integrate university and school expertise and knowledge.

What successful strategies or structures can be implemented to support mentor teachers’ practices?

Working within a Teaching Academy of Professional Practice (TAPP)  funded initiative, a small group of school teachers and I recently engaged in a participatory action research project to examine how we could support mentor teachers during the COVID-19 years. The study culminated with 119 mentor teachers leading the implementation of a systematic Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) instructional framework adapted from Pearson and Gallagher’s work. The mentors’ role was to gradually scaffold the pre-service teachers’ responsibility as they moved towards independent teaching. This occurred through a gradual progression from observation, to collaboration, to independence. 

Beyond “I do, you do, we do”

The gradual release of responsibility framework is often over-simplified as a process of “I do, you do, we do” but in this context this process was not linear.  It  existed as a recursive and ongoing interaction. This included shifting perspectives based on the PSTs skills, knowledge and prior experiences.

Progression through “I do, you do, we do” process was also determined by key factors including the learning focus, the timing of the introduction of new skills or strategies and the pre-service teachers’ motivation and readiness to learn in consideration of their previous experiences.    

While it was initially anticipated that mentor teachers would simply transfer the GRR framework from teaching children to teaching adult pre-service teachers, this was not the case. Instead, applying a GRR framework to mentoring adults required significant adaptations. 

Implementation worked best when coupled with dedicated time release early in the professional experience to discuss, map and plan for the pre-service teacher’s involvement in the mentor teacher’s program.

How do you apply a Gradual Release of Responsibility Framework for Mentoring Pre-Service Teachers?

Seven key adaptors emerged as critical to the successful implementation of a GRR framework for mentoring adult pre-service teachers. These are briefly outlined here:

1. Andragogy was central to accommodate and adapt to each adults’ diverse needs and experiences. Andragogy existed on a spectrum ranging from dependence to self-direction and therefore progression through the GRR was negotiated to align with pre-service teachers’ experiences and readiness to adopt responsibility. As a pedagogical practice the teacher consistently determines the progress but with adult pre-service teachers it was a shared reflective practice.

2. Agency includes ownership of learning and the pre-service teachers’ professional identity grew with decision making, professional interactions, and with the application of initiative throughout the GRR process. Mentors scaffolded the PSTs to adapt their practices based on evidence and reflection. Collective agency was enhanced through collaboration and networking to broaden knowledge and perspectives, and this was evidenced through pre-service teachers being invited into professional learning communities. 

3. Reciprocity included an active exchange of knowledge and support between two teachers, the mentor and the PST. Mutual beneficial knowledge exchanges involved mentors recognising the pre-service teachers’ developing insights, experiences, and perspectives. Mentors modelled metacognitive practices, shared expertise and skills and some saw potential for self growth and development as they navigated the complexities of mentoring.

4. Vertical alignment includes providing mentors with coherent content details including the how, what, and when of the professional experience. Providing these details allowed mentors to focus on teaching specific skills and content in a developmentally appropriate manner. Vertical alignment included both the sequence and scope of the professional experience. The sequence defined the focus of the professional experience and outlined specific skills and expectations. The scope, on the other hand, placed the learning sequence within the broader context of the pre-service teachers’ program. It included the identification of standards that pre-service teachers had previously covered and will address in subsequent professional experiences.

5. Feedback within the GRR framework is critical but challenging and recognising this challenge was an early action in the mentor and pre-service teacher relationship. The mentor led by example, demonstrating the purpose and relevance of self-reflection (as an “I do” action). Feedback was actionable, with the pre-service teacher planning their next steps through guided reflection, revisions, and repeated experiences to enhance their practices.

In this context a mentoring GRR approach addressed the contextual complexities inherent in the mentoring process and offered a generalisable approach to mentoring pre-service teachers following interdependent practices of participatory decision making, shared, and reflective practices. As such, the adapted mentoring GRR framework provided a researched informed approach to target mentoring practices through intentional guided interactions. 

Not a magic bullet

The GRR did not provide a magic bullet approach to mentoring but when applied in conjunction with mentor expertise it provided a way to accommodate the complexities inherent in the mentoring process. Therefore, the mentoring GRR framework could potentially afford a structured and supportive solution to mentoring pre-service and early career teachers in a range of contexts.

Those reports and reviews outlined earlier have been implemented in various ways through add-on approaches. Findings from the participatory action research reported here demonstrates the centrality of schools and universities working together in genuine and hybrid ways and sharing a research journey together. The funding from the TAPP initiative allowed the building of a collective ITE provider and school engagement in research to find solutions – which built on existing PST support structures and developed authentic and collaborative approaches to distribute the complex responsibility of mentoring pre-service teachers.

Allison Byth is a lecturer in the School of Education, RMIT. She works extensively in school-university partnerships for professional experience. Allison is in the final stages of completing her doctoral research investigating how hybrid educators impact mentor teachers’ practices. Her research interests are focused on bridging the school-university divide in initial teacher education to foster collaborative and effective practices.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “Why being a mentor is hard. Here’s how to help

  1. The hard part about being a mentor is not what you do, but avoiding trying to do too much.

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