6. What Does a Good Mentor Do?

I am going to come back to number 5 and my classroom makeover, as it is still a work in progress!

I have been a mentor to both adults and children this year, but I am going to focus on being a children’s mentor in this post. I don’t know whether it was because I was lucky in having a fabulous NQT, but I found being an NQT mentor a fairly straightforward and very rewarding job. Being a mentor to my form class has, on the other hand, been a much more rocky road.

I was a Year 7 mentor this year, and my form class were a mixed bag. There were plenty of model students, students who were academically excellent, students who tried their best and needed a little help academically (in a variety of contexts), and students with behavioural challenges. I started the year as a new teacher and it soon became apparent my form were going to make or break me. I am not saying for a second that I have cracked it, and we have a looong way to go, but if you have a class like this and are looking for something new to try then maybe some of this may help.

Treat them as individuals

My form is made up of 27 individuals, and without hesitation I could recite their names and talk about them for at least a few minutes each. I know some of them respond to a good shouting, and some need a gentle talk and a sense of disappointment from me for a punishment to hit home. I know favourite subjects, struggling subjects, context galore and friendship dramas. This is what most form teachers will know about their students. I have really found it invaluable to have this information, because it allows me to approach things from a new angle. I am also really fortunate to have fortnightly 1:1 sessions on my timetable, so once a fortnight I have an hour to make appointments with my form members. I usually work through the register, but if I know an incident has occurred I can call any significant individuals to see me too. This really fosters the relationship and has helped when dealing with any issues.

A great example from my lot is Welsh. Most of my students are EAL, so Welsh is a massive struggle as a subject. Lots try, but some would rather mess around than try and fail. It constantly crops up as a problem area on the class report and the same students get detentions all the time.

I am fortunate in that I speak Welsh, so when the notorious students attended their double up detentions (see below) I used that time to teach some conversational Welsh one to one and then get them to teach me something. Some taught me some conversational phrases in their own language. Some taught me some origami, or how to stand best when throwing a javelin. They then had the challenge of getting a merit in Welsh before I saw them for their 1:1 session again. This worked well in the short term and really built up the relationship between me and the students. Long term, they started to lose the focus again. But, with repetition, I think it could have some impact.

Aside from this, recognising the good students when the class get told off is really important. It hurts to be tarnished with the same brush as your classmates when you are always trying your best, so at every possible opportunity I make it clear I know lots of students are doing well and I am pleased with them.

Treat them as a team

Whilst treating them as individuals is essential and is what everyone will tell you is the key to teaching or mentoring, what I have found works just as well is treating them as a team. A dressing down is given extra impact when students are told they are letting each other down and they don’t respect their friends Realistically, they don’t care too much about upsetting you, but upsetting their mates can have far more disastrous consequences. Similarly, celebrating success as a team, even the smallest of things (like a merit in Welsh) brings the team together, so they want to let each other down even less.

There was a lovely moment where one of my students got his merit in Welsh. He really struggled with the subject and tried to hide rather than go to class on more than one occasion. I had told the whole class about his challenge, and said that they had to help him out as a team. When he got it, they all rushed to form to tell me, so excited for him as they were. We all waited for him to arrive and gave him a standing ovation. He was so happy he cried. He was mortified, of course, because it was totally not cool for something like that to happen, but he knew in that moment everyone was on his side. I have found, undoubtedly, mentoring my form as a team and a collective is as important as nurturing them individually.

Be real

I am strict with my form. We have rigid routine and a double up policy: They get a detention and they serve another with me. They get a praise card and they get a card or a call home from me. We are formal and almost military. But we also have a laugh. I tell them about my day and they tell me about theirs. I joke around with them. I dab behind some of them and then deny it vehemently, leaving a furious debate raging as to whether it actually happened. I talk about the big things: racism, sexism, terrorism. I am open when I don’t know things or make mistakes. I tell them when I learn from them. I tell them when I am tired or stressed, and say they should be mindful of other teachers or students who may feel the same. I don’t know if this would work with an older form, but they seemed to respect this a lot. It was really enjoyable to learn things from them about their cultures and beliefs, and I feel I have shown them genuine respect by doing so.

Next steps

They are not perfect. No way. But, in a way, I like that. I really do have a sense of responsibility and a sort of love towards them. We have the basics now, and they are fully aware of my expectations. In this academic year, I hope to continue all of the above and to now build some restorative justice into the mix. They really want to do well but struggle a lot, and relationships between them and classroom teachers are not all great. So, I am introducing ‘thank a teacher’ day and teacher praise postcards. We are going to set targets and track them as a class and make sure we thank other students and teachers whenever we can. Hopefully, by getting them to focus on the positive moments of the week, they can see how good they are and want more of them. It’s a gamble, but worth a try.

What strategies do you use as a mentor? Do you have any strategies to share? Let me know, and thanks for stopping by!

 

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Student Teacher Tips: Being a ‘Popular’ Teacher

One of the stranger (and yet still common) concerns amongst student teachers and new teachers is the good old playground debate of popularity. No matter how much we deny it, all teachers secretly long for that effortless rapport, that ‘Dead Poets Society’ moment with our classes. In practice, it’s not that easy and requires one thing student teachers lack with their classes: time. However, all is not lost, and with a little effort here and there a good relationship can be established with your pupils. Advise from making you feel good, it helps with engagement, behaviour and respect.

Now, here’s all the disclaimers. This has been a weakness of mine, and certainly was at the start of my teaching career. With trickier classes during my NQT year, I devoted little to no time fostering any relationships in a constant battle to gain any sort of respect or authority. So I am no expert. However, this year I promised myself I would get this right, if nothing else. I prefaced these approaches with a no nonsense attitude to uniform, written work presentation, lateness and low level disruption. Not smiling before Christmas may be a little extreme, but establishing yourself as the authority figure reaps its own rewards in terms of respect. No student likes a pushover teacher, even the naughtier ones. Some days I feel like the most unpopular teacher ever, even if the lesson before had been awesome. Some classes don’t buy into any of these approaches either. But, overall, I feel I have a better relationship this year with my students than any previous years. That has to count for something. 

Be Efficient

The bedrock of popularity is respect. Students will respect you if you prove to them you can do your job and do it well. This means having your paperwork in order, sticking to deadlines, keeping promises and making them feel they are getting good value for their time. Setting this up at the start of the year means that if you find you need to extend a marking deadline or change something later on, they will be far more understanding as they know you are likely to have a genuine reason for doing so.

‘But students should have respect for us no matter what! Why should we  work to earn it?’ That may be the case. Students may already have respect for you. They may not. But you need to work to keep it and, if you lose it, it’s going to take a LOT of work to get it back. Think of it from their point of view. If your boss demanded with respect and gave you nothing to indicate he or she should earn it, resentment will start to build. Show them you are doing your job well and they will thank you for it.

Be Enthusiastic

You came into this profession to spread knowledge, specifically about your subject. You are a brain evangelist and you should exault your scripture to your masses. You love your subject enough to dedicate you life to it, so show them! One of the most fun lessons I’ve taught this year had no flashy apps, no six way differentiated small groups. It was me, a whiteboard, several coloured whiteboard pens and a slightly hysterical level of enthusiasm  for sentence types. Students started by listening purely because it was a little comical, but several stick men  and sentence diagrams later they went away with a sense of the differences between a compound and complex sentence. More to the point, they went away knowing that I flipping love sentence construction. I may be weird to them, but enthisiasm is infectious and respect builds further when they see you love what you do.

Be Honest (Within Reason)

This doesn’t mean you sit and spill what happened over your weekend in minute detail. It means being honest in the little things. If you make a mistake, apologise. If you don’t know something, admit it and demonstrate good practice when looking up information. If a student tells you something you don’t know, thank them rather than resenting them. If they think you respect them and the knowledge they have, they will respect your opinion more.

Be Interested

At any one time you will have about 30 individuals in your room with their own stories and backgrounds. You may know their FFT prediction, their working at grades and their strengths and weaknesses in terms of your subject in minute detail, but do you know them?   Younger students especially are keen to share, and you can develop a relationship through interest in their stories. Of course, there has to be a limit and you don’t want your whole lesson taken up with stories of family trips at the weekend. When it’s appropriate, listen. Take a real interest. Ask questions and follow things up. Showing students how to listen and respond in conversation is a valuable lesson in itself, and treating students as individual people does no end of good.

Embrace Yourself

You are a unique and influential being. You will probably remember certain teachers at school and they are likely to be the quirky ones. The ones who allowed you to scratch between the surface and reveal the human underneath. Give them a hint of what you are about. Music you like. Films you watch. Hobbies you have. Books you read. All of that seems small and silly, but to a young person sharing hours of their day with you, it can mean a lot. Show them you are more than your job and more than just some initials on their timetable.

 

What at do you do in your classroom to build relationships? Do you have any great approaches to building relationships? How important do you think relationships are in a classroom?

 

Thanks for stopping by!