Getting into teaching is tough. Getting a place on a course is a nightmare, the training year terrifying and being an NQT a baptism of fire. There is one thing that can get you through it all – a good mentor.
For a start I found it hard to even get on a course, university PGCE and GTP programmes (as they were once called) turned their noses up at me. I had spent a few weeks doing work experience in a school, obviously I would have liked to have been able to have more prior experience but at the time I had a one year old baby and would not have been able to survive on the wages of an LSA (which by the way are criminal) and pay for childcare. I was puzzled at the time as I was led to believe that there was a shortage of teachers in core subjects, my degree was English, why couldn’t I be trained? In fact I’d just like to put it on record that I hold a huge grudge against a particular university who got me in, interviewed me and pretty much told me I was spectacularly shit in my rejection letter. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a bit of constructive criticism but the criticism was that I was just generally crap! They might as well have written me a letter in blood saying WE HATE YOU. This totally floored me and I gave up on the idea of teaching altogether.
This is when my first mentor stepped in. Already a teacher, and already my friend, my first mentor was insistent that I was going to be a teacher. She found it ridiculous that — University had dissed me and basically adopted an aggressive campaign towards me and other training options in order to get me onto a course. Reader, she FORCED me to apply to other training providers, she would bully me about application deadlines, go through interview questions with me, load KS3 and 4 books on me to read – although she was/ is my friend, I was/ am totally scared of her and did whatever she demanded of me.
I couldn’t believe it when I got on a course. It was all down to her.
Then I met my second mentor.
My second mentor was actually supposed to be my mentor throughout my GTP year. Although she was only an NQT herself it became quite clear to me, after about a week of observation at my training school, that she was the best teacher there out of a department of 12. At the time I was intimidated. She was young and brilliant, not only mentoring me but doing a PHD in Education. It was hard to live up to her. I tried to imitate her for a long time, I even started trying to dress like her at one point, which must have creeped her out massively.
We never had an easy relationship. At the time I used to feel that nothing I ever did was good enough and that she really must be so disappointed to be stuck with a weirdo like me. She was hard on me. But it wasn’t until the last term that I realized it was totally for my own good. Without noticing, I had become resilient to criticism, I could listen to it without wincing and it made the praise she did occasionally give me much more valuable.
We’re not great mates or anything now. But sometimes I see her at conferences or hear about her from other teachers and I’m always eager for them to know that she trained me because she was so professional and gave so much of her time to me (which I really didn’t appreciate as I was totally wrapped up in my own needs) and she really didn’t have to. I admire her; she is a truly amazing teacher and I am very proud that she trained me. If I could I would write her name in my CV ‘as trained by —-.’
My next mentor was not supposed to be my mentor at all. She had only just finished her NQT year herself but I was given a mentor who, through no fault of his own, really didn’t have the time for me. This didn’t bother me as I landed myself on someone else instead!
My school was pretty hairy in those days and a teacher had to fight for survival! My mentor’s top tips:
1. If a kid swears at you, you are allowed to use the word they have used back at them, repeatedly if need be, to make them understand the severity – eg “Did you just call me a —?” or “Did you just tell me to go —- myself?”
2. Parents hear what they want to hear. She was the queen of the compromise – favourite phrase “Hmmm, it’s tricky.”
3. Think about it (whatever that may be) from the other person’s point of view and, annoyingly, you will actually see they have a point. This used to be highly irritating when I was angrily offloading BUT good for me.
4. Don’t blame anyone else for when things go wrong in your classroom or department. Take it on the chin and learn from it.
But above all it was the time my last mentor put into me that I appreciated the most. Teaching can be a lonely job when you first start, it gets in your head and is not something you can just switch off when you get home. You overanalyse conversations you’ve had that day and worry about what kids/ staff think of you. Hours on the phone, break times – even shouting over to me in the next cubicle in the ladies. She took every opportunity to support me and when I became a head of department she was so proud of me.
These days I’m the one doing the mentoring and it’s a scary job. What if your mentee hates you? What if they don’t want to hear what you have to say? What if they find out that — University said I’m shit?!
I’m still learning how to be a mentor; it is a vitally important job and if you don’t have inspirational people like the ones above, giving their time and advice in supporting teachers new to the profession, then it is no wonder so many new teachers decide to leave the profession they tried so hard to get into in the first place.