On nurturing a mentor community

By Christine Counsell

This post is a comment copied from the previous post that Christine Counsell and Michael Fordham co-wrote. The comment was written by Christine in response to a very reasonable question from Dodiscimus (@dodiscimus) about achieving mentor ‘buy-in’ in initial teacher education and how a mentor community can be nurtured. The comment has been copied here as it explains clearly what it is that makes our successful school-university partnership work.

Very interesting questions. Answers are complex. Some of these features are definitely Cambridge-wide – i.e. our history PGCE couldn’t achieve what it does without clear PGCE norms and contractual agreements that all our partnership schools buy into and indeed set up in the first place (e.g. our Standing Committee that oversees the whole PGCE has two headteachers on it and one of them always chairs it). So support from the very top in all our partnership schools is vital. On the other hand, some of the features that Michael and I describe are more history-specific, and are perhaps the result of distinctive features of the wider history education community, although many of these we directly and explicitly cultivate locally.

More specifically: attendance at subject mentor training is a whole-partnership, three-line whip. Just as it would be impossible to mark for a particular awarding body if you didn’t attend the examiners meeting for that year, so you cannot possibly teach a PGCE subject course (and a mentor is just that – a teacher of a particular, subject-specific course, in a professional setting) if you don’t come to the major sessions where the course is developed, reviewed, refined and where experienced mentors share mentoring practice and set its standards, norms and goals. If you are not party to all that, how can you teach that subject course? When schools join the Cambridge partnership they sign a contract (and it’s a contract with the uni-school PARTNERSHIP, not just with the university) to commit to a range of things which include involvement of mentors in required training. All new mentors (all subjects) do two generic mentor training days led by a mixture of Faculty staff and senior school staff, and two subject days. Thereafter, subject mentors always do two subject days, in every year. We get pretty much 100% attendance. No attendance at subject training, no trainee.

I don’t think that that happens just because it is a partnership contractual requirement, however. That basic structure is necessary, but never sufficient. Mentors have to WANT to come to subject training days. They have to be so excited about coming that it’s the highlight of their CPD year. They have to be miserable at the thought of not coming. The subject mentor training needs need to be the finest possible CPD (both for mentoring in that subject and, indirectly or directly for teaching that subject itself) so that you just couldn’t bear not to come. It may sound like I’m over-egging it, but I’m not. I and my ‘seconded mentor’ colleague, Kath, who co-leads the history PGCE with me, put in about five full days of planning and preparation, working closely with others in our ‘history mentor panel’, to get just one of those subject days up and running. This is time spent on the history-specific detail of the day and supporting those who will present. We involve at least six or seven mentors as presenters and workshop leaders in every history mentor training day. We present very little ourselves, and we certainly never treat the days as admin/info giving (as I’m shocked to discover some other ITT courses do). We support the history mentors who will present, we explore issues with them, we coach them, we give them readings, we strive to involve new blood every time, so that it isn’t just the old hands always presenting.

In short, we massively invest in making sure that those history mentors come to a day which makes them feel a million dollars as history teachers, which sets a standard frighteningly high but which inspires them nonetheless and which enables them with many practical techniques for supporting history trainees through thick and thin, and through very specific features of our course at various stages of their placements. This means that you just don’t get mentors saying – ‘oh dear, bit of a clash of priorities, think I’ll duck out of it this year; I’ll try to find some defensible reason to escape’.

There are also other things we do on the history mentor day to reinforce the sense of community, the sense of privilege in being a Cambridge history mentor and so on. Much of this comes from subject passion that history teachers already have and a sort of ‘Cinderella status’ of the subject. History is always under threat in curricula, especially for the low-attaining student. Our history teachers are all passionate about building the curricular case for ‘history for all’, and so to come on this day is more than training to be a mentor; it is a kind of intellectual re-fuelling and bi-annual academic MOT for checking our arguments are sufficiently battle-worthy to keep fighting the good fight to bring history to all, and create departmental cultures that will inspire history trainees to do likewise. We also have particular features we always repeat such as ‘scholarly tea’. In scholarly tea, we have to have a work of historical scholarship on our lap as we drink our tea and eat cake. We share the latest scholarly work we’ve read (purely for pleasure!) with a group of three other history mentors as we take our refreshments. These rituals remind us why we wanted to teach history and why we all have to keep striving to define (never mind deliver) what is a responsible and disciplinary history education for all. It also helps us to inspire one another to keep building a departmental culture, back in our schools where we make time to read historical scholarship and talk about it together, as a central feature of professionalism. All this doesn’t just happen. It is planned for, fought for, carefully reviewed and discussed by the history mentor panel before each history mentor training day.

Part of this may be to do with how Kath and I see our role as history coordinators and leaders. We don’t see ourselves, chiefly, as trainers of trainees, but rather as coordinators of a team of mentors who must be enabled to do that training. I conceptualise my role as a trainer, enabler and inspirer *of mentors*. The mentors’ academic development as history teachers and as mentors of history teachers is my primary responsibility. Here it gets very complicated because since 2005, when we introduced an MEd in Researching Practice for which the PGCE is 50% credit, it has been possible to recruit mentors not only from former trainees but from full MEd RP graduates. So when Kath and I are supervising a Year 2 Masters student or planning a history elective for the Masters course, we are, simultaneously, training history mentors. We are simultaneously doing the relationship maintenance, community building and collective knowledge building that goes with sustaining and developing a subject-specific mentor team.

In addition a group of (self-appointed; anyone can opt in) senior mentors form the Subject Mentor Panel which meets three times a year (in twilight meetings). The Subject Mentor Panel does in-depth review and development of the course.

Many of these features (the subject mentor panel; the overlap between MEds and mentors) are features of all subjects in the Cambridge PGCE and form the structures that make the more detailed work at the subject level possible and make it possible (though not inevitable) that the courses will be ‘school-owned at the subject-level’.

Final thought. I actually don’t think it has to be university personnel who do this nurturing/leadership/coordination role. For a start, I don’t do it on my own – my colleague Kath is a seconded mentor who works three days in school and two days for the Cambridge Faculty of Education (a key feature of all our subject courses). Michael is another example. He joined us in this coordination role as an experienced member of the History Mentor Panel while still mentoring and as an MEd student and now a PhD student at the Faculty. A history ITT leader could be an SLE or a strong head of history with plenty of research knowledge in history education perhaps from producing and consuming research through a PhD or involvement in history education projects/research/publications or history education policy making (which is how I began this, myself, as a young head of history in a comp, subsequently drawn into leading a history SCITT in the 1990s). What matters is that that whoever has this role has the time to do the intensive, time-consuming work of nurturing the community of subject mentors academically and professionally until they can take more and more responsibility themselves, and that they have the resources (i.e. library access and thorough, subject-specific research training and knowledge to allow for navigation of the subject community’s collective professional knowledge extant in publications). An SLE with rich knowledge and diverse experience in history education could also do that, provided they were given time and resources to do so. Indeed that should be the goal of courses such as ours – the nurture of more and more subject mentors who can take on the role of ITT course leaders as SLEs. We believe that this knowledge should, ideally, reside in all history teachers, or at the very least in all heads of history. There is a profound sense in which any good ITT subject leader should be someone consciously working themselves out of a job.

Where, by contrast, the job of coordination of subject mentors is (a) tacked on as some side-responsibility of the subject coordinator, with (say) barely 4 days a year given to the ‘behind the scenes’ relationship maintenance and mentor team-building and collective knowledge building i.e. they are given time to do some training with the trainees, but no one factors in the even more important and more time-consuming work with the mentors; and/or (b) seen merely as an admin role rather than as subject-specific knowledge building and making the history mentor team bigger than the sum of its parts; (c) construed as generic, both in terms of gate-keeping and quality assurance (e.g. using only useless measures such as trainee progress in the Teacher Standards, which we largely ignore as facile and low-level irrelevances; too obvious even to state; (d) unrelated to gate-keeping of mentors, so that they have to place trainees with any head of history who has not been fully informed of or actively chosen the subject-specific demands of the course and carefully inducted into them, let alone enabled to start to take ownership of them, then I would say that a coherent ITT course offering consistent, mentor-owned, subject-specific standards doesn’t have a hope.

This may make it all sound impossible. But it isn’t. I am describing a reality, not a dream or a theory. But if there are elements here that others may like to replicate or develop, then my tip would be this. Don’t look at structures; there are many, many roads to heaven on this. Look, instead, at knowledge.

What knowledge should a history (/other subject) mentor have? What knowledge should a history (/other subject) ITT leader/coordinator have if they are to capture, build and renew knowledge in the wider history mentor team and make it more than the sum of its parts? And above all, to what ends should that knowledge be put? What is the knowledge and capacity for new knowledge production that we expect to see in teachers of a particular subject? What is the most efficient means for ensuring that the subject mentor team set their own bar and set it high (personally, I would like to see subject ITT courses competing for height, we need competition at the SUBJECT level) so that history (/other subject) teachers are not only developing high standards but defining and declaring them in the first place?

In the end ITT isn’t about ITT; it is about definitions of quality of subject teaching and ensuring that subject teachers own those definitions and take scholarly responsibility for constantly renewing them.




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