The benefits of shared professional conversations between teachers have been well documented as a powerful means of professional learning. These conversations as part of the mentoring process have the potential to be mutually beneficial for the advancement of practice, professional motivation, and teacher efficacy.
While schools work hard to create mentoring processes (Panizzon, 2018) that can support such professional learning opportunities for their teachers, the ways in which these conversations take place may enable or constrain the extent to which learning partnerships can be developed.
At a time when teachers are faced with incredible challenges to their wellbeing (Collie & Martin, 2020), sense of self-efficacy (Russell, 2021), and ability to manage the complex issues of practice in their day-to-day work, such conversations are far more than important, they are essential, But finding ways to create these kinds of learning partnerships can be challenging to achieve, despite the potential benefits.
Gaining insights from mentoring conversations
Our research team is committed to understanding and supporting teachers and schools to develop quality mentoring experiences (Larsen et al., 2023a) for teachers at all career stages and across all school contexts. Our recent study (Larsen et al., 2023c) drew on the audio-recorded mentoring conversations of 5 mentoring partners made up of a teacher mentor and an early career teacher. These teachers from Queensland and New South Wales were taking part in a Future-focused Mentoring project (Larsen et al., 2023b), which sought to understand how genuine mentoring conversations that were non-hierarchical and mutually beneficial could be formed between teacher mentors and early career teachers.
In this latest study, the conversations were analysed with a particular focus on the ways that questioning was used by the teacher mentor and the early career teacher throughout the conversation. Questioning is key to genuine conversations as they promote the exploration of innovative ideas and problem-solving. Importantly, this requires authentic questions inspired by a real sense of curiosity.
What did we find?
When we usually think of a conversation, we tend to think of an interaction that is shared and 2-way. However, our findings uncovered a range of mentoring conversations that were very one-way when it came to asking questions. In some instances, the mentor dominated and controlled the questioning in the conversation, and as a result, the conversation took on an ‘interviewer-interviewee’ format. These conversations were often found to follow very strong mentoring ‘scripts’ with pre-determined mentor questions that were intended to ensure that the early career teacher did ‘the thinking’.
While these conversations may push the early career teacher to think, they also create a noticeable hierarchy between the mentor and early career teacher and greatly compromise the establishment of a shared learning partnership where both mentor and early career teacher inquire and construct great practice together. These conversations limit opportunities for early career teachers to engage their own curiosity and the opportunity for both teachers to collaboratively build on, challenge, and imagine possibilities for practice.
In some instances, the early career teacher dominated the questioning in the conversation. In these cases, the early career teacher saw the mentor as a source of information and the mentor took on the role of advisor. The early career teacher asked the questions, and the mentor answered them by drawing on the mentor’s experience and expertise. While the early career teacher was provided with ideas from the ‘expert’ that might be helpful in responding to immediate issues of practice, such conversations limited opportunities for mutual learning, and for opening opportunities for both teachers to use curiosity, open-mindedness, autonomy, and courage to challenge the status quo of teaching practice.
That said, there were conversations where questioning was shared and equitable. These conversations were free-flowing and authentic, with control over the direction of the conversation moving between the mentor and early career teacher in ways that positioned them as equal partners. They worked in tandem to share ideas, question ideas, find out more, and build on ideas in ways that created new learning for both teachers. They showed a real valuing of and respect for what each had to contribute to the conversation and the use of questioning was borne from a genuine sense of curiosity about what was being discussed.
Implications for practice
Our study does not suggest that conversations that focus on supporting the early career teacher to think about their own practice, or those that give information to the early career teacher, serve no purpose – they do. Just as in our personal lives, conversations serve all kinds of purposes. However, we must be aware of what these more unidirectional conversations can and cannot do.
When we are truly committed to creating teacher-learning partnerships, then we must think about the kinds of conversations that can take us there. Conversations driven by scripted mentor questions and conversations aiming to garner advice from the experienced teacher, while having value, fall short of powerful learning partnerships.
Mentoring programs must therefore also make way for more genuine and authentic conversations that are able to open opportunities for non-hierarchical and mutually beneficial learning. These conversations need both teachers to take mutual responsibility for questioning, so that each may learn from the other and contribute equally as co-inquirers. Mentoring conversations are not just about the mentor, or the early career teacher, but about the way that they come together as equal and enthusiastic co-learners.
How can schools support these kinds of conversations?
Schools can support these genuine and authentic mentoring conversations. First, consider the extent to which mentors are asked to conduct mentoring conversations that follow scripted questions. Is there room to perhaps ‘loosen’ protocols or scripts to ensure that genuine conversations also have a place in the mentoring program?
Second, think about whether early career teachers are also provided with opportunities to learn how to participate in mentoring conversations. Traditionally, mentors have tended to be the focus for mentoring skills development, but if teachers are to work together as partners, it stands to reason that both need to develop these skills. In our Future-focused Mentoring work, mentors and early career teachers engage in professional learning about mentoring for this very reason.
Third, build a culture of mentoring (Larsen et al., 2023a) that values innovation of practice and a sense of belonging that can come from mentoring that is shared, balanced, mutually beneficial, and premised on a genuine belief that all teachers, regardless of career stage, have much to offer their colleagues.
References and related reading
Collie, R. J., & Martin, A. (2020, April 7) Teacher wellbeing during COVID-19. Teacher magazine. https://www.teachermagazine.com/au_en/articles/teacher-wellbeing-during-covid-19
Institute for Future-focused Mentoring: https://iffm.education/
Larsen, E., Jensen-Clayton, C., Curtis, E., Loughland, T., & Nguyen, H. T. (2023a). Re-imagining teacher mentoring for the future. Professional Development in Education, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/19415257.2023.2178480
Larsen, E., Nguyen, H., & Curtis, E. (2023b, March 29). Piloting a new approach to teacher mentoring. Teacher magazine. https://www.teachermagazine.com/au_en/articles/piloting-a-new-approach-to-teacher-mentoring
Larsen, E., Nguyen, H. T., Curtis, E., & Loughland, T. (2023c). It's a question of balance: Reconsidering learning partnerships through genuine teacher mentoring conversations. Teaching and Teacher Education, 133, 104280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2023.104280
Panizzon, D. (2018, September 3). Beginner teachers: Induction and mentoring. Teacher magazine. https://www.teachermagazine.com/au_en/articles/beginner-teachers-induction-and-mentoring
Russell, D. (2021, January 7). The Research Files Episode 64: Early career teachers’ self-efficacy and mentoring. Teacher magazine. https://www.teachermagazine.com/au_en/articles/the-research-files-episode-64-early-career-teachers-self-efficacy-and-mentoring
Do you have a formal mentoring program in your own school? How do you assess the success these mentoring relationships? Do these relationships draw on the existing strengths of both mentors and mentees?
The final section of this article suggests 3 things schools can do to support genuine and authentic mentoring conversations. How will you introduce these aspects to your own mentoring program?