The Engine Room: Get yourself a mentor!

The Engine Room is a series of blogposts on Middle Leadership. The name comes from the idea that school middle leadership is the ‘engine room’ of the school, without which schools would not function effectively. Middle Leadership is challenging, and often teachers are thrown into it, without the support and guidance they need. The purpose of this series is to shine some light on some of the challenges middle leaders face, and what one can practically do to address these issues. There is no magic bullet, but I do hope that it helps middle leaders at least feel that they are not alone.

“Congratulations! We would love to offer you the job of Head of Department.”

Of course, you accept. You have earned this. You have raised your head above the parapet and have demonstrated that you have the aptitude, determination and work ethic to be awarded this opportunity.

But then there’s the niggling self-doubt. Have I simply got this because there’s no one else? Have they made a mistake? How long do I have before I’m found out?

If you were anything like me, someone who possessed the requisite ability, but with a penchant for premature career self-sabotage, this may sound familiar. 

My first head of department role was where I learnt my chops, where I learnt to navigate the rough waters of middle leadership. But it would have been much more straightforward had I had some guidance. A mentor who had been there, done that.

Mentoring is not the same as line-management. Although in practice, within schools, these are often conflated. And for good reason – time is precious, expensive and quite simply there may not be staff within your school who have the necessary expertise. 

Whereas line-management is often linked to drafting and meeting targets, or being measured against school Key Performance Indicators, mentoring, in my experience, is more fluid, more ‘human’. There is a need for both, and great line-management should of course be celebrated. The purpose of this piece, however, is to encourage people to embrace mentoring, to find that guide who is, perhaps one step removed from the day-to-day, and who can give you a perspective, based on experience or a disassociated analysis.

I have been both a mentor and mentee. Where it has been successful, I have, in both roles, listened, questioned, and challenged. Specifically as a mentor, I have advised. The last part, I feel is important. Mentoring, in my mind, is not coaching. I am a big fan of coaching, be it rapidly improving classroom practice through the model of ‘instructional coaching’ or whether it is the ‘executive coaching’ variety, whereby someone guides you through your goals to fulfil their potential. As a mentee and Head of Department, I wanted to learn from someone else’s experience, access the knowledge (and skills) they have gained to help me develop and grow. For a new middle leader, or perhaps an experienced one feeling a little stuck, a mentor provides a sense of perspective. When leading a department, I found this increasingly difficult to get this perspective as the year progressed, and my focus turned to assessment, exam preparation, curriculum development and cover. In the years where I had a mentor, the role felt much more sustainable. I was encouraged to pause and take stock, at moments when I was in danger of disappearing down a rabbit hole of perpetual ‘doing’.

Choosing a mentor is not a straightforward process, and I have to confess, a little haphazard. I did not advertise and/or interview (although maybe that’s a consideration?!), nor were they allocated. I found them through training courses, friends of friends, subject-specific Teach Meets and online forums, and oddly enough going for interviews in other schools! Nor were they apparent as mentors when I first met them. I did not simply ‘know’. For the majority of them, all I knew is that they had at times been heads of departments who I wanted to emulate in some capacity. I may had admired the way they motivated their teams, or instilled and celebrated a love of their subject. One of my mentors had a fantastic understanding of the curriculum, and his ability to succinctly explain it to both novice teachers and teachers outside his subject, was something that I genuinely admired. And this is the key thing – they didn’t have to be the perfect middle leader. I’m not even sure that this exists. In all cases, this appreciation of a specific mentor trait, led to some great further conversations, regular check-ins and ultimately the formation of a mentor-mentee relationship that sustained.

The relationship is very rarely formal. This is difficult for teachers as, by the nature of the profession, we are structured: we plan, deliver and assess our lessons at particular times; we supervise break duty at a predetermined moment; we go on holiday when we are told to during the year. We even go to the toilet and eat our lunch during specific windows! It is not a profession that one feels has a lot of flex built in. And yet, mentor/ mentee conversations, whilst could be scheduled in, are often dependent on the ebbs and flow, the stresses and strains of being a middle leader at seemingly unplanned moments during the school year. As we adapt, change and continue to develop the profession in this post-Covid era, it is crucial that we learn to embrace this. Mentoring middle leaders when they need it most, not just at arbitrary regular intervals.

The format of a mentor meeting is not prescriptive. And nor should it be. This is an opportunity to discuss areas of professional life that could traverse a variety of topics. The key thing here is a willingness to have that conversation and engage with the dispensed advice, even if it’s ultimately rejected. Remember, this is not coaching. 

Does the mentor need to be trained? Well, it depends on your definition of a mentor. If we are talking about someone who is providing instruction, and has limited time to diagnose the problem and help the colleague find a solution that they can work on – then, of course, a clear and precise model, expertly driven by someone trained in providing instruction, is of huge benefit. If it’s more of an advice-seeking conversation with someone who has been in your shoes and has valuable knowledge to impart, then training will, in all practically, be quite difficult. Remember, we are not training novices educators here. We are providing a level of bespoke support to middle leaders that schools do not always have the capacity to provide themselves. National Training courses of exist, and they are of course valuable, in the medium to long term. However, picking up the phone and speaking to someone you have chosen to build a strong relationship with, when the problem reveals itself, is often of greater value- at least in the moment, when you are faced with those all consuming challenges.

The final part of this piece is a plea: pay it forward. We are a profession with some amazingly generous individuals. When recruitment drops and staff migrate to other professions, the pressure on middle leaders to simultaneously hold the fort and keep striving for their pupils is immense. Supporting our middle leaders in these moments will undoubtedly have a knock on effect – not just to the individual concerned, but to the departments they lead, the students they teach, and anyone who thinks middle leadership might be for them. The latter is perhaps the most important for our profession. If our teaching and non-teaching staff see a middle leader being well-supported by a mentor, then they will be more likely to see those positions as something desirable, something to aim and build towards. We have a retention crisis in this profession – let’s do everything we can to encourage people to stay. Mentoring won’t be the solution on its own, and will be further down the list after pay and workload considerations, but it could definitely play a positive part in supporting educators who, despite the odds, have dedicated their immediate futures to this valuable vocation.