“The single, consistent Achilles Heel of organisational mentoring is mediocre mentoring.” - Harvard Business Review
I am yet to speak to a school that has not used mentoring in some way over the past decade. But the conversations that I have almost always describe something so succinctly summed up by the Harvard Business Review as ‘mediocre mentoring’.
Here are some of the common symptoms of mediocre mentoring in schools:
Time consuming meetings that feel more like ‘catch ups’ or a buddy system
Teachers resentful of pupil peer mentoring that take pupils out of the timetable
Small pockets of success, a few pairings that work really well while most fizzle
Nobody in school seems to know about it, how to get a mentor or how it could help them
Mentors feel unprepared for their role and quickly lose interest
Mentees rarely open up and get anything out of the relationship
The programme fizzles over the years and no one seems to know why
While this all sounds fairly innocuous, it’s a colossal waste of time and quickly leaves a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone involved.
If your experience as a mentor makes you feel ineffectual, what impact will that have on your self confidence?
If a mentee gets nothing out of mentoring, how willing will they be to proactively seek help when they next need it?
Nobody can argue that effective mentoring is transformational, there is too much evidence to the contrary, but mediocre mentoring is not only a waste of everyone’s time, it is damaging.
For mentoring to work in your school, for staff or students, it needs to have three key ingredients:
I’m going to outline how to get each of these right in this post. You can use it as a gauge for how well your current mentoring programme is performing, or a checklist for building your mentoring out next year. Hit these points and mentoring will transform your community for the better.
The structure is the foundation stuff that has got to be in place for mentoring to be great. I’ll be honest - it is a bit dry, but please, whatever you do - don’t skip it! It is worth getting this right the first time around so it is repeatable and automated, and you can get on with the fun parts.
Choose your selection process, how mentors will find out about the programme, apply and be selected.
Decide how mentees will be selected. This could be based on a defining characteristic (EQTs, or new students), or allow for nominations and requests.
How you will select pairings. Something worth noting: availability is more important than perceived compatibility. There is no point having the perfect pairing if their timetables barely allow for them to meet.
Logistics and Communication:
Communicate the programme. Assemblies, parent newsletters, staff meetings. Allow the community to get excited about it.
Decide the involvement you want from the wider community and ask them well in advance. Do you want teachers to nominate mentors or mentees? Ask them! It’s far better to have input early than complaints later.
Think about the timetable and space available. Where and when will mentors and mentees meet?
How will you measure, celebrate and communicate success?
Get clear on how the mentoring programme will align with Safeguarding procedures before ANY mentoring takes place (most important for student peer mentoring)
Who will support your mentors? If your mentors are struggling, need to offload or need advice - who do they turn to?
Who will coordinate the programme day to day? Think outside the box. Does it have to be a teacher? The set up is the most time consuming part of successful school mentoring, so identifying one or two people in a position to give it the focus it needs in the early days will pay off.
I know - this feels like a lot - but I encourage you to do this step right the first time and automate as many steps as possible for the next time around. If you don’t do these things, you’ll be starting from scratch every year and your mentoring will fizzle out.
When mentoring has no purpose it gets wishy-washy very quickly. Think about purpose as multi-layered, there will be a different purpose for mentoring depending on who you ask within the community. That is great! What you need is for each person to understand their own reasoning and feel good about it.
Let me build a picture of how this could look. I work with schools that want to improve well-being and communication skills, so using the example of a Student Peer Mentoring Programme might look something like this:
Senior Leadership Team: Want to improve student well-being and know that performance will improve in line. They want to create a working environment that teachers want to work in and students thrive in. They want a community that is welcoming, and a strong mentoring programme will ensure that.
Teachers: Recognise that improving students’ ability to manage and work with their emotions will make for calmer, more confident learners. There isn’t time for this to be addressed within the academic timetable, a mentoring programme provides a great structure for practising these skills. Achieving this will mean that when they show up in the classroom they are focused, and learning is optimised.
Student Mentors: Want to feel good in themselves, and know that helping others will result in that. They want to find answers to some of their own questions and self doubt, and supporting someone else will help them do that.
The purpose behind your mentoring programme might look completely different, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have considered it from the perspective of all groups in your community, and you can communicate that purpose clearly to them.
“...too often leaders erroneously assume that any successful manager can mentor effectively, with minimal (if any) training, and that the art of mentoring is innate or easy to acquire. Since so many never had mentors themselves, they lack mental maps for how it is done well.” Harvard Business Review.
You know that dream you’ve had, where you find yourself on stage in front of a room full of expectant people and have no idea what your lines are? That is what it feels like to mentor without training. Perhaps you will find the right words and scrape through the experience, but more often than not you realise you’re butt naked and there’s no escape.
If you are reading this, it’s likely that you work in a school. It is likely that you know what good teaching looks and feels like. You are looking for that feeling when you consider training for your mentors. Regardless of whether you choose to deliver the training inhouse or partner with a training provider, there are some things you want to look out for. Here is a list of 10 things that will help you choose the right training for your school:
Is it tailored to the school setting?
Is it skills based training that benefits both mentors and mentees?
Is it practical and relevant to your mentors?
Is it time efficient and achievable within your school’s timetable?
Does it consider the practicalities of clear and effective safeguarding?
Does it teach good theoretical knowledge based on research, data and proven experience?
Is ongoing learning support provided?
Does it track indicators of success and impact in your school?
Does the course shift perspectives and mindsets creating an open attitude towards mentoring?
Does it look enjoyable and fun?
A great mentor transforms lives. They are the humans that we remember for the rest of our lives because they introduced us to our own confidence and self belief. That is why your mentoring programme is worth the effort.
Don’t be mediocre.
I was inspired to write this post for the school setting after reading this article: https://hbr.org/2020/07/why-your-mentorship-program-isnt-working