The essence of mentoring

“The quality of a country’s education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.” – Michael Barber.

Why mentoring? Teachers are without doubt the most important resource in any school as they hold the potential to create enormous change in the lives of their learners. Initiatives, programmes and workshops aimed at improving and strengthening teacher effectiveness are crucial investments as they can have a positive impact on the quality of education enjoyed by current and future generations.

Teaching can be classified as a performance profession, much like acting, professional sport or even neurosurgery. In each of these endeavours, success relies on the individual’s ability to achieve a particular outcome by managing a complex combination of variables that can change at any given moment.

Performers spend countless hours practicing and mastering certain critical skills that will elevate their performance to the highest levels, but there is a distinct difference between practice and performance. During practice, complex tasks are broken down into steps that are repeated over and over again in order
to master a technique, but it is during the performance that everything has to come together… and this is when a performer’s ability is truly judged.

Most performers recognise the value an experienced coach, teacher or mentor brings to their practice and performance, and ideally this will be someone who knows what success looks like and who understands what it takes to achieve higher goals.

“I’ve been a teacher for 37-odd years. Only in the early stages of your career do you get support.”

The sad reality, however, is that teachers spend most of their time in performance mode. While they might get some support when they first start out, the general expectation of them is that they should ‘just get on with it’. “I’ve been a teacher for 37-odd years. Only in the early stages of your career do you get support. Thereafter, it’s taken for granted you know what you’re doing – you’re a practitioner and master of the classroom, so go ahead,” says Mr D. Naidu of Vict-oria Primary in KwaZulu-Natal.

When someone from the relevant Department of Education comes to observe a lesson, they usually do so as part of a professional assessment of a teacher with the objective of evaluating a once-off performance rather than providing any form of support or mentoring.

Furthermore, any attempts at professional development tend to be reflective and theoretical, with new ideas being presented to teachers who are then asked to consider how these might be integrated into their teaching practice. “Knowing what you want to do is a long way from being able to do it,” says Doug Lemov, author of Teach Like a Champion. “Every other performance profession prepares people by breaking things down into sections. We need to emphasise practicing good teaching strategies rather than just thinking about them.”

It is crucial that professional development is designed to equip teachers to perform more effectively, rather than merely providing them with notes and ideas. The question then arises: when do teachers get the opportunity to practice, refine and master their skills? If every lesson is a performance, then when does learning, repetition and improvement happen? And who is there to coach them to success?

Such support should ideally be provided by the relevant Departmental officials, but this seldom happens as most teachers are visited less than twice a year by a representative from their provincial Department of Education (see chart below), and within schools this type of support is seldom built into the timetable.

The South African teaching and learning environment is particularly challenging considering the lack of resources in terms of infrastructure and qualified educators. In order to reach their full potential, educators need professional support on an ongoing basis, as this will equip them to draw the best out of their learners by helping each individual to unlock his or her personal potential.

The teacher’s role is to manage their classrooms, plan effective and engaging lessons and to ensure that their teaching results in learning and growth for their students. However, the real challenge for teachers is not what they do but, rather, how they do it. How can they get their class of 50 or more learners to co-operate, participate and achieve? How can they cover the curriculum sufficiently while making sure the weakest learners are not left behind?

Every child deserves the opportunity to learn from a masterful teacher, and this is the mission that guides everyone at Edufundi. We want to provide the kind of mentorship and support that our country’s teachers need in order to empower them to master the how of their profession.