Mentor teacher/Written reflection tools in mentoring

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In this chapter we present some examples of written reflection tools that may be useful in mentoring. The tools seem to be used to some extent in school mentoring in Scandinavian countries, but they may also be relevant for mentoring in other countries. First, it seems to be quite common that the mentor and mentee establish some kind of written mentoring agreement. This agreement creates a framework for the following mentoring conversations. In addition the mentee can make an "individual strategy document". This tool can either be a teaching plan or a personal narrative. These documents are intended to support individual reflection. It is also common that the mentee writes a regular log which is used to reflect around practicum experiences. The examples in this chapter are mostly from the mentoring of student teachers, but they are also relevant to the mentoring of beginning teachers.

Mentoring agreement in school practicum[edit]

What is a mentoring agreement?[edit]

A mentoring agreement is a written plan for collaboration between the mentor and the mentee. Its purpose is to establish and maintain a beneficial collaboration during practicum. When creating the mentoring agreement, it is essential that both parties are open about their expectations. Topics such as punctuality, deadlines, schedules for mentoring, development goals, work effort and mentoring pedagogy are often discussed. Often there will exist written institutional guidelines which have been made by the teacher education institution and practicum schools. These guidelines usually recommend how the agreement should be made. The mentoring agreement should also be revised regularly with follow-up questions such as "will we be able to achieve what we decided in the plan?"

Topics to include in a mentoring agreement[edit]

Below we present some of the areas that are usually covered by a written agreement:

Formal information

There should be some formal information about both mentor and mentee like for instance the student's name, field of study and the duration of practicum. The minimum information provided about the mentor should be name and contact information (i.e. telephone number, e-mail address etc.).

Mentor's responsibilities

It´s important that the responsibilities of the mentor are described so that the mentee knows how much follow-up that can be expected. This will ensure that the mentor-mentee relationship has a more formal supportive structure. Some examples are presented below:

  • The mentor should provide practical information about the students in the classroom, use of equipment and teaching aids. Some of this information can be provided orally and some can be written down.
  • The mentor could say something about the relationship. For instance, that the mentor will look after the student and contribute to the student's inclusion into the community of colleagues.
  • The mentor could outline a possible way of organizing of the mentoring process. The agreement could, for instance, state that it is the mentor's responsibility to arrange mentoring before and after a classroom lesson. It is also possible to specify approximately how much of the mentee's teaching the mentor intends to observe.

Mentor's expectations of the mentee

A mentoring agreement should include mentor´s expectations of the student teacher. It is usually specified that the student teacher should meet prepared and be punctual. It also seems common to specify the amount of work the teacher is expected to do. For instance, the student teacher could be asked to make a detailed lesson plan which the mentor will give feedback on. Sometimes the student teacher must write a reflection log after each mentoring session.

The mentor and the mentee may not necessarily agree upon mentee's responsibilities. It is therefore useful to specify the student teacher's working hours, and expected work besides teaching (e.g. teacher collaboration, assessment, teacher-pupil conversations, planning, the use of learning platforms and extra-curricular activities). The agreement should include legal information about confidentiality aspects of the student teacher's job.

Goals and objectives for practicum

The objectives in a mentoring agreement must be closely linked with the broader goals of the teacher training programmes and local practicum plans. These goals may include several different competencies (e.g. didactics, social skills, occupational ethics and change competencies). Here we see some examples of objectives from a mentoring agreement:

  • Planning, execution and evaluation of teaching according to the curriculum;
  • Reflection about own teaching;
  • Understanding the connection between theory and practice;
  • Attending to typical teaching tasks and being part of the school's daily life.

It may be difficult to assess if these objectives have been fulfilled. However, the mentor and mentee could also define more specific objectives within different areas of competence. The student teacher's own expectations should be included in the agreement, and it is also possible for the student teacher to describe personal development goals. If such preferences are taken into consideration, it is more likely that the agreement will be seen as mutually binding.

Time management

Usually the amount of mentoring will be regulated by institutional guidelines. Sometimes the number of mentoring sessions will be specified. Other issues about time use can be agreed upon together with the student teacher. One could for instance discuss whether the mentoring should take place at regular time intervals or when the student experiences a need for it. The agreement could look like this: pre-lesson mentoring sessions at Mondays 8 – 9.30 am and debriefing sessions at Fridays 3.30-4.30 pm. The mentor can decide the time in advance, or the mentor and mentee can arrange a time that fits both parties' schedules when they first meet. Most importantly, the time table must be mutually binding. Furthermore, the student teacher follows a plan for the practicum period that contains information about lessons, planned mentoring sessions, as well as other tasks such as staff meetings, yard duty, team meetings etc. All plans should be flexible, so that they can be adjusted throughout the practicum period.

Evaluation

Evaluation of practicum should be a separate item in the mentoring agreement. Some agreements, for instance, state that the student teacher during a mid-point evaluation will receive feedback on areas of strength and areas that need improvement. It might be beneficial to mention that the student teacher must show a will to change and develop and be prepared to tolerate honest feedback (from students, mentor and others). For instance, it could be stated that the student teacher must be able to constructively receive mentoring, and actively reflect on her own and other's teaching. Additionally, it should be mentioned that the mentor will be evaluating the student teacher. The evaluation will assess that student teacher's skills and aptitude for the teaching profession. The mentor will in addition write a report on the student teacher's practicum.

Individual strategy document[edit]

A key principle in most theories on mentoring is to consider the mentee's needs. A key strategy is to encourage student teachers to make different kinds of reflection documents. An individual reflection document can simply be a memo where needs are specified and which is given to the mentor. There are few restrictions regarding format and content. The mentor should, however, encourage the mentee to be as specific as possible. For instance, the mentee should avoid too many general phrases which do not refer to a specific situation (e.g. “I want to focus on a sense of community in the classroom”). The individual reflection document does not necessarily need to describe a problem, but can be a question or an issue the mentee would like to reflect upon. In teacher education, a reflection document can both be a personal narrative or a personalized written lesson plan.

The mentor should not go about the mentor-mentee meeting as if it was an interview.

An individual reflection document makes it easier for both mentor and mentee to prepare a mentoring session. The mentor can read the document before the meeting, thus helping the mentoring process off to a good start. The mentor should not, however, behave as if the meeting was an interview, where all the questions have been created in advance. This may inhibit the mentee's capacity to present own thoughts. While being prepared, it is important to free oneself from one's own notes and follow the dynamic of the conversation (Carson and Birkeland 2009: 75-76).

In a mentoring conversation this document will help the mentor to follow up several different topics. In the early stages of mentoring it is therefore important that the mentee is given sufficient reflection time. If the mentor starts to talk about a topic right from the start, it might be difficult for the mentee to bring up other topics later (Carson and Birkeland 2009:80).

Written lesson plan[edit]

A written lesson plan is a document that is made to support the preparation of a particular lesson. A written lesson plan is often used in a mentoring conversation before the actual classroom lesson. This will allow the mentee to reflect extensively on the forthcoming classroom teaching. As a consequence the mentoring conversation will usually be more specific.

According to Nilssen (2010), many student teachers think that planning documents are unnecessary and difficult to use. There seems to be several reasons. First of all, some student teachers claim that the mentors do not use reflection documents in their own teaching. A lession plan is therefore not regarded as an authentic planning tool. Second, some mentors claim that student teachers are not capable of using a lesson plan in a appropriate way. Both student teachers and mentors may find it difficult to understand the differences between the didactic categories. When asked about the lesson plan in a survey, a mentor named Sara expresses it like this: ''After several occasions where the students expressed discontent and confusion about how to complete the documents they were required to use, I started to wonder: “What do I get out of this, and equally important, what do the student teachers get out of this?” (...)“ (Nilssen 2010: 106-107). She considered the didactic relation model as having little to do with practicum, since the students did not get the opportunity to study examples of the model in actual use. Thus, she started filling out the document along with the students before lessons. She then thought out loud about her own teaching while asking questions of the students: What are we planning to do? Afterwards she started drawing. “I drew circles and arrows while saying for instance, I have to remember which classroom to go to, are my students familiar with this subject matter, what have they learned previously, what are they going to learn now? - I drew while we talked – and we ended up with the didactic relation model” (Nilssen 2010: 107-108).

Even though many teachers do not use a lesson plan for their own teaching, one could suggest that this thinking has been internalized as tacit knowledge. The lesson plan is also meant to further the student teacher's didactic competence. Additionally, it can be used as a starting point for a pedagogical discussion regarding what the student teacher is thinking. A mentor who has actively used this kind of document with her student teachers explain:

This spring my students handed in a lesson plan for “it's learning” two days before the lesson was to be held. I gave feedback that same evening. The day before the lesson we sat down with the lesson plan, where both my and the students' comments where written down. Everyone was responsible for reading the lesson plan and prepare. This lead to many useful conversations and input regarding theories etc. At the end of the practicum period the students expressed that this method made them work on a different level when planning. I realized that it was a good way to make the pre-lesson mentoring more useful on a professional level (Nilssen 2010: 109).

According to Nilssen (2010), however, many mentors claim not to know how to use the lesson plan. There is a danger that this planning document serve only as a ritual document. For instance, many student teachers hand in their documents too late for the mentor to be able to make changes before lessons. The students may also be opposed to the lesson plan because they merely see it as a document to be assessed by the mentor and not as as a learning tool (Nilssen 2010: 107-108). Another disadvantage is that some inexperienced students may follow the plan too strictly, the consequence being that the teaching becomes too rigid with less room for improvisation and adjustment of the plan during the course of the lesson.

Personal narratives[edit]

The term “personal narrative” is typically used about a story from someone's professional life in a daycare, school or healthcare facility. The narratives usually describe important episodes from the personally experienced daily life of the organization. The individuals working in the facility tell their stories, using their own language and concepts (Mørch 2004). The stories are told in the same chronological order as the actual episodes with a beginning, a culmination and an end. When the narrative conveys specific episodes from day-to-day life, it can give insight into a person's feelings, thoughts and values. The complexity and dynamic of a situation are more easily recognized. In addition, the narrative provides an opportunity to discuss ethical and moral dilemmas that face professionals in their daily work (Birkeland 1999; Mørch 2004).

Some argue that personal narratives represent a different tradition of knowledge than the theoretical. A personal narrative refers to personal experiences from a work situation, but does not attempt to present it as an objective reality (Fennefoss & Jansen 2004). Personal narratives do not necessarily say anything about how reality should be, but consists of experiences that are considered significant on a personal level.

There are many different kinds of personal narratives: sunshine stories, success stories, routine stories, turning point stories, blunder stories, hero stories, problem stories, humour stories, exception stories. By using different kinds of personal narratives in a teaching context, we create different conditions for reflection. For instance, a turning point story is a story that turns established conceptions upside down and enables the narrator to develop new ways of thinking or to make new conceptions (Birkeland 2004).

The personal narrative is inspired by Jerome Bruner's idea (1986) that identity also is a narrative construction. He describes the narrative as an inherently different form of knowledge than paradigmatic thinking. Our knowledge about who we are, our personal abilities, values and principles are upheld by our self-stories. The life of an individual consists of a diverse landscape, made up of various acts and occurrences. They all bear witness of the person's abilities, values and experiences, but only a small amount of them end up as a part of the person's self-stories. A plot can be considered as an organizing dimension that transform occurrences into stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. This constitutes the story's core.

Personal narratives can be used in different ways. Fennefoss and Jansen (2004; 2008) suggest that personal narratives can be both a source for understanding and a method for pedagogical documentation. The significance of a story does not lie in the fact that something happened, but the way it happened. By writing down the personal narrative we might be able to discern other perspectives and possible ways of handling a situation, and turn them into subjects of reflection and eventually new attempts. The personal narratives can also serve as a starting point for discussion and reflection on ethical and moral dilemmas in the pedagogical practice.

A mentor in a kindergarten tells the following story: Tore did a lot of thinking about the values underlying his work. I asked him to write a personal narrative based on his interaction with the children. He described a situation which focused on a friendship between two girls. Some of the staff thought that the girls should be kept more apart, for instance by being placed at different tables during meals. Tore, on the other hand, had defended the friendship and tried to protect it. I asked Tore to explain why he thought the girls' friendship was so important. He quickly started talking about his own experiences with friendship and why he felt that friendship was so important. During the conversation, Tore became more aware of the knowledge, experiences and values that were guiding his actions (Carson and Birkeland 2009:73).

Birkeland (1998) refers to how personal experiences inspire mutual reflection among colleagues in the daycare. Mørch (2004) also argues that the purpose of the personal narrative is to understand, develop or document professional work. In this context the stories are made by members of the staff and used in joint problem solving. Colleagues will contribute with different perspectives and create more awareness about dilemmas, conflicts and concerns. These stories might also strengthen the collective identity.

Log writing in mentoring[edit]

A logbook is originally a maritime tool used to record direction and variation in weather and wind conditions, as well as progression and other events. Originally, the logbook would contain short descriptions of central incidents and observations during the course of a day. The purpose of the log was to make this information available for other travellers.

Spontaneous log and reflection log[edit]

As a research method, log writing has been used extensively within ethnography. Today this tool is also used withing an educational context. Log writing is different from the rigid requirements of academic texts in that the texts can be more explorative. Nilssen (2010) refers to Torlaug Løkensgard Hoel who distinguishes between spontaneous logs and reflection logs.

The spontaneous log usually refers to a specific incident or observation. The content is written down in the midst of the situation and the notes are often unstructured. The focus is on the person's feelings in the moment. It can be an expression of frustration or happiness. A student teacher describes the use of spontaneous log like this: “There was no need for fancy expressions, which made the task less complicated and time-consuming. I used key words, complete and incomplete sentences, mind maps, forms as well as reflections where some were related to theory (Nilssen 2010:101).

The reflection log is written more time is available. This log offers more reflective distance to the episodes. In this log it is possible to continue to work with episodes from the spontaneous log. We can add relevant theory which can enrich our interpretation of the episode. The text in the reflection log is also usually more structured. A student explains the interplay between the use of the spontaneous log and the reflection log: "Often when I look at old notes I notice how I was about to discover something that I had not yet understood. I can read between the lines or in my own use of words that I was progressing towards an understanding. By writing my thoughts down on paper I understood that I knew things I didn't think I knew" (Nilssen 2010:102).

Nevertheless, mentors have mixed experiences with the use of logs. Nilssen (2010) refers to a mentor named Anna who finds it difficult to motivate all students to undertand the benefits of writing a log. She has several questions:

  • Does the log require a specific structure, form or content? What type of log gives the best base for reflection?
  • Whose responsibility is it to provide instruction in log writing?
  • How do I motivate the student teachers to use different types of log?
  • To what degree should the mentor have access to student teacher´s logs? How does this affect the log writing? Should other student teachers have access to each others logs?

Anna's group of student teachers has mixed experiences with log writing. Two of the students had written every day and received feedback from their mentor once a week. They found it useful and were hoping to continue with the log writing. Another student wrote a log exclusively for herself. She did not understand its purpose. The fourth student published his logs in the group's online project room, where he received comments from both mentor and fellow students (Nilssen 2010:98).

The pedagogical idea behind log writing is that we develop a better understanding of a matter if we put our thoughts into words. Oral communication will make us aware of our thoughts, but it is through writing that we develop the skill to reflect systematically. We become more aware of what we do, and better at separating the essential from the nonessential in our daily lives. For a reader the log text can appear as incoherent because the text might be unfinished, informal, fragmentary and associative. A student teacher describes her own writing like this: "I knew beforehand that I had gained valuable experience from practicum and learned a lot. But I was not aware of what I had learned specifically. By writing and sorting my thoughts I was able to become more aware. This is crucial if the experience is to be of use later on” (Nilssen 2010: 100).

The log writing can help bring together theory and practical experience. For instance, the mentor can include the use of theory in log assignments. In addition, the log writing can contribute to a better communication between mentor and student teacher. The log will help the mentor understand the student teacher's thoughts and reflections. The mentor Sarah describes it like this: "Even though we try to include everyone in the mentoring conversations, some have a tendency to withdraw. That is why the log is important. In their log writing the students tend to express themselves clearer, and we can use what they have written in the mentoring conversations. It is of course a prerequisite that they think it is okay to share logs. The logs often give me as much knowledge about the students as the mentoring conversations. I can see that Irene focuses on herself, she is describing her feelings and experiences. The same is true with Ina. Iver emphasizes his role as a teacher which is new for him. Erik is mostly concerned with small things that have not worked and that will need to be adjusted before the next lesson. Eli says a lot that shows that she sees the students and reflects on her encounter with them” (Nilssen 2010: 103).

Giving feedback on logs[edit]

In order for the log to become a useful tool in the learning process, it seems to be important to give feedback to the student teachers. The feedback can widen the student teacher's perspective. Below are some examples of how a mentor can give feedback on the logs (Nilssen 2010:103):

  • Questions (“You say it is difficult, do you have any thoughts on how to go about it?”)
  • Refer to theory (“This is a good example of...” “You can read more about that...”)
  • Point to other alternatives, other ways of thinking, what do I as a mentor usually do? (“I understand that you find transitions difficult. With these students I find that it helps to...)

The type of feedback will depend on several factors:

  • What is the purpose of the log? Who is the student teacher?
  • How does the group want to use the logs? Is the log accessible for everyone in the group?
  • What kind of feedback will benefit the student teacher?
  • How much time is available for the feedback process?

Some student teachers feel insecure about log writing. The abovementioned factors can therefore be discussed with the mentee in order to get a common understanding of its purpose. To get the most out of log writing it is a good idea to share the logs with fellow students. Online file sharing has made this easier. With shared logs students have a place to get advice and vent frustration, while also having access to a source of professional knowledge and development. With this kind of openness challenges are easier to share and are made less private. On the other hand, some may feel too vulnerable with an open log. A student puts it this way: "I see the advantage in addressing my thoughts through a log, but I find it threatening that others can read about what I feel that I don't master. (...) " (Nilssen 2010: 104). One mentor has let the log sharing be optional: “The logs don't necessarily have to be accessible. With some groups of student teachers I have made it optional. In some cases, if the logs are very personal, I let the communication regarding the log be solely between the student and me. I have for instance a young student who is struggling with reading and writing difficulties, and who because of this has struggled with self-esteem. Our goal was that she in her 2nd year would dare to publish her logs in the online sharing room" (Nilssen 2010: 104).

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