Edgar Degas, The Dance Class, 1874. Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Reaping the Benefits of Mentoring and Peer Observation
When using the term “professional development” we usually think of participation in conferences, seminars, or workshops outside the school. However, professional development that occurs in the school setting through discussions with colleagues, personal reading and research, lesson observations, or learning from peers (Mizzel, 2010) can be even more effective. In recent years, there has been a growing interest in school-based approaches to professional development as these are usually more sensitive to the context in which teachers work (Svendsen & Marion, 2013).
Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt, Anatomy lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer, oil on canvas, 1617 (Museum Het Prinsenhof)
School-based professional development approaches provide an opportunity for teachers to focus more on the needs of their students and as a result they lead to better student performance. This kind of professional development helps to create a culture of learning throughout the whole school. Teachers and school leaders who develop their competences on a regular basis demonstrate to students that learning matters and that school is a place where both students and teachers learn. My personal experience of professional development within my school context revolves around the idea of collaboration and the importance of nurturing values and competencies that go beyond the acquisition of facts or transmission of academic knowledge. If as educators we preach and stand up for active citizenship with all that it encompasses , we have to model a professionally active lifestyle at school, one in which we involve ourselves in projects with our learners, one in which we embark on active research, one in which we collaborate with our peers while allowing learners to see that we are working and creating meaning together.
“The experience developed my understanding of the teaching and learning process further than ever before.”
For the past months I have also been engaged in a mentoring course at the University of Malta. This was the first course of its kind and aimed to bridge the gap that exists between teacher trainers, teachers, schools and student teachers. For the first time, student teachers were being supported by a professional teacher whose only task was to act as a safety net and prevent potential pitfalls. As a trainee mentor, I was asked to support a student teacher throughout her first experience in the classroom without being in any way involved in her assessment process. In so doing, together with the student teacher, I embarked on an intensive learning journey that highlighted mentoring as a dynamic process in which as a mentor I probably gained as much as my mentee. The experience developed my understanding of the teaching and learning process further than ever before but it also highlighted the importance of developing a professional learning community of educators within the school. Mentoring could very well be the first step towards establishing the school as a professional learning community, in which educators model the professionally active lifestyle they wish to develop in their own learners. Peer observation and feedback could be a next step!
The idea of having teachers observing other teachers was suggested, encouraged and eventually started at our school some two years ago. I was enthusiastic about it, went for it and quickly experienced the benefits that could be derived from the experience. How much time do we, as teachers, spend surfing the internet looking for resources, looking for an inspiring idea that could help us plan our lesson, improve our pedagogy? What some of us still don’t get is that alternative resources, inspiration and the opportunity of ongoing professional development are probably within a few steps in the classroom next door. Many teachers are still reluctant to have a peer teacher observing them mainly due to lack of trust and professional maturity. Yet, it is essential that as educators, we learn to distinguish between the personal and the professional and work on creating a climate in which we , reflect on our practices, are open to professional feedback from peers and as a learning community, we strive to improve in the interest of our learners. In spite of the evidence, some teachers are still sceptical but I am optimistic that the culture of peer observation and supportive feedback will eventually gain ground.
Key to both mentoring and peer observation, is a healthy dialogue. I believe that constructive dialogue is the basis of any relationship. It is what constitutes meaningful communication and thus needs to be cultivated and delicately cared for. The moment dialogue is neglected or is in some way undermined by misinterpretations and/or the inability of the parties involved to get the message through clearly and supportively, the whole relationship suffers. A mentor-mentee or peer-to-peer relationship is no exception and in our schools we need to build a culture of trust wherein everyone feels safe to discuss issues and concerns, wherein everyone feels he is part of a supportive team.
Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson, 1665. Royal Collection, Great Britain
Here comes a call for people who are in leadership positions – they have the onus to create an environment in which members of staff can work on becoming a team. Professional development sessions in my school regularly feature teambuilding tasks that are a hub for informal interaction and social liaising. While at face value they may seem to be a waste of time, these are perhaps the moments that are most cherished by stakeholders. A strong social rapport with your mentee or colleague is of utmost importance to ensure a healthy dialogue, one that is ongoing and that is beneficial for both.
The fact that student teachers are being exposed to mentoring in their initial teaching experiences will definitely leave a positive impact on the way they perceive peer collaboration. Working as a team is not about swapping teaching resources to ease the burden, or superficially and hastily discussing pertinent issues over a cup of coffee during break time. Collaboration goes further than that. It is about trust, empathising, exploring and building together. I believe new cohorts of teachers who refuse to compete and instead favour cooperation and joint exploration have the power to start and maintain a more meaningful collaborative environment in our schools.
Svendsen B and Marion M V 2013 A schoolbased professional development programme for science teachers: participants’ reports on perceived impact over time Proc. ESERA (Nicosia, Cyprus, 2–7 September 2013)
About the author
Primary School Teacher and Mentor
Jason Inguanez is a teacher and mentor at Zabbar Primary B, Malta. He strongly believes that relationships pave the way to intrinsically motivated and active learners. He was a participant in the Pestalozzi Programme Summer School of the Council of Europe entitled ‘Pedagogy makes a Difference’ in 2015 and he deems this to have been a life changing experience on both a professional and personal level. The summer school was a hub for reflection and sharing of ideas.
It made me review my role as an educator and look at schooling as a more humane experience, one that moves away from a race for academic results and certificates to one that models values such as active citizenship, democracy and empathy.
Jason has just recently become a teacher mentor. He believes it is a responsibility of seasoned educators to ensure that younger colleagues receive the adequate support to embark on their teaching journey. He also sees mentoring as an great opportunity for ongoing professional development at school level and a stable platform where teachers may develop and strengthen their rapport with each other.