Facilitating mentoring relationships in an early childhood setting
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Sector.
The National Quality Standards (NQS),specifically Quality Area 7: Governance and Leadership, recognise the importance of services having a commitment to continuous improvement, quality, and the professional development of educators within the service. Here, early childhood teacher and educational leader, Sarah Riddell, outlines a collective approach to mentoring that aims to drive quality within individual staff and a centre as a whole.
Alongside this increasing commitment to quality within early education services, it is becoming more relevant that providers consider the facilitation of practical mentoring programs for their educators to ensure the NQS are met. This drive toward quality reforms is made all the more significant when 44 per cent of services failed to meet key elements of all seven quality areas when the National Quality Framework (NQF) was initially rolled out.
The NQS recognises the commitment to continuous improvement within Quality Area 7, and with this has come a recognition that the development of professionals directly impacts the performance outcomes of a service as they strive toward high-quality education opportunities for children.
A solution can be found through a two-part system which utilises both the educational leader and the room leaders – who are guiding the day-to-day operations of a room – delivering a combination of developmental mentoring, and real-time mentoring.
This dual-focus solution is cost effective and distributes the workload that comes with supporting multiple staff and their individual professional development. This commitment to establishing a community of learners would be embedded within the services leadership pedagogy and underpins the idea that leadership is as much about community influence as it is about instructional practices.
Developmental mentoring is the first layer of the system and is used in conjunction with, or can replace, the appraisal systems used to evaluate individual staff performance. During the developmental mentoring process the educational leader makes time to engage with individual educators to set goals relating to their current professional needs or barriers, specialist interests, or sets strategies to enhance knowledge and practice related to individual roles and responsibilities.
In my experiences as an educational leader within a long day care service, I worked with 10 to 14 educators with an age span between 17 and 60 years old. The demographics of this group included educators who identified themselves as Aboriginal, in addition to those from a variety of socio-cultural backgrounds. The disparity between qualifications spanned from trainees to university-trained teachers, and as a result the approaches to mentoring needed to be unique and tailored to the individual.
When I commence a developmental mentoring relationship with an educator, I ensure sessions are guided by an agenda and form a part of an educators ongoing developmental plan. Working together with the educator, we reverse engineer their ultimate goal, working backwards to identify micro-goals or progression benchmarks their processes, starting with their goal and working backwards to identify micro-goals or progression benchmarks. When a goal is reached, a new goal is set and the layer commences again.
Some successful techniques that I have used to commence the developmental mentoring environment include:
- A range of flexible meeting arrangements – face-to-face, Skype, emails, phone calls – which cater to the varying availability of educators and the constraints of a typical day within the service
- Tackling any fears, problems, or worries to mentoring early – writing down all of the things that may present a barrier for the mentee to feel safe within the relationship and explore these collaboratively – this is important because some individuals may be intimidated by the idea of mentoring, seeing the mentor as the ‘expert’ from whom they will learn from through instruction on practice and principle – rather than a relationship where their personal growth is fostered with careful guidance. Eliminate the misconceptions early.
- An initial session that is devoted to defining what our mentoring relationship will look like – identifying the learning style of the mentee, the most effective contact methods between sessions, how will relapses or regressions be managed, how will confidentiality be maintained – these aspects all form to set the foundation of a respectful learning environment.
- Making meaningful connections to the service’s Quality Improvement Plan and how the mentee’s developmental plan will actively influence the service’s commitment to quality improvement.
Real-time mentoring is the second layer of the system which sees the influence of both the educational leader and room leaders working collaboratively to guide educators in meeting their micro-goals.
As a room leader commencing a real-time mentoring relationship, I would ensure I made time to examine the strategies set in the mentee’s developmental plan and if necessary meet with the educational leader for guidance on how to implement these in daily practice. It is important that the mentee feels a sense of community learning and connectedness between themselves, the educational leader, and room leader.
Some successful techniques I have found to be effective when establishing a real-time mentoring relationship are:
- Making deliberate identifications to daily practices, observations or concepts that are relevant to their developmental plan by making real-time links between theory and practice, allowing educators to gain deeper understandings on the goals they are working towards.
- Make time to reconnect after you point things out – it is one thing to point out that a baby was experimenting with schemas, which may have been significant to an educators learning on infant education, but you need to follow this up with a reflective conversation on what that actually means at a time that is less busy and constrained. Sleep times are often a universal time for many services to facilitate this practice.
- Provide prompts for educators when they are participating in routines and tasks – by making clear links to their developmental plan, room leaders can give realistic ideas on how to complete and engage in tasks that will enhance the educators skills in a practical sense. These can then transfer to other contexts if required.
- Lead by example – by demonstrating how things are done in daily practice, all of the time, educators get a feel for how they should operate.
- Embrace the difficult conversations – it is tricky to approach a colleague and challenge their practice or principles in a respectful way. This is a skill that comes with knowing your team members, but it can be done when you have made a commitment to reconnect at appropriate times. When you have these reflection times try using phrases like:
‘I noticed this morning that….’
‘Tell me about how that situation made you feel?’
‘Where do you think our philosophy fits within this scenario?’
‘What do you think the child was thinking/feeling?’
‘Do you have ideas on what may have contributed to this event?’
- Set some flexible contact methods between yourself and the educational leader – this allows you to reflect on your role in mentoring in the real-time perspective and then identifies any areas for deeper learning for the educational leader to manage in developmental mentoring sessions. The educational leader has an influential role here in providing ideas to room leaders on ways to support, provoke and draw attention to elements within the room’s operations that are significant.
During this dual-mentoring process, it is important that all necessary documentation is filed in a way that allows access to relevant stakeholders. With this documentation approved providers for instance, would be able to monitor their services’ operations and progress towards their QIP, and can make informed decisions on key performance indicators (KPIs). Additionally, the NQS states that development and performance of all educators needs to be regularly reviewed, and whilst there are some variances in state and territory laws and regulations, the accountability needs to be there.
One way to facilitate this documentation is through a remote and accessible system, such as a word processed document with ‘track changes’ settings activated. Using a system such as this allows the individual educator, room leaders and the educational leader to all contribute freely to progress notes.
Alternatively, there are numerous journals or books on the market that make this documentation process more simple. Collectively, this documentation can then be used to inform business decisions on specific training needs within a service; can influence organisational structures to better support educator development; and, can be used to guide recruitment processes.
For services to facilitate mentoring, a change in the way in which professional development is viewed is required. I believe this can only come when we invest in educational mentoring for early childhood professionals within a dynamic and contextual teaching community.
To make this change, teams require:
- An educational leader (EL) with mentoring experience or understanding – this can be through recruitment or through financing training opportunities for your current EL to access this training externally.
- Room leaders with an understanding of mentoring – this can be taught via external training or in-house training by the EL.
- Additional release time that differs from typical programming and planning time:
- Financing or organising structured release time for mentoring leaders to co-ordinate mentoring sessions – this should occur on a regular basis, preferably monthly.
- Financing or organising structured release time for the EL to meet with mentees – preferably monthly or bimonthly.
- Finance opportunities for leaders (mentors) to develop skills required for mentoring – this includes organisational skills, time management, and relevant IT skills.
Placing developmental and real-time mentoring at the centre of leadership directives in the service makes a difference, not only for individual educators, but for the quality of the service as a whole, and enables best practice to shine. Outcomes for children are enhanced when educators, service leaders, managers, owners and other stakeholders use a collaborative approach to developing the members of their team.