The retention of quality teachers in the South African education system, in which demand continues to outweigh supply, is a key priority.
Among the factors education research has identified as playing a role in the disturbingly high levels of teacher attrition is the perceived lack of professional development opportunities for teachers, who reportedly feel the absence of supportive supervision in their work.
Last week’s Teachers Upfront seminar considered how mentorship and coaching can provide ongoing support to teachers to help them to develop and cope as professionals.
“Novice teachers are daunted when managing their own classrooms,” said Hayley van der Haar of the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty, who opened the seminar by describing the many difficulties that inexperienced teachers face.
She argued that support and guidance over time by a mentor can inspire a “growing independence and confidence as well as the development of a sense of pride, self-confidence and self-reliance” in less experienced teachers.
Legislation requires that schools should assist teachers in this way and “policy states that schools are expected to ensure that there is skills development within their teaching cohorts”, Van der Haar said. But in spite of this, “not many schools have formalised mentoring programmes and the trend is more towards an unplanned version of this”.
Teaching a newcomer
Outlining the ideal mentoring process, Van der Haar said that, if it is to be successful, it “must be structured, sustainable and change the methods used by teachers in the classroom”. Mentors themselves must be experts with experience in the field – they must act as “guide[s] in the teaching career of a newcomer”.
She said that a successful mentor is a change agent and role model who can assist in transforming other, less experienced teachers into effective and functioning professionals. But, for this to happen, the system at all levels needs to embrace the relevance of mentorship support.
Van der Haar called on the basic education department to formalise mentorship support and to “empower teachers with mentoring skills and offer incentive programmes and make them feel they have a lot to offer young teachers”. This would be a way of enhancing the value and retention of teachers.
She also called on experienced teachers to share knowledge with new teachers, to make time for collaborative engagement and to prioritise developmental learning experiences. And she urged new teachers not to wait for help but instead to “get principals to structure programmes that empower teachers and to get into these programmes so they can start feeling more valued”.
Lesley Masterson of the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education focused on coaching, which is “generally about developing specific skills, whereas mentoring is more about the development of the whole person, although in practice the two processes often overlap”, she said.
She described a case study of a Gauteng-based literacy project in which teachers, rather than undergoing direct training in large numbers, worked closely as individuals and in small groups with expert coaches and focused on acquiring new teaching practices. Teachers in the project were helped to develop strategies for literacy teaching and the benefits of the coaching they received included promoting “a sense of collegiality, co-operation and teamwork among the teachers and improved accountability, as well as a sense of empowerment and affirmation of their professional identity”.
For coaches there were many benefits too, but Masterson emphasised that they must be sufficiently know-ledgeable and have adequate skills to ensure sustained impact.
“If the coach and teacher have insufficient knowledge of the theoretical underpinnings of teaching strategies, change is less likely to be permanent,” she said.
She underlined the importance of the coaching relationship, which “involves establishing rapport, building trust and providing useful suggestions rather than evaluating or judging teachers’ performances”.
Like Van der Haar, Masterson stressed the importance of a supportive schooling environment, saying: “Coaching works best where the structures of the school support the coaching relationship.” Here, the school leadership’s support of these interventions is critical – coaching is “difficult to do without that”.
Tim Maneswa of the Gauteng Primary Literacy and Mathematics Strategy is a coach. He made a case for using mentorship and coaching not only with inexperienced teachers but also established ones. He supported his argument by outlining the formidable range of hurdles teachers routinely face: they have “to deal with an ever-changing curriculum, quicksand policies, underresourced circumstances, undersupportive or blatantly unsupportive management, unco-operative peers and workmates, unruly learners, tons of documentation and personal inadequacy to deliver the subject content”.
“Too many of our teachers are emotionally resigned,” Maneswa said, and “even our good teachers are becoming tired and demotivated”. In this context, “a mentor or coach can be an invaluable aide, helping to ease the pressure in terms of planning, methodology and management” and, importantly, to “change the mind-set of teachers”.
The Gauteng Primary Literacy and Mathematics Strategy has made the province’s teachers more confident, raised their morale, increased their understanding of subject matter and developed their resource management skills.
Maneswa has seen the benefits in his coaching work: “I can confidently say that I changed attitudes. I changed perceptions. I changed mind-sets.” The positive impact on pupils’ results is testament to the power of effective coaching and mentoring, he said.
In the discussion that followed, audience members suggested the need for an online space in which teachers can share best practice skills and emphasised the need for universities to prepare student teachers to be mentors.
They also pointed to the difficulties of effective mentorship and coaching in a system in which teachers are overloaded and busy, and have little time for anything beyond the daily demands of their work.
Can teachers be mentored or coached in a formalised, ongoing and structured way in a setting like that? It may just be the case that they can’t afford not to be.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive of the Bridge education network. The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education