Things I learnt during seven years of a (part-time) PhD

Seven thoughts from seven years in seven minutes - by Dr Jo Gakonga!
The topic of my thesis was mentor development but I think that these things really apply to teacher development too. Want to know what they are? Keep listening.

I studied (part-time) for my PhD for seven years. That’s a long time….but I think that I can distil the fundamentals of what I learnt into seven things in seven minutes. The topic of my thesis was mentor development but I think that these things really apply to teacher development, too. Want to know what they are? Keep listening.

I’m Jo Gakonga from ELT-Training. I make online teacher training material and my PhD was all about a programme that I devised to help teachers develop their skills as mentors. If you want to know more about it, you can check out Mentoring Resources on my site (it’s free and the link is below) but here’s a whistlestop tour to whet your appetite. Are you ready?

1. In at number one- I found that an effective way for mentors to develop their skills is to put them in a practical situation where they can actually mentor someone in an authentic way and reflect on what they’re doing- Lave and Wenger call this Legitimate Peripheral Participation and it’s very powerful. In my study, I got experienced teachers doing an MA TESOL to mentor other students on the same course who hadn’t taught before and record themselves doing it- this brings me on to point number 2

2. Reflection is more effective when it’s evidence based, and collaborative. This means that you can’t just look back and try to remember what you did or said- you need to actually record it (video or just audio) and listen back to it or even transcribe it (maybe with and then ideally talk about this with other people in a group. The work that really resonated with me and started me thinking about this this was Mann and Walsh’s ‘RP or RIP’.

3. Point number 3- I think that you can see the aspects of mentoring as a triangle of emotional support, support with ideas/ resources and support with reflection. These are all important and there’s overlap between them but what’s interesting is that the issues that arose for mentors on my programme and the mentors I read about in the literature, seem to stem from two tensions between these elements.

4. The first tension- I put emotional support at the top of the triangle because I think that without a rapport with the person you’re trying to mentor, you won’t be able to help them at all, but the first tension I saw was between this- being a supportive ‘friend’- an ally to your mentee- and the bottom end of the triangle-having a ‘teaching’ role. This is particularly a potential problem when the mentor has an assessing role as well as a supporting one (think of a CELTA tutor or a cooperating teacher in a school practicum) but even in the case of my study where there was no evaluation involved, this problem often reared its ugly head. The usual issue was that the ‘teaching’ role could easily get in the way of the ‘supportive role and there’s lots of evidence in the literature of this, too I found Hobson and Malderez’ work on what they call ‘Judgementoring’ interesting here. I guess that there’s also a potential problem where the mentor is only supportive and doesn’t actually help very much in any pedagogic way but I didn’t see this in my data.

5. The second tension -and this is a BIG one- the issue that was most problematic for the mentors in my study and something that comes up again and again in the literature, is getting the balance right between facilitating reflection and giving advice- between asking and telling- between allowing someone to find their own path or showing them yours. Getting this right is a real skill. Every situation is different- if you are mentoring someone with little experience, then practical tips are going to be really helpful and there ARE some aspects of teaching that seem more helpful than others. If time is short, telling is quicker than eliciting, too- BUT just as with any teaching, if you just talk AT someone, you have no idea whether or not they’ve understood and you’re not allowing them the chance to find answers for themselves that will work for them. Feiman Nemser’s work on ‘educative mentoring’ was really influential to me on this one and she reports on an expert mentor who says there’s 'A central tension between encouraging personal expression and maintaining professional accountability’ (2001 p.20).

I also love this quote from Ravitch and Worth on the same theme. They say that you have to ‘navigate the practical and ideological spaces between facilitating change and not imposing beliefs and values’. (Ravitch & Wirth, 2007)

6. Following on from the last point, the big problem for my mentors was that they dominated the conversation. They wanted to help, they wanted to give advice and they didn’t give their mentees a chance to contribute. Because of this the thing they really found useful was to be aware of not talking so much – listening more and allowing mentees to talk- and a big part of that was developing the skill of asking good questions. Preparing those questions. Open, helpful questions that pointed the way -opened up a particular aspect, but allowed for a conversation about it. Another technique that often worked well when they were giving feedback on a lesson was playing back parts of a video recording of that lesson so that the mentee could see the issue more clearly for themselves. Baecher’s work on Stimulated Video Recall helped here.

7. Finally, point number seven and I’m nearly done (and running out of time!). I became more and more aware over time (and I started from this point anyway, really) that there is no one right way to be a mentor- no ‘Best Practice’ just like there’s no one right way to be a teacher. Prabhu’s paper (There is No Best Method) is really eloquent on this and I also loved Fanselow’s quote (1988) that giving advice on what to do in any given situation implies that ‘one set of practices is consistently superior to another, [and] that we know what needs to be done in each distinct setting’ (Fanselow, 1988, p. 127). I think you’d agree that this is rarely if ever true. What I DO think is that learning about different aspects of mentoring gives you a range of tools to choose from -gives you options- so that you can choose ways of mentoring that are appropriate to you, to your mentee and to the environment you’re working in.

So that’s it- I think I just about stayed within the time and I hope that some of these ideas resonate with you and give you a bit of food for thought.

Baecher, L., & McCormack, B. (2015). The impact of video review on supervisory conferencing. Language and Education, 29(2), 153–173.

Fanselow, J. F. (1988). “Let’s See”: Contrasting Conversations About Teaching. In TESOL Quarterly, 22(1), 113-130.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). Helping Novices Learn to Teach: Lessons from an Exemplary Support Teacher. Journal Of Teacher Education, 52(1), 17-30.

Hobson, A. J., & Malderez, A. (2013). Judgementoring and other threats to realizing the potential of school-based mentoring in teacher education. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, 2(2), 89–108.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

Mann, S., & Walsh, S. (2013). RP or “RIP”: A critical perspective on reflective practice. Applied Linguistics Review, 4(2), 291–315.

Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There Is No Best Method-Why? TESOL Quarterly, 24(2), 161
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