Newly graduated educators can face a daunting experience, navigating the complex ‘mini-world’ of a new workplace. Sally Burt, a recent teaching graduate and participant in the ACECQA Early Career Educators Program, writes about two key survival strategies for new educators to support this journey into the profession – teamwork and mentoring. Both strategies can be highly effective in supporting graduates as they transition into the workforce and ‘become educators’.
Educators are undoubtedly the greatest asset to quality education and care services. A highly qualified children’s education and care workforce is one of the most powerful influences on positive outcomes for children and quality early learning programs and environments. Stability and continuity of educators is also essential to quality practice and the profession as a whole. It makes great sense to ensure educators, particularly those new to the sector, are well supported and have maximum opportunity to be their professional best.
Be part of your workplace team
Most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.
– Sir Ken Robinson
Education and care services are diverse and complex workplaces that have people and relationships at their core and outcomes for children as their goal. The building and leading of a team to achieve this is usually the responsibility of the educational leader, manager or director. However, successful teams are comprised of individuals who are effective and engaged team members. This is particularly important in the context of a distributed or shared leadership approach where leadership is collaborative and responsibility is collective.
Participation in an effective workplace team has a number of well-known benefits, such as increasing efficiency, creating a positive culture and collaboratively solving problems. As a result, work environments are often more effective, harmonious and respectful. For new educators, teamwork has significant benefits both professionally and personally. These include:
- enhancing a sense of belonging
- providing social support
- increasing commitment and job satisfaction
- improving communication with colleagues
- supporting professional development, through sharing and learning from others
- boosting self-esteem and morale
- reducing stress and burn-out
- cultivating shared understandings and goals
- developing ‘ownership’ of the direction of a service.
Contributing to the team
Your individual contribution to a team is unique. Every educator has their own strengths, skills, experiences, capabilities, values and beliefs. This diversity can greatly enrich the team as a whole. Effective leaders use a strengths-based approach to build and develop teams. New educators are, therefore, encouraged to embrace their capability and to feel confident in contributing. A fresh perspective, contemporary knowledge from recent study, and enthusiasm are just a few of the specific strengths of new educators.
Skills in being an effective team member should also be cultivated. Communicating effectively, being open to the perspectives of others, active listening, demonstrating respect, having cultural awareness and being flexible will all assist you to engage with your team. Participating in team-building activities will also be helpful. Suggesting innovative team building ideas will demonstrate your personal commitment.
Start a relationship with a mentor
Mentoring is a key survival guide strategy for new educators, supporting the transition to the workforce and enhancing job satisfaction, commitment and retention. Mentoring can boost teacher confidence and improve teaching expertise. Mentoring is also a highly effective leadership development strategy, increasing the leadership capacity of services. It supports the professional growth and development of all educators, as well as promoting outcomes for children by reinforcing Quality Areas 1, 4 and 7 of the National Quality Standard (NQS).
What is mentoring?
Mentoring is fundamentally a learning relationship that supports, strengthens and develops professional practice. Traditionally, mentoring is a one-to-one learning relationship between a novice (the mentee) and a more experienced practitioner (the mentor). Mentors guide, support, provide feedback and develop the goal-setting and critical reflection of their mentee.
How do I find a mentor?
When looking for a mentor, consider people both inside and outside your workplace. A mentor is ideally not a line supervisor, as a hierarchical relationship may not be a supportive environment for a mentee to be reflective. Ask your educational leader, manager or director for advice, as they will likely have some suggestions and contacts.
Potential mentors can be:
- the educational leader (if not a line supervisor)
- an educator working within another room at the setting or another setting of the same organisation
- a previous university or vocational training supervisor, mentor or lecturer
- an educator assisting with evidence-gathering for teacher registration
- an educator met through an educator network.
The mentoring process
Mentoring generally involves distinct phases:
- Getting to know each other.
- Goal setting and action planning.
- Developing professional skills and tracking progress.
- Evaluating progress and outcomes.
- Moving forward – either completing the process, or returning to Step 2 to repeat the cycle.
Goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. Goal setting and action planning should, ideally, be initially scaffolded by the mentor, but evolve to be intentional and self-directed by the mentee. A useful model for structuring goal setting and action planning is the GROW Model.
Five mentoring best-practice tips
- Remember, mentoring is a relationship.
Relationships require commitment and effort. Mentees and mentors must be interested and willingly committed to the mentoring process and the building of a learning relationship. Positive intent, trust, honesty, respect and responsibilities are inherent. If a successful relationship is not formed, alternative mentee-mentor pairing may be appropriate.
- Communication is key.
Effective communication underpins successful mentoring. Mentors will ideally have training and skills in communication, however, mentees may require support and guidance in some important communication skills:
- active listening
- open, reflective questioning
- probing and paraphrasing
- reflective conversation
- evidence-informed conversation
- goal setting
- clear and shared understanding of roles, responsibilities and expectations
- explicit, constructive exchange of feedback
- negotiation and debate
- non-verbal language recognition
- cultural awareness.
- Leadership and positive organisation culture enable mentoring.
Mentoring requires time for regular dialogue and relationship building. As education and care settings are time-challenged, quality mentoring time needs to be scheduled. Scheduling requires a positive organisational culture and leadership to facilitate resource management such as staff coverage. One of the most powerful enablers for mentoring best-practice is a supportive workplace that values professional development.
- Mentor dispositions matter.
Mentors need training, however, disposition is also important. Ideally, your mentor has:
- interest in lifelong learning
- empathy and understanding
- interpersonal skills
- professional confidence
- genuine interest in mentoring and nurturing others
- emotional intelligence.
- Be open to the learning journey.
Mentoring requires choice and some bravery, on the part of the mentee, to start a relationship and open their practice to review, dialogue and development. Being open to the possibility of this learning journey will provide a positive foundation on which to build the relationship. Mentors are, likewise, encouraged to be open to share the contents of their ‘professional toolbox’ and join their mentee on the journey. Mentoring provides an opportunity for inspiration, growth and professional renewal for both mentee and mentor.
Transitioning into a new workplace and becoming an educator is a journey of discovery and challenges that all graduates face. Teamwork and mentoring are two strategies that can effectively support this transition and, importantly, equip new educators with lifelong skills and practices to be their professional best.
Further reading and resources
Australian Institute of School Teaching and Leadership – Professional conversations
Community Child Care Victoria – Building a winning team
Early Childhood Development Agency – Mentoring Matters: A practical guide to learning focused relationships
Education Council New Zealand – Triangulated mentoring conversations
Murphy, C. and Thornton, K. (2015) Mentoring in Early Childhood Education, NZCER Press, Wellington, New Zealand.