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Review of Mentor Development in the Education of Modern Language Teachers
Gray, Carol (2001) Mentor Development in the Education of Modern Language Teachers. Multilingual Matters, vi+234pp, paperback ISBN 1-85359-551-9, US$19.95, Modern Languages in Practice, Volume 18
Nadia Economou, Institute for Language and Speech Processing
There have been quite a few books on mentors in the last decade or so, written either by university tutors or teacher mentors themselves; they range from theoretical treatises to more practical handbooks. A lot of them are addressing exclusively the topic of mentoring in the education of modern language teachers; the book Mentor Development in the Education of Modern Language Teachers falls within this category. It is written by a university tutor having almost a decade of experience in this post at the University of Birmingham.
Introduction: or Why Another Book on Mentoring In the introductory chapter, Gray attempts to convince the readers that they need another book on mentoring, not written by a teacher mentor. Starting with the second observation, it is obvious that teacher mentors share with the teacher students the experience of working in the schools, facing the same interests and problems. However, the quality of support and guidance they provide their students with depends upon the universities responsible for training. As the author suggests, "Higher education tutors on England therefore have a very deep personal as well as professional interest in understanding and improving school-based mentoring for the student teachers whom they recruit" (p. 2). As for the first question, why another book on mentoring, the author invokes her experience in the post, her work in the university and its partner schools as well as her involvement in workshops and relevant postgraduate degrees. The introductory chapter continues with an overview of the book and some terminological clarifications.
Part I. The Context 1.1. A Local and National Context with International Implications The author observes that education has recently become a political instrument; governments all over the world seek to exercise more and more control upon teacher and student education. Within this highly complicated context, we need to answer the following questions: -What do teachers need to know? -How can they best learn what they need to know? -Where can they best learn what they need to know? (p. 12) The answer is hidden somewhere between "theory" and "practice", the first usually associated with university training and the second with dealing with the perplexities of school life. One way to restore the balance is to recruit mentors, busy school teachers who take up the responsibility of teacher training in schools. A "bad" mentor can lead a student teacher to failure, the same way a pupil fails a language exam because of a "bad" teacher. The demanding role of a teacher mentor affiliated with a college or university is the result of recent reforms of the English, Welsh and Scottish education systems. Gray describes a situation of important governmental intervention in teacher training leading to discrepancies among teachers within the U.K, fragile relationships between schools and universities and ... chaos! From this chaos emerges the mentor. Seeking an answer to the question "what is mentoring?" based on his/her classroom expertise and contextual knowledge. S/he has to negotiate his/her responsibilities with the university tutor and his/her student teachers at the same time.
2.2. Proving Feedback This chapter seeks to explore issues concerning the goal of educators of language teachers. The author cites the official criteria or standards for the qualified teachers; these are regularly revised and rewritten so as to become manageable course aims for student teachers entering the field and mentors. As far as modern language learning is concerned, according to the National Curriculum, prospect teachers need to develop certain types of methodology based on a communicative approach; pupils are expected to avoid using English as far as possible and respond in the target language instead. Being a good language teacher, however, seems to extend beyond methodology stated in the official documents; the "good" teacher is effective, collects the merits of different teaching styles, takes into consideration the circumstances involved, produces good outcomes, is imaginative, uses explanation and example, interacts well with the pupils etc. etc. etc. Moving on to language teachers, Gray offers a list of qualifications deriving from workshops with mentors; the list comprises cultural knowledge, language expertise, classroom behaviour and personality characteristics. It is followed by a list of factors-reasons for student teachers failing their university course; in other words, characteristics of "bad" teachers. Most teachers share characteristics of the two lists and one way of becoming a good teacher is reaching sufficient understanding of the complexity of teaching.
1.3. Learning to Be a Language Teacher Understanding the learning process is the first step towards learning to be a teacher. Student teachers describe their experience as "shocking", if not "devastating". The first part of the process is certainly theory. It tends to be interpreted as lectures upon unrealistic theories of teaching and learning given by academics and researchers. Theory is wrongly opposed to practice; according to Gray, "Theory is not a contrast to practice: it is the result of the thinking of many committed minds about that practice and in its personal interpretation is the fundamental basis for individual practice. It is, therefore, relative and personal ... " (p. 44). Pure theorising will not help student teachers to develop their practical skills; this means acquiring strategies and tips together with understanding and judgement about when and how to employ them. Mentors in schools can work towards filling in the gap between theory and practice; they need to deal with everyday practicalities of the teaching situation and help their students develop theoretical understandings at the same time. To achieve this blending of theory and practice, the student teachers need a flexible programme that provides them with practical solutions and deals with emergency situations, as well as discussion of the rationale behind them when the programme allows them. Theory and practice should formulate a circle within which the student teacher becomes an independent learner.
1.4. The Intuitively Theoretical Mentor In this chapter, Gray delineates the role of mentors in schools; among other things, mentors are expected to observe student teachers in their classes, negotiate their priorities and practice, discuss aspects of their teaching and, last but not least, assess their progress against established criteria. Counselling skills, sensitivity and empathy are some of the qualities of a good mentor. Gray provides quite extensive quotations of different authors in order to draw the portrait of a school mentor. After all, as she explains herself on p. 59, the rest of the book is devoted to illustrate with examples the theoretical points made in the first part of the book. Contrary to teachers working with school-age pupils, mentors are dealing with adults, with establishes personalities and preconceived ideas about what teaching is; part of their job is to help them to stand on their own feet, think for themselves and react to real situations. Modern language teaching, in particular, requires that the student learners are sensitised to cultural issues, different customs and ways of thinking. The chapter ends with a list of the tasks of the mentor.
Part 2: Developing Pedagogical Content Knowledge in Mentoring Moving from theory to practice, Parts 2 and 3 discuss cases serving as examples of modern language mentoring. Part 2 derives from the experience of mentors working within the University of Birmingham PGCE Partnership.
2.1. Keeping Pace with Development Through the Weekly Meetings by Dave Jenkins Jenkins discusses the importance of the weekly meetings between the student teacher and the mentor. The official meetings are an opportunity for the participants to review classes and prepare for the following week. Points raised in this chapter are the importance of collaborative teaching, lesson planning, supervised teaching etc.
2.2. Providing Feedback by Dave Jenkins This chapter is a case study of a particular student teacher working with the mentor for a year, concentrating on the issue of setting targets and providing feedback. The author provides examples of his notes from his observations and the issues emerging for discussion in the weekly meetings. The student teacher is praised and, at the same time, guided towards future action, supported and challenged if necessary. Alternative styles of feedback and their effectiveness are also discussed.
2.3. Towards Departmental Consistency of Good Practice in Observing Student Teacher Lessons by Elaine Salmon Being the head of the Department, the author had to deal with inconsistencies of approaches to observation and feedback; the chapter discusses the procedures followed, like having meetings, developing a programme to be covered with the mentor week by week, deciding on the style of observation and feedback. Examples of four teachers are presented in some length. The author concludes by stating the importance of setting targets in order to improve current practice.
2.4. Focusing on the Learner by Inge Johnson The author maintains that what is really important is what pupils learn rather than how teachers perform; student teachers, however, are so involved with their "performance" that they cannot distance themselves enough and focus on the performance of their pupils. In this chapter, the author outlines a project that s/he has undertaken in collaboration with the student teachers to shift their focus towards pupils' learning. Video recordings were collected and discussed in an attempt to make the student teacher an observer of his/her own, his/her fellow students' and mentors' practice.
2.5. Good Teachers Can Wear Turquoise Socks or When Good Mentoring in Simply Not Enough by Carmen D'Arcy This chapter illustrates the example of a case of failure on the part of a mentor to work with a student teacher. The author describes her indignation and distress that her attempts to inspire responsibility to a mentee were deemed to failure. This example illustrates the point that a good teacher may not be born "good", but there are times that a bad teacher is born "bad".
Part 3: Mentors in Action The focus of Part 3 is once again on the role of mentoring and the ways mentors understand it. It is based upon interviews with mentors and student teachers on their relationships; the transcripts were collected during the Spring Terms of 1996 and 1997 by the Research Teach of the University of Birmingham.
3.1. Reassuring the Student Teacher That Everyone Experiences Difficulties >From the case discussed in this chapter emerges a reactive approach of the mentor to the student teacher's development; the latter is preoccupied more with managing the behaviour of the class and collecting homework than with the quality of the pupils' learning. The chapter concludes that in this case, it is the mentor who needs guidance so as to become more proactive in his/her attitude towards the student teacher.
3.2. Being There In this chapter, the author critically presents the case of a mentor who is supportive and encouraging but pays little attention to the "why" questions; in other words, he is not concerned with the reasoning behind his student teachers' teaching strategies before challenging and redirecting them.
3.3. Reflective Practice and Collaboration The main issue emerging from the case discussed is the way a mentor can handle the needs of two student teachers at the same time. Being two personalities with different abilities and needs, they understand, appreciate and benefit from the feedback in different ways.
3.4. Probing Theories in Practice In a similar to the above case, the mentor decided to hold separate meetings to cope with two students who, although faced with similar experiences, have different perceptions of the situation.
3.5. A Tutor in Action Another case of a mentor probing student teachers' thought processes and challenging their reasoning.
Part 4: Towards a Better Future? 4.1. Towards a Better Future? As the Minister for Schools, E. Morris pointed out in 1997, the problem with the National Curriculum is that it looks very dry (p. 213). This is true for all official documents delineating policies; they cannot dictate or incorporate in them the need for personal development and fulfillment are expected of the good educators. In the final chapter of her book, Gray develops further her point made in the introduction; what the system needs is good educators (educated educators) and not just trained trainers.
Overall, the book is about improving modern language teaching within the English education system. As it emerges from the first part of the book, it seems that recent reforms brought confusion about the role of Universities and school based mentors undertaking the preparation and guidance of student teachers. As a result, all parties involved need to negotiate their status and obligations. The target group of the book is mentors; this is evident in the final section of each chapter entitled "Thinking About Your Own Practice" where the author makes suggestions or provides questions to guide readers to reflect upon their own practice. Through the pages of this book, the readers can look for examples of good practice, mistakes to avoid, speculations, issues for discussion. Some of the chapters in Part 2 are too anecdotal; they could have been omitted without feeling as readers that we've missed something important. Having another book on the same topic ("mentoring") is not of course a breakthrough to theory; the practical sections are more enlightening and enjoyable (especially Part 3). Finally, I do not share the opinion that the English (not even British) education setting can have important global implications. Modern language teaching and teacher training are so dependent upon governmental policies, local and cultural particularities that any suggestions made can serve more as prompts for reflection than direct guidance for those working in different settings.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Nadia Economou holds a Ph.D. in Educational Linguistics from the University of Lancaster, U.K. She has taught courses in General Linguistics and Discourse Analysis in private institutions in Greece. She is currently working as senior researcher in the Division of Educational Technology at the Institute for Language and Speech Processing (ILSP).