For the past months I have also been engaged in a mentoring course at the University of Malta. This was the first course of its kind and aimed to bridge the gap that exists between teacher trainers, teachers, schools and student teachers. For the first time, student teachers were being supported by a professional teacher whose only task was to act as a safety net and prevent potential pitfalls. As a trainee mentor, I was asked to support a student teacher throughout her first experience in the classroom without being in any way involved in her assessment process. In so doing, together with the student teacher, I embarked on an intensive learning journey that highlighted mentoring as a dynamic process in which as a mentor I probably gained as much as my mentee. The experience developed my understanding of the teaching and learning process further than ever before but it also highlighted the importance of developing a professional learning community of educators within the school. Mentoring could very well be the first step towards establishing the school as a professional learning community, in which educators model the professionally active lifestyle they wish to develop in their own learners. Peer observation and feedback could be a next step!
The idea of having teachers observing other teachers was suggested, encouraged and eventually started at our school some two years ago. I was enthusiastic about it, went for it and quickly experienced the benefits that could be derived from the experience. How much time do we, as teachers, spend surfing the internet looking for resources, looking for an inspiring idea that could help us plan our lesson, improve our pedagogy? What some of us still don’t get is that alternative resources, inspiration and the opportunity of ongoing professional development are probably within a few steps in the classroom next door. Many teachers are still reluctant to have a peer teacher observing them mainly due to lack of trust and professional maturity. Yet, it is essential that as educators, we learn to distinguish between the personal and the professional and work on creating a climate in which we , reflect on our practices, are open to professional feedback from peers and as a learning community, we strive to improve in the interest of our learners. In spite of the evidence, some teachers are still sceptical but I am optimistic that the culture of peer observation and supportive feedback will eventually gain ground.
Key to both mentoring and peer observation, is a healthy dialogue. I believe that constructive dialogue is the basis of any relationship. It is what constitutes meaningful communication and thus needs to be cultivated and delicately cared for. The moment dialogue is neglected or is in some way undermined by misinterpretations and/or the inability of the parties involved to get the message through clearly and supportively, the whole relationship suffers. A mentor-mentee or peer-to-peer relationship is no exception and in our schools we need to build a culture of trust wherein everyone feels safe to discuss issues and concerns, wherein everyone feels he is part of a supportive team.