This past academic year has been challenging for schools and initial teacher education (ITE) providers, particularly in response to changing events such as the closure of schools due to national lockdown restrictions (Whittaker, 2021). In this period of uncertainty, we discovered something inspirational in the PGCE primary mentor–mentee dynamic: a positive shift that highlighted the mutually beneficial potential of this relationship.
When schools in England closed in January 2021, teachers were placed in a tough position as the Coronavirus Act 2020 now held schools accountable for providing remote education for pupils now unable to attend school (DfE, 2020). Prevailing anxiety surrounding ‘lost learning’ (Richardson, 2021) was exacerbated by a perceived neglect by schools, from the government’s point of view, which resulted in significant additional pressure. The January lockdown led to a transition from blended learning to the exclusive use of online platforms to facilitate children’s continued learning of national curriculum content under tight pandemic restrictions. It was during this time, in discussions with both school-based teachers and trainees (our PGCE students), that we began to notice a shift in the conventional mentor–mentee relationship. Rather than a traditional dynamic, which positions the mentor–mentee in a hierarchical relationship (Ambrosetti, 2010), the situation in reality challenged the traditional assumption of the mentor having more knowledge and experience.
‘Rather than a traditional dynamic, which positions the mentor–mentee in a hierarchical relationship, the situation in reality challenged the traditional assumption of the mentor having more knowledge and experience.’
The relationship instead became one of co-learning, where both parties interacted as potential equals or co-mentors. This relationship shifted even further as some mentees became the more knowledgeable members of the dynamic, possibly due to the taught element of the mentee’s PGCE course having been purely online, as per new Covid-19 policy. So, while their mentors had limited opportunities to develop online teaching and learning skills, the mentees’ immersive experience had given them a knowledge base from which to work. In line with Ambrosetti’s (2010) findings, the mentor–mentee relationship became reciprocal, as both parties had something of equal value to contribute and gain from the relationship.
We argue two crucial factors enabled this shift; the first was mentee expertise through their engagement in online learning. Supported and modelled by ITE staff, PGCE students developed their knowledge base of online pedagogy based on their own experiential learning. The second factor that facilitated this shift was the openness of the mentor to the feeling of being vulnerable, precipitated by their limited understanding of online teaching and learning. The situation challenged commonly held assumptions that the length of teaching experience dictates the quality of teaching (Graham et al., 2020); it was the knowledge base of the person that mattered. Mentors were willing to turn to the mentee – who commonly have less teaching experience – because they had more knowledge of online teaching and learning. As a result, the mentors’ willingness to feel more vulnerable encouraged them to be more open to sharing responsibilities and learning with the mentee, which gave the trainee a further sense of empowerment. This recognition led to an acceptance that the mentee was bringing expertise to the relationship, resulting in a change in the mentor–mentee dynamic. From the perspective of social practice theory, the direction of learning between mentor and mentee shifted in relation to the structures in which the learning was taking place (Penuel et al., 2016).
This we feel is an area that would benefit from further investigation and research, particularly if a similar shift in dynamic has been experienced by colleagues working with other ITE providers and their partnership schools. With the new academic year, and a new cohort of PGCE students ready to become teachers, there is an opportunity for us, as ITE providers, to support and encourage mentors and mentees to reconceptualise the role of the PGCE student and develop a relationship of mutually beneficial professional development.
Ambrosetti, A. (2010). Mentoring and learning to teach. International Journal of Learning, 17(9), 117–132. https://doi.org/10.18848/1447-9494/CGP/v17i09/47254
Department for Education [DfE]. (2020). Coronavirus – Temporary continuity directions etc: Education, training and childcare. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/notice/3642261
Graham, L. J., White, S. L. J., Cologon, K., & Pianta, R. C. (2020). Do teachers’ years of experience make a difference in the quality of teaching? Teaching and Teacher Education, 96. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2020.103190
Penuel, W. R., DiGiacomo, D. K., Van Horne, K., & Kirshner, B. (2016). A social practice theory of learning and becoming across contexts and time. Frontline Learning Research, 4(4), 30–38. https://doi.org/10.14786/flr.v4i4.205
Richardson, P. (2021, July 5). Is ‘lost learning’ the new crisis in education? BERA Blog. https://www.bera.ac.uk/blog/is-lost-learning-the-new-crisis-in-education
Whittaker, F. (2021, January 4). Spring school closures. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/spring-school-closures-what-we-know-so-far/