This might sound familiar: Challenges identified by mentors in working with secondary pre-service teachers

Ngaire Hoben, University of Auckland

The chances are that if you are reading this, you have been one of the hundreds of New Zealand teachers who welcome into their classroom a pre-service teacher undertaking practicum. We have long known that for pre-service teachers, practicum is the highpoint of their programme (e.g. see here, here, and here) and that they regard their mentor teachers as significant influences in this experience. Hence the support of a skilled and committed mentor is essential.    

The main route into secondary teaching in Aotearoa New Zealand is a one-year diploma undertaken after the student has graduated with at least a bachelors degree, usually in the subject(s) they intend to teach. During their diploma year, a pre-service teacher will spend at least sixteen weeks in the classroom of one or more associate teachers (increasingly referred to as mentor teachers). These teachers provide access to a class and give advice and guidance to the aspiring teacher. A minimal payment is made by the ITE provider to the mentor, but no time allowance is provided for the mentor to undertake this work.

The importance of the practicum experience and the role of the mentor teacher in supporting the learning of a pre-service teacher were acknowledged by the Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand in their revised ITE Programme Approval, Monitoring and Review Requirements (2019), where practicum timeframes were increased from fourteen to at least sixteen weeks. With this additional time spent in schools, the role of the mentor teacher is now even more important.

This study, undertaken just before the new Requirements were announced, sought to understand the challenges secondary school mentor teachers experience when working with their pre-service colleagues. I surveyed 295 mentors working with pre-service secondary teachers in three different graduate-level programmes. Ninety-seven mentors (33%) responded to the electronic survey.

The challenges the mentors identified

Time

Readers who have hosted a pre-service teacher will probably not be surprised that the major challenge mentioned by 76% of the respondents was frustration generated by an absence of time in which to do the job.  Comments made by the mentors included:

“No time allowance for the job.”

“Time taken away from my own work.”

“A lack of time-tabled face-to-face time to prepare with and give feedback to the PST [pre-service teacher].”

There have been many calls for a time allowance to enable mentors to work with their pre-service teachers (e.g. see here, here, here, and here). However, to date no allowance has eventuated, with the exception of the Ministry funded release for mentors of Teach First participants. Given the increase in time spent on practicum and the accompanying requirement from the Teaching Council that mentors receive professional development to prepare them for their role, the moment is surely opportune for such an allowance to be introduced.

Access to senior classes

A further challenge related to time that secondary mentors identified was finding sufficient time to give the pre-service teacher access to a senior class, particularly later in the year during the second practicum block as deadlines and external assessments loom for senior secondary students. Mentor teachers are thus challenged with

“Balancing what the pre-service teacher needs and what my students need.“

Pre-service teachers’ attitude and performance

Somewhat surprisingly, 42% of responding mentors mentioned pre-service teachers’ shortcomings as a challenge. The surprise here arises from the fact that very few complaints are received during practicum from mentor teachers about poor performing PSTs. Nonetheless, the shortcomings mentioned included: not displaying a suitable disposition for teaching, showing little interest in teaching, and reluctance to take up opportunities to teach.

PSTs who displayed little interest in reflecting were challenging for mentors:

“PSTs not willing to reflect critically on their own practice, or provide lesson plans etc and want you to do it all for them.”

Being a mentor teacher

52% of mentors noted that they found aspects of mentoring challenging. Professional development for the role was available to all the mentors surveyed to support their understanding of how to work effectively with a PST. Despite this, 30% of respondents to the survey had not, for whatever reason, participated in this professional development.

Giving feedback and knowing how to be critical were identified as beeing particularly challenging, concisely voiced by one mentor as

“Being challenging, incisive and direct with feedback.”

Other challenges

Not suprisingly, a range of challenges existed that were beyond the mentors’ ability to control. The timing of practicum and low levels of payment were foremost here and were mentioned by 16% of the respondents.

Hosting a pre-service teacher for a 7 or 8 week practicum is a big ask of a mentor, and 21% voiced the fact that the experience caused them emotional stress and exacerbated their own feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty.

“Fear that I am not good enough as a teacher.”

“Extra emotional load of constantly discussing practice and issues.”

“Sharing a class and needing to reinstate discipline [after the student teacher leaves].”

What would improve the situation for mentors?

Given how significant the role of the mentor teacher is in the preparation of the next generation of teachers, we have to ask how the providers of initial teacher education, and the schools with whom they work in partnership, can best support those who undertake this work. A time allowance for working with pre-service teachers is long overdue, but ITE providers and schools will likely insist that the provision of a time allowance is beyond their means. One solution is that such an allowance might be negotiated and included in teachers’ collective employment agreement.

School leaders must play an active role in making time available for the professional development necessary for mentors to develop skills in supporting the novice teacher. Professional development was offered – at no cost to the participating schools – to all the mentors surveyed for this study. Therefore, that 30% of respondents professed not to have received any preparation prior to hosting their pre-service teacher came as a shock. Many of the challenges voiced by these teachers – such as not being informed by the university of expectations in regard to practicum or needing suggestions as to how to give feedback – had been covered in the professional development sessions. These sessions also stressed the  complexity of learning to teach and the need to focus on the pre-service teacher as a novice embarking on this challenging journey. The collaboration between providers and schools that is fostered by such sessions can help diminish the deficit view of “problematic” pre-service teachers that can develop when mentors feel unsure of themselves or unsure of how to proceed when difficulties arise.

Addressing the complexities of mentoring

Respondents to the survey fell into one of four categories: those who had received no professional development, those who had “occasional” sessions, those who had extended professional development (those mentoring a Masters in Teaching (Secondary) pre-service teacher or Teach First participant) and those who undertook a year-long post-graduate course in mentoring teachers. Mentors were asked how confident they felt in carrying out five practices commonly undertaken by mentors.  Interestingly, those who received no professional development recorded virtually the same mean on “providing emotional support” as those who undertook the year-long course, but were more confident than that group on the remaining four actions.

Confidence is not always an indicator of effectiveness, however. Mentoring is a complex and skilled undertaking (for more on this complexity, see here, here, here, and here). If the challenges identified by this study are to be addressed, an injection of “time” in the form of an allowance for the role and preparation for learning how to do it it is very necessary.


The research reported in this article was published in the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, NZARE’s official journal:

Hoben, N. (2021). Challenges for mentors in working with secondary school pre-service teachers. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies5641–63. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40841-021-00198-0


Ngaire Hoben is currently an Honorary Academic in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice (LDPP) in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Auckland. At the time this research was undertaken, she was Director of Secondary Teacher Education at that institution.

2 comments

  1. Thankyou for this very over looked aspect of teachers who are in these schools. I feel the training institutions leave a great deal of responsibility and work with us, without recognizing the important role we play in preparing THEIR students for the workforce. One other challenge is the training institute Tutor changing observation lesson times at the last minute. Puts the whole day or week out.

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  2. Kia Ora ra Ngaire Nga mihi nui ki a koe Thank u for the research finding . My really big Question is that currently many many Māori and especially Pacific Educators believe Secondary Schools in their current structures , org and operation are very problematic places for our Tamariki Pasifika in particular -Many key professionals respected in the field are recommending completely rebuilding the whole Sec model or allowing Sec 156 Character schools to develop This is also shown by the number of Tamariki who have taken the opportunity of COVID to get out of school altogether including a number of our own extended family Tamariki We have surely reached a time when enough is enough If we made fridges and 40- 50 % of them didn’t work we would be out of business quickly or have to be restructured differently.
    So by having the current Tutor teacher programmes surely new teachers are going to be social Ed into the values attitudes and practices of existing teachers and schools I don’t know how we can justify this ? In the dramatic failure of State Sec schools to provide adequately for the overall well being of our Tamariki
    I know the prob is that many Pakeha /Palagi want the Trad Grammar school model and they hold all the power and decision making POWER including over politics and voting so politicians are frightened to implode t real reforms of the total restructuring scale or even pilot such reforms.????

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