I am a special education teacher in Marino College of Further Education in Dublin’s North inner city. I am currently engaged in a pilot of providing peer mentoring support in the use of technology in the classroom to other teachers in the City of Dublin Education and Training Board. The main goal of our mentoring process is to enhance the learning and teaching experience for both teachers and their students. It is effectively a pilot which has stemmed from a pilot! For the past 2 years, I have been part of an Erasmus + project known as TELMS: Technology Enhanced Learning Mentoring Support. Myself and another teacher from Pearse College of Further Education, Suzanne Yarker, have been working closely with the Curriculum Development Unit and the Psychological Service in CDETB to mentor other FET teachers in our centres. This year, myself and Suzanne will spread our wings and begin to mentor teachers from other centres, both in Post Primary schools and in Further Education and Training centres, in their use of TEL in their classrooms. Although the Dublin Institute of Technology have engaged in providing a training programme for TEL for their 1,500 staff, it is not something which has been employed by the ETB’s, until now (Donnelly and O’Rourke, 2007). The key difference between the DIT model and this model is the availability of a mentor.
The original model hails from SERC in Bangor and is inspired by Japanese Lesson study. It is underpinned by the very simple and basic idea that if we want to improve our own instruction, as educators, what better way to do that than alongside another professional? It focuses on the teacher (mentee) bringing their own pressing needs regarding an area of concern in their classroom to the collaborative, problem solving process that occurs with the mentor. SERC have been implementing their mentoring model for a number of years and have been able to substantiate its success and its value in providing support for teachers as they engage in professional development. It was the impressive retention rates among the students and the experience of the teachers who had been mentored that encouraged us when trialing their model in the CDETB.
In the context of FET in Ireland, peer mentoring stands firmly on the shoulders of SOLAS Professional Development Strategy (2017-2019) where it is acknowledges that “best practice sharing can form an integral aspect of CPD” as we work, collaboratively, toward a less hierarchical structure in FET. There are important and distinctive features of an FET educator in that we have dual professionalism, we work with adult learners and we deliver education and training to a diverse range of learners across the system. When SOLAS carried out a survey among practitioners in their confidence in using a wide range of skills, the skill that practitioners identified the least confidence in was Technology Enhanced Learning. They also identified dealing with challenging behaviours and engaging a diverse group of learners as being key areas in which they lacked confidence. The peer mentoring model, that we have adapted and developed from SERC’s model, addresses all of these areas of concern in a supportive, collaborative and fun way. Moreover, the model acknowledges the consideration that training and development in using TEL “takes into account the specific individual context in which it is being implemented, paying attention to the institutional, cultural and pedagogical imperatives of that context” (Donnelly and O’Rourke, 2007, p. 39).
The key thing for me is that this is not about the TEL tool. It is about the acknowledgement that learning is messy and is individual, both for our learners, and for us as learners. Therefore, teaching (or learning) the same topic or chunk of information happens in many different ways for each of us. The TEL mentoring model embraces this and helps our mentees to appreciate that they starting point is the process. Once we understand process, then we can engage with a tool that will help us to engage our learners with that process. After all, technology moves so fast, the “best tool” for a particular process could be replaced by a “better tool” tomorrow. However, if we understand the processes involved in learning then we can respond in a flexible manner and change and adapt our tools accordingly.
The mentoring model involves a number of stages and is grounded deeply in Bordin’s Working Alliance theory (1979). The mentor and the mentee identify the goal that they want to reach; they set a number of tasks that will enable them to reach that goal and they form a solid bond, rooted in honesty, collaboration and regular discussion. It encompases many other theoretical underpinnings such as O’Neill’s Transfer of Learning Theory (2017); Experiential Learning Theory (Dewey, Lewin and Follett); Driscoll’s Cycle of Reflection (2007) and Kolb’s Reflective Learning Cycle (1979) among many other theories. The model itself, from a practical perspective, involves many different steps. The focus is on the pedagogy and the supportive relationship and involves the modelling of best practice, innovation and creativity both in the training that the mentee receives and in the classroom teaching sessions which are an integral part of the model.
As a teacher who works mainly with students who are experiencing barriers to learning, being a TEL mentor provides me with an incredible opportunity to support other practitioners in making their classroom a universally designed, accessible, inclusive, equitable, engaging and fun space. The chance for teachers to have someone work with them, side by side, as they try out new practices and ideas is something completely new and innovative in our sector, but its potential to transform teaching practices and the experiences of our learners is exponential. Here’s to an exciting year ahead!
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