Learning is a life-long activity and the old adage that ‘you learn something new every day’ is true – it could be something you read, heard on the news, or something from a more formal learning activity such as a course or book. If you undertake a more formal course, for example, an apprenticeship, or a CPD course, then you might expect there to be someone who can help you, who has been there, done it, and who can give you some tips and tricks and guide you on your learning journey. You may get a mentor – and if you’re really lucky, you’ll get a good one! Many of the world’s most successful people have been mentored: Sir Richard Branson had Sir Freddie Laker, Mark Zuckerberg had Steve Jobs, and Luke Skywalker had Yoda!

OK, in early years, you’re unlikely to come across Yoda, unless as a toy, but you may have opportunities to either become a mentor, or even be mentored yourself. Much of the training for the early years workforce is done through apprenticeships where mentoring is common and trainees need high-quality mentors to help them learn on the job. The job of the mentor is to help facilitate the learning of their mentee, but in truth, mentors are learners too, or they should be, as they will be learning alongside their partner, the best way to help that particular person succeed, and one in which the mentor can develop themselves and their own career too. 

Being a mentor is a responsible and important role that you can take on, but it should not be undertaken lightly or if you don’t have the time or motivation to do it properly. The trainees will expect proper training. They will need your time, your attention and your expertise and they will also need a great deal of empathy, understanding, care and patience too. Some mentoring roles, such as those for postgraduate courses, require the mentors to be trained themselves, although it is not the remit of this article to give specific advice for that type of mentoring. You can mentor your staff in any number of other roles for any number of training situations too. 

The problem is, that many mentoring roles are not well recognised, trained or funded either in terms of time or money, even in well-established professions like teaching, but that does not mean that they are not important. In fact, they could be one of the most important keys to success. 

Mentors should help trainees to plan and meet their targets, be a good role model for the job, offer advice and listen to their trainee’s concerns, observe their mentee doing the job, and give them high-quality feedback that will enable them to succeed.  

One of the least explored roles is that of giving feedback, but it is the quality of the feedback that is one of the main drivers of success. 

Giving feedback

If you want to be a good mentor, you need to develop a way of putting things that gets the message across in a way that is enabling and empowering rather than one which is patronising or overly critical. Think about how you would like to be mentored and how you would prefer to get feedback. If your goal was to run a marathon, and you’d never done anything more than run for a bus, then you’d need to take things in stages. You’d want to know that you were reaching small milestones along the way and that you were getting more things right than wrong. That way you wouldn’t become overwhelmed or despondent, and you will eventually reach your goal. 

It’s the same for mentees (and pre-school and school-aged children, by the way). What they want to know first, is what they are doing well. If they hear and understand that, then they will be more open to listening to the ‘even better ifs’ or the specifics of how they can improve, which make up the second part. Finishing your feedback with an overall positive, so that they go away feeling they are on the right track, is the final part of what has become known as the ‘feedback sandwich’. But it’s important that your feedback is sincere and appropriate too. It’s no good telling people they are doing well to their face, if you then fail them the following week without telling them why. And if we think about it, we all know people who make us feel empowered and positive and those who drain our energy and for whom, we can do nothing right. The job of the mentor is obviously to be the first person. 

Your feedback should be specific, offering them ways that they can succeed, and a few things at a time so that they are not trying to work on too many things at once. If a trainee needs to develop confidence in running a session on writing names for example, then it would be no good to just say “develop your confidence”. It is too general and doesn’t give the trainee anything to go on. If they are already feeling underconfident, they may nod nicely at you, but go away feeling that they are still getting nowhere. 

It would be better to give specific pointers or suggestions, such as:

  • Start with one child first and get them to draw different strokes
  • Make sure you are modelling what you want the child to do – so pick up a pen and draw things yourself
  • Let them know that it is the journey and effort that is important rather than the outcome. If the child can draw a circle to start, that’s good
  • Suggest they watch a few more sessions of other people leading a session
  • Suggest they talk to other members of your staff to learn how they cope 

These things may seem like common sense once you are an experienced professional, but to the trainee, they will need this level of guidance to start. Remember when you were learning to drive? Every action was followed by the conscious thoughts of ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ and even those were tentative. After a time, they become second nature, but remember how scaffolded people need things in the beginning. 

In the next part, we’ll look at how to tackle difficult conversations. 

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