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What IS Mentoring?

Teacher retention rate is increased by 70% by good mentoring early in a teacher’s career

There are various models of mentoring: Authority; Guide and helper; Peer support.

I had heard Neil Boland[1] speak at a recent ITEP[2] zoom meeting, sharing these ideas and insights, and I wanted to explore this vital topic in more depth. At the recent Goetheanum conference for Waldorf teacher educators WHE was the only teacher training dedicated to special / subject teachers. I am certain good mentoring and collegial support for subject teachers is crucial in order to offer a well-rounded, integrated experience to our students.


I was able to attend the daily 2-hour afternoon workshop on mentoring which was highly collaborative, interactive, and was a very rich experience in many ways, not least in that we all recognized the diversity of our specific situations, and the commonality of our issues and challenges.

I chose the image of the ‘sun hive’ above for this blog because it reminded me of the industriousness of people finding their way to various workshops and discussion groups! It looked like chaos and confusion, just as the photo of the bees can look like that. Bees entering a hive look like they are just flying around, but in fact, there is a very clear and well-established pattern in everything they do. The sun hive uses ancient technology – a round, straw ‘beehive-shaped’ skep - with modern adaptations. (By some coincidence, in our July conference, we will be making rope baskets in the same way as these old-fashioned traditional bee skeps were made!)

Mentoring – which means leading or guiding – is also an age-old process of enculturation and support, forming the housing or ‘vessel’ for our work, and needs modern adaptations. No longer is The Expert the sage on the stage, telling new teachers what they must do, but we must develop a culture of mentoring in schools in which we are guides on the side. There are many reasons for this – the cost (and questionable effectiveness) of flying in an Expert for a time-limited visit who is not familiar with the particular school‘s situation; the fact that new teachers are growing up in a very different environment than many of us who now lead teacher education programs (and they question everything - as they should!). The children themselves bring very different gifts and challenges compared even to 15 years ago. These factors and many more require us to re-think mentoring and collegial support and approach this question with more of a ‘hive-mind’. This was clearly evident in our daily workshop on mentoring.

As a general pattern, there was an open discussion in the large group, then a question that we discussed in small conversation groups. We wrote a very brief response to the question on post-its and reviewed the others’ responses. You can see the questions sprinkled through this blog post.

Colleagues from India, Brazil, South Africa, Scotland, Poland, Malaysia, Australia, Ireland, and so many other countries all voiced the urgent need for a more effective way to mentor and orient new colleagues. Overall, the workshop highlighted issues that each school, perhaps each teacher, must consider and answer for themselves. It was very valuable to articulate and talk through these questions with others in the same position.

There were clearly common themes:

·         The need for trust, mutual agreement, in order to best serve the children

·         Having enough time, and being able to schedule regular meetings; having enough people to allow flexibility in the scheduling of meetings; separating the mentor and evaluator roles

·         There can be resistance to input from the mentor; mentors wonder why mentees don’t implement suggestions

·         There is a lack of training and collegial support for mentors in many cases

·         Discerning when to support a struggling teacher, and when to insist on boundaries

·         There is sometimes a lack of clear expectations in either role, leading to misunderstandings.

Success may be seen when a new teacher grows in the ability to self-reflect, and takes initiative, even risks in innovating; when they are actively engaged in the process; and when others in the teacher community also want a mentor!


Our last question was the big one: What one thing could your school do to help with mentoring? There were a lot of responses! Many expressed the need for time and money – effectively the desire for mentoring time to be scheduled in as a recognized and important part of our work as teachers. Planning, social responsibility and awareness, commitment, and peer support for mentors would all help to build a school culture of mentoring. The benefits would be better teacher performance and retention, and a better education for the children.

We spent some time sorting our responses to this question using a thinking, feeling, will framework. Which do you think is the most needed?

Yes! The will to implement these ideas, to put them into action and to persevere with them. Schools (= we) have the ability to plan and know the value of healthy relationships, but can fall short of doing and persevering with the necessary work.

Our school communities can become like a healthy, humming hive when we acknowledge the strengths of each community member and support and honor their development.  The biography of a bee would take us too far afield here, but is a fascinating study, and well worth investigating to see how individuals adjust themselves to serve the greater need of their community. This idea reaches as far back as Plato’s Republic, probably even further – that a community is healthy when strengths are acknowledged, tasks are shared, and we learn from each other at the same time as recognizing our social responsibility to our colleagues.

Mentoring, supporting each other, weaving a strong and supportive community – these are themes we will explore in the summer all-subjects conference. This is important work. Join us and share with friends and colleagues!

[1] Neil Boland PhD, formerly a Waldorf class teacher, is professor of teacher education at Auckland University of Technology, NZ

[2] ITEP = "International Teacher Education Project" – Each month, those involved in the training of teachers at Waldorf/ Steiner schools meet on Zoom to exchange information on the ITEP guidelines across countries. Interested students and teachers are welcome to participate.

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