Already during the Soviet era young teachers were appointed to a mentor but this was rather a formality. For example in my own experience the mentor appointed to me said immediately that he has nothing to teach to a young graduate and after that we never talked again. We did have one contact though – his son was a student of mine. But even this did not bring us into a conversation.
Behaviourism and social constructivism
A state-organized mentoring system for young teachers was reintroduced in Estonia three years ago. Now the first working year is called vocational year and only after completion the young teacher will receive a vocational certificate. (In the Soviet times the university diploma was also valid as a vocational certificate.)
Formalism is avoided as much as possible. Mentors are chosen carefully and they also go through special trainings. They are getting acquainted with the different stages young teachers go through when entering their profession. The training is based on the professional development models of David Berliner and Michael Fullan.
Mentors are also being reminded of the social constructivist learning theory. One of the problems in Estonia is that at university young teachers get acquainted with the basic principles of social-constructivist theory but in practice most schools tend to use the traditional behavioural teaching methods. Mentors are thus expected to assure that the principles learnt at university are not lost in practical work. Mentoring thus contributes to educational reform.
Young teachers apply social-constructivist theory during their vocational year: they try to avoid typical solutions and clichés by concentrating on concrete problems arising from one’s own work. Problems as well as working methods are being analysed and reflected .also with the help of a special “diary”. In this way teachers construct a personal interpretation of their profession. Most emphasis is placed on self-analysis, reflection and practical work.
Collaboration with the Nordic countries
Eve Eisenschmidt, doctor in educational sciences, is networking with Nordic universities on the topic of the vocational year. She says that in terms of self-reflection the Estonian young teachers, as well as their mentors, still have space for improvement. She has read a number of essays written by young teachers from Norway, Finland and Estonia. She noticed that in Finland young people tend to reflect about their profession in rather philosophical terms, addressing basic questions of being a teacher. The essays by Norwegian teachers hint that the emphasis is placed on teamwork. They often describe collaboration with other teachers. But in Estonia people mainly write about their concrete problems in the classroom – for instance lack of attention of the pupils etc. Eve Eisenschmidt notes that even several experienced mentors have difficulties analysing young teachers’ activities in greater depth.
In Estonia the goal is to reach the team-work levels of Norway and the depths of analysis of Finland. In teamwork the partner of the young teacher is the mentor, as well as her young colleagues. There are regular meetings at the university for all vocational year teachers where they share their experiences and problems. These discussions are being commented by experienced professors of educational sciences. The same professors are also leading discussions and trainings for the mentors of these young teachers – thus being able to see both sides of the situation.
Who benefits from the vocational year?
Some school headmasters do the best they can to support mentoring, for example by raising money for their salaries etc. In these schools is has been understood that mentoring plays an important role in enhancing the quality of teaching. Another positive aspect is that young teachers help the school system to change, disseminating social constructivist methods. On the other hand there are schoolmasters not supportive of mentoring young teachers. In their view teachers should be “ready” as they graduate from university. There is not much to do with these school headmasters – we can only shake their hand and express our deepest condolences, as goes the saying in Estonia.
Eve Eisenschmidt points out that mentoring has been highly rewarding for universities, as the contact with young teachers shows what kind of problems they face at work and the university can modify their programs accordingly. The quality of the training for mentors is also raising every year.
The most happy are of course the young teachers themselves. Several of them have admitted that without the support of their mentor and university they would have quit their job after the first months.