Posted by: Lena B. | December 11, 2010

The role of mentors in bridging the gap between formal training and becoming a competent practitioner

By Olga Krasilnikova, Elena Kazakova, and Sophie Stahl

Although formal teacher training in most countries includes both theoretical and practical experience, beginning teachers often feel unprepared for their occupation. There are different reasons for that. Besides learning the necessary skills and “tricks of the trade”, novice teachers also have to deal with changing social roles – from a learner to a teacher. To help with this transition, the first steps of teaching are often supported by more experienced colleagues or mentors. Mentoring – not only in the school context – has been defined as an “intense interpersonal relationship where a more senior individual (the mentor) provides guidance and support to a more junior organisational member (the protégé)” (Eby & Lockwood, 2005).

Different national school systems have different approaches to mentoring beginning teachers – some assign a formal mentor to each novice teacher, and sometimes mentoring is based on informal pieces of advice from colleagues. While starting out on our own teaching career, we met support on workplace, we received constructive instructions and feedback. Learning by doing plays an important part, and mentoring relationships may well continue even after teacher training courses, throughout the career, as each environment requires different behaviour patterns, including teaching methods, which may perfectly work for one class, but fail for the other one. Another important thing to remember is that novices are active agents in their own development, so not only does the quality of mentor and learning environment matter, but also the engagement of the novice him/herself.


When talking about learning – whether at school or in the workplace – we first have to solve the ontological question of what we mean by “learning“. According to Anna Sfard (1998), there are two dominant discursive currents present in today’s educational research: some studies emphasise an acquisition metaphor and others a participation metaphor. The acquisition metaphor is based on the idea that individuals gain and construct knowledge like a commodity, and once it has been acquired it can then be applied, transferred, or shared with others. The participation metaphor, on the other hand, holds that knowledge is not located in individuals, but in communities, contexts, artefacts and social practices. Learning is therefore seen as the process of becoming a member of a particular community and participating in its activities, not as filling one’s mind with object-like knowledge. Despite the seemingly contradicting outlook of these two approaches, Sfard (1998) argues against dismissing either. Instead, she maintains that the metaphors complement each other. Following her advice, we shall attempt to give room to both perspectives when tracing the theoretical backdrop of mentoring in the field of teacher induction. First, we will consider the concept of expertise and what knowledge and skills need to be acquired by individuals in order to become an expert teacher. Second, we will give an overview of theories of participation in a community of practice such as that of the teaching profession. Lastly in this part, we will focus more specifically on models on mentoring and apprenticeship. It seems to us that the relationship between mentor and mentee serves as a good expression for both the acquisition and the participation metaphor, since mentors not only facilitate participation in the community of teachers, but also share knowledge in its more objectified sense with their protégés.

Theories of expertise

According to K.A.Ericsson’s model of expert performance, time and practice are not enough, there should be deliberate practice (a particular type of exercise), which encourage full mental activity of learners. At least 10 years are needed to achieve expert performance. Deliberate practice is “a highly structured set of activities, with the explicit goal of improving performance” (Ericsson et al, 2006, p. 306).
The main characteristics of deliberate practice are:

  1. “effortful exertion to improve performance”
  2. intrinsic motivation
  3. practice tasks, corresponding to one’s ability
  4. feedback, which necessary for knowledge of result
  5. levels of repetition (Ericsson et al, 2006, p. 306).

Attention, concentration, specialized techniques are vital for deliberate practice. Based on this, we can move on to define experts and expertise: An Expert is someone, who is regarded as such by others.”Expertise seems to be a form of cognitive / behavioral adaptation to a particular domain of tasks, hence it is domain specific” (Ericsson et al, 2006, p. 748).
According to Mieg, we can get knowledge and become experts if we have “enough time to undertake the necessary learning” (Ericsson et al, 2006, p. 748).
On the way of becoming an expert, an individual should fulfil a lot of conditions. It is significant to form the goals which should be achieved; the student should be taught strategies how to organize and use knowledge, to be got in education process. Feedback is necessary for improvement, but at the same time an individual should learn to be able to make decision on his/her own and not be dependant on teacher’s/instructor’s feedback. In Ericsson et al.’s Handbook of Expertise it is stressed that one should avoid the arrested development or automaticity, as when automaticity is achieved, no improvement is going on (Ericsson et al, 2006). Future experts gradually create their own mechanisms when they participate in training tasks. “Training should help individuals to develop adequate mental models of typical problems in the domain and to choose the most appropriate working strategy” (Ericsson et al, 2006, p.384)

Learning through participation

This chapter is devoted to discussion on theories of participation in a community of practice as well as reference to the teaching profession. According to the Longman dictionary (, ‘participation’ means ‘the act of taking part in an activity or event’. As for our specific context, ‘participation’ refers to learner’s engagement in practice to become a competent practitioner.  According to ´

Le Maistre, Boudreau and Pare (2006), there are two main notions which describe term ‘participation’ in an interesting way. First, it is important to mention that there is a gradual movement taking place between being a novice and becoming a qualified expert. There are, as previously spoken of, two notions that describe the movement or ‘transformation’ (Le Maistre et al., 2006): “guided participation” and “legitimate peripheral participation” (Rogoff, 1991 and Lave and Wenger, 1991). In both cases, the learner is ‘guided’ from slow, doubtful task fulfilment toward success and perfection. “Under the guidance of more experienced individuals, newcomers can engage in practice which is legitimate (that is, of worth to the functioning of the organization, rather than contrived), peripheral (failure to accomplish the task does not damage the organization, can be redone by the newcomer or can be remedied by experienced practitioners), and participatory (the newcomer is engaged in tasks of increasing complexity, rather than being an observer)” (Le Maistre et al., 2006, p.345). It is essential that qualified and experienced teachers influence newcomers in such a way that they take an active participation in the activity of the community. It is undoubtedly clear what teacher-students dread most when practising their skills and knowledge to becoming teachers – being left on their own in the classroom. Therefore it is significant to refer to a sequence of “zones of proximal development” (Vygotsky, 1978) on this stage of our discussion. Why do we have to step back and pay more attention to the development of novice’s working process? The most crucial reason is that once again we stress on the role of supervisor and how he/she guides us, newcomers, to the final step from which we as teachers proceed further and become independent specialists in our field of studies and work.  Through the techniques of scaffolding and fading, the mentor helps the novice to approach increasingly difficult task with increasing independence of action. The “zones of proximal development” are to be divided into the following groups:  intellectual space (cognitive problem-solving); social space (engagement into social interactions); activity space (delivering action and experimenting with tools); physical space (being left on one’s own to perform the task independently). While a future practitioner, a student, is moving through one zone to the other zone, one cannot but notice that community plays an inevitable role throughout the whole process of development into a professional. Therefore it is important for us to proceed to the definition of communities of practice and identify the importance of this term.

The concept of communities of practice focuses on a domain of shared interests, shared competence that identifies this particular group, distinguishing it from others (Wenger, 2004). However, it is not enough to merely share interests. What is important is that people are involved in the same practice. It is supposed that institutional boundaries might not be enough when it comes to informal learning. According to Wenger (2004), informal learning and immediate experience are significant. It shows that communities of practice involve many varied aspects of learning process, knowledge acquisition and shared competence. As for workplace learning, transformation from a novice to an expert, communities of practice sustain knowledge development and provide both mentors and mentees with different tools and resources to share and build knowledge.

Theories of mentorship

If newcomers to a profession are to learn by participating in legitimate, peripheral activities which take them closer to the centre of the community, they have to first be given the opportunity to do so by their workplace (Billett, 2001). One way of doing this is for a workplace to assign a more experienced member to act as mentor for the novice. The formality of such an arrangement depends of course on the workplace and, in the case of the teaching profession, on the country in which the induction period takes place. In the UK, for example, the duties and responsibilities between mentor and mentee are formally decreed by the national teacher training body, whereas in Russia, no official arrangement for mentoring beginning teachers exists. However, even in the absence of formal mentoring agreements, mutually beneficial mentoring relationships may develop spontaneously between a new teacher and a more experienced colleague.

According to Billett (2003), the specific roles of a mentor may depend on the actors and their environment: For example, some mentorships may include responsibilities for the mentee’s wellbeing and social acceptance in addition to skills development, and some might continue on throughout the protégé’s career, whereas others are terminated after a certain – often pre-defined – time. The structure and purposes of mentoring are also affected by whether the mentorship is of the formal or informal type, meaning whether mentors and protégés are assigned to each other by a third party as part of an official programme, or whether the relationship is initiated spontaneously by either – or both – of the individuals (Eby & Lockwood, 2005). In contrast to informal mentoring, formal mentoring often follows a pre-determined set of goals and guidelines, as well as a specific time-line. Furthermore, the fact that mentor and protégé have not selected each other in formal mentoring can make it difficult to develop a trusting relationship, and sometimes even to a mismatch of personalities or lack of commitment. Although formal mentoring thus has its share of potential problems, the benefits reported by both mentors and mentees also indicate mutual advantages for both parties. Benefits for mentees include learning, psychosocial support, opportunities for networking and career planning, whereas mentors reported benefits such as learning, developing a personal relationship, personal gratification and enhanced managerial skills (ibid).

Whilst these points apply to mentoring in general, Maynard and Furlong (1995) focus more specifically on newcomers to the teaching profession when they identify three models of mentorship in the existing research literature. Firstly, the apprenticeship model holds that complex skills are best learned by working alongside an experienced colleague, rather than simply by instruction. In this model, the role of the role of the mentor is to model and to supervise guided practice, whereas the protégé tries to emulate the mentor. On the other hand, the competence model advocates a more explicit programme of training based on a list of pre-defined competences, where the mentor observes the protégé, identifies areas for improvement, and gives feedback. Lastly, the aim of the reflective model is to develop a deeper understanding of the mentee’s learning process through reflection, and thus to enable continued professional development even after the induction period is over. Although Maynard and Furlong (1995) stress that each of these three models is on its own inadequate to describe the mentoring process, they argue that, if taken together, these models usefully reflect the changing needs of the beginning teacher. It can therefore be seen that different approaches to mentoring are required at different stages of the beginning teacher’s professional development.


Although most studies in the area of mentoring focus on the experiences of the recipients of this process, there are also some that examine mentoring from the point of view of the mentor. Taking this perspective is useful in that sense that it can help identify the demands placed on, and problems experienced by, mentors, and therefore suggest ways in which mentors themselves could be trained and supported more effectively in their task. One example of this perspective can be found in LeMaistre et al.’s (2006) longitudinal study which focuses on both novices and their mentors in four so-called “helping professions” (education, social work, occupational therapy, and physiotherapy) with the aim to find out how universities could assist the transition from school to work. In their interviews, the authors were particularly interested in the tension between a supervisor’s role as nurturing and supportive mentor, and as evaluator and gatekeeper for the profession. This tension was felt and lamented by the mentors in this study, who felt caught between the two roles, and also feared that their added responsibility of evaluator might encourage mimicking rather than risk-taking in the student-teachers (see Maynard and Furlong’s (1995) apprenticeship model). Billett’s (2003) study, though not specifically set in the school-as-workplace environment, also deals with the perceived demands on a mentor, as well as potential benefits. The eight mentors interviewed agreed that workplace mentoring was an effective and relevant way to assist co-workers learning and also derived some personal gratification from it. On the other hand, they identified inhibiting factors such as production demands, time constraints, and the attitude of trainees. What was also seen as crucial to the success of the mentoring programme was the level of support and acknowledgement received from the organisation’s management, which was reflected for example in the amount of training mentors received, in the daily obstacles (e.g. time or production demands) placed or removed, and in the organisation’s attitudes towards employee learning and development.

In looking more closely at what sustains novice teachers in their early career, Fox et al. (2010) have considered the wider social networks available beyond the workplace. In their article “Beginning Teachers’ Workplace Experiences” the emphasis is made on experiences (and prior experiences) of beginning teachers with different backgrounds, their social network, aspirations, in order to identify reasons of teachers’ retention. It is necessary for career-beginners to evaluate themselves and create “more expansive learning environments for themselves. Both formal and non-formal ways of social participation are significant for beginning teachers, as well as communication with experienced and beginning teachers and with out-of-school individuals.  Learning is happening from and with experienced colleagues. It is also important to refer to previous experience and create and develop, think more consciously about personal network, in order to solve arising problems It is necessary to take into consideration how future teachers understand workplace context and their aspiration and expectations

Their study showed that the active creation and use of personal networks both within and outside of school is crucial in receiving both professional and emotional support. It also emerged that some working environments were more supportive towards learning and professional development than other, making it easier for new teachers to access the knowledge of the community. At the same time, not all novice teachers were equally adapt at creating and taking advantage of social network, meaning that some did not ask for help even if it was available, and others managed to strive in a less supportive environment by cleverly making the contacts that would benefit them. In some cases, the pro-activeness of the trainee teacher eventually even transformed their workplace. This study shows that novice teachers are not only passive pawns in the mentoring game, but can strongly influence the success of their learning process through the level of their pro-activeness.


Mentoring has the potential of a being mutually beneficial process for both mentor and protégé. Whereas beginning teacher who are not supervised might still find ways of “getting by”, mentoring offers the opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the skills and practices encountered through guided learning techniques such as modelling, coaching, questioning, and explanation (Billett, 2003). Furthermore, mentoring is effective because it can be tailored to the novice’s needs, because the knowledge and skills acquired are placed firmly into the context of the classroom, and because mentors can provide the encouragement and feedback that is needed to become an expert. At the same time, it has to be stressed that the success of a mentoring relationship does not depend on the mentor alone, but necessitates both the supportiveness of the environment and the pro-activeness of the mentee (Billett, 2001). The best conditions for learning will not have an effect if the new teacher is unwilling or unable to take advantage of them, but equally a novice with great networking skills may encounter obstacles in learning if the work-culture does not value such behaviour. It is therefore a balance between environmental and individual factors that enable or inhibit effective mentoring. Lastly, mentoring alone may not be enough to turn novices into expert teachers: the existence and active use of social networks outside of the immediate workplace may also play an important role in easing the transition between university and work life (Fox et al., 2010). As Siebert et al. (2007) remind us: “What needs to be remembered is that a single pedagogical approach to learning is unlikely to satisfy the needs of every learner.”


Billett, S. (2001).Learning through work: Workplace affordances and individual engagement. Journal of Workplace Learning 13(5), 209-214.

Billett, S. (2003). Workplace mentors: demands and benefits. Journal of Workplace Learning 15(3), 105-113.

Eby, L.T. & Lockwood, A. (2005). Protégés’ and mentors’ reactions to participating in formal mentoring programs. Journal of Vocational Behaviour 67, 441-458.

Ericsson et al. (2006). The Cambridge Book of expertise and Expert Performance. Cambridge University Press.

Fox, A., Wilson, E. & Deaney, R. (2010). Beginning teachers’ workplace experiences: Perceptions and use of support. Vocations and Learning. Retrieved on 18th Nov 2010 from

Gruber, H., & Palonen, T. ()2007. Learning in the workplace: New developments. Research in Educational Sciences 32. Finnish Educational Research Association.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991), Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

LeMaistre, C., Boudreau, S. & Paré, A. (2006). Mentor or evaluator? Assisting and assessing newcomers to the professions. Journal of Workplace Learning 18(6), 344-354.

Maynard, T. & Furlong, J. (1995). Learning to teach and models of mentoring. In T. Kerry & A. Shelton Mayes (eds.) Issues in mentoring (pp. 10-25). London: Routledge.

Rogoff, B. (1991). Social interaction as apprenticeship in thinking: guided participation in spatial planning. In L.B. Resnick, J.M. Levine, and S.D. Teasley(Eds), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 349-64.

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher 27(4), 4-13.

Siebert, S., Mills, V. & Tuff, C. (2009). Pedagogy of work-based learning: the role of the learning group. Journal of Workplace Learning 21(6), 443-454.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Wenger, E. (2004). Communities of Practise. In International Encyclopaedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences, 2339-2342, ISBN: 0-08-043076-7.



  1. I am still a beginner teacher, and I am starting now my teacher learning process. Thinking in my mentoring in teacher training I realized that I had some different models to look at. I think this is the better way to become a good teacher, analyzing different ways of teaching, types of teachers and finding my own profile.
    To explain it, I need to distinguish the context of my teacher training mentoring. The first time I was working in a school to practice I had a mentor teacher. I was the whole days with him helping on his classes. After some months working together I could teach some lessons alone, and I learnt from the experience itself.
    By contrast, my experience in a Finnish school was totally different, thus I can see what you say that “different national school systems have different approaches to mentoring beginning teachers”. I could see every subject in every course, and I could choose a free timetable following my interests. I did not have only one mentor, so I have seen several types of teaching in a same context, but going less deeply in every classroom. At the end of the teacher training in this school I also could teach some lessons. However, this time, I learnt both from my own experience teaching and the feedback that the teacher gave me at the end.
    I do not think that one system is better than the other, the contrary, I am very grateful having the opportunity of learn from both mentoring systems.

  2. Reading “specific roles of a mentor may depend on the actors and their environment” from your essay made me interested in the different roles of a mentor. Looking for it, I have found some information about it which defines mentors as teacher, guide, counselor, coach, advisor, role model and friend.
    In addition, I have been thinking in the percentage of these roles we act as mentors of novices. All these roles are presents in mentoring, but not all in the same amount. Some mentors are more guides, others tend to have more directive teaching and others behave mainly as friends. I think that mentors should think about their own roles to analyze their teaching models, because depending on the predominant role the mentor has, learners develop differently.

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