“From Specialist to mentor, from mentor to teacher, from teacher to student — the goal is to create cascading levels of knowledge.”
Vivian Leskes has long been an advocate for training teachers to become mentors. In fact, her first English Language Specialist assignment — in Tajikistan, where she conducted a workshop for future mentors in a newly conceived English Teacher Mentors program — sparked her lasting interest in this area of expertise. She subsequently returned to Tajikistan several times to continue that work. For Leskes, even when an assignment has not been specifically tagged with the mentor label, she considers developing teacher communities to be at the heart of each of her assignments. “From Specialist to mentor, from mentor to teacher, from teacher to student — the goal is to create cascading levels of knowledge,” she says. “The result is a much broader pool of understanding.” Given her passion for and in-depth knowledge of the subject, it is no surprise that she was asked to be the plenary speaker and workshop leader at the 2018 NileTESOL conference in Cairo, whose theme that year was “Excellence: Students and Educators in Pursuit of Lifelong Learning.” As Leskes sees it, “Our goal is to create agency in teachers, to stimulate them to take responsibility for their professional development and share the knowledge they gain with colleagues and students.”
Leskes led with that message with her opening plenary speech, “Lifelong Learning: Taking Responsibility for Our Professional Development.” She wanted attendees to understand the importance of developing their own student-for-life practice before they undertook instilling that resolve in others, specifically colleagues and students. “Often participants will ask for a copy of my presentation, so they can give that presentation to other teachers,” says Leskes. “But I want them to extrapolate from my words what is relevant to their situation and culture, and not just mimic my language and point of view.”
To put that idea into action, among her various responsibilities during the assignment, Leskes led an eight-day mentor training with teachers from governorates across Egypt. Her purpose was to train a cohort of teachers to become mentors to educators in their region. After a year of mentoring in their regions, they were to return to Cairo during NileTESOL to offer guidance to a new group of mentors. The educators chosen to participate in Leskes’ training were indeed a select group — from an applicant pool of more than 250, only 20 teachers from secondary and university teachers were picked based on their pedagogical knowledge, English language proficiency, and most importantly, leadership skills. “We wanted teachers who had a history of demonstrating rapport among their peers,” she says.
“I wanted to personalize the training as much as possible.”
For the training, Leskes considered it important to strike a balance between introducing the specifics of mentoring and having participants actually practice mentoring. Toward that end, Leskes presented the training from the perspective of a mentor, asking teachers to reflect on a number of critical points, such as what the greatest needs in their region were, whether they thought specific practices — peer observations, for example — would be welcome or questioned, and how practices could be customized to accommodate teacher and regional needs. “Everything was viewed through the lens of a mentor,” she notes. “I wanted to personalize the training as much as possible.”
Leskes also wanted participants to understand what makes a good mentor. She had them consider mentors in their lives and the qualities that made them positive role models — empathy and receptivity were high on the list — as well as the benefits gained from those mentors. Not surprisingly, confidence, independence, and inspiration topped that roster. Leskes incorporated into the training such topics as how teachers, in their mentor roles, could provide constructive feedback, encourage best teaching practices, and develop teacher support networks. Throughout the training, she kept in mind her personal directive to provide agency. “My focus was How can I help them research and seek out what they need as mentors?, not How can I give them what they need?” Leskes says.
The highlight of the training proved to be the concluding two-day practicum. During that portion of the workshop, each participant presented a lesson as a teacher and also mentored a presenting teacher; when not teaching or mentoring, teachers played the role of students in the classroom. However, after a lesson had finished, those teachers who had acted as students turned into mentors, observing the follow-up interaction between teacher and mentor, and providing feedback to that mentor. Leskes recalls it was “an intense experience, with all these different levels of mentoring.” To ease the stress on all concerned, Leskes familiarized participants with the feedback sandwich model, in which each evaluation starts and ends with a strength, and constructive criticism is “the meat” of the sandwich. “We worked a lot on feedback,” recalls Leskes. “As a mentor you have to put yourself in the mentee’s shoes to understand how a comment will be received. You don’t want your mentorship to crash and burn because you’ve given such negative feedback that mentees can’t hear it.” In the end, participants praised the practicum as the highlight of the training. “It brought everything together for them,” says Leskes.
Much to Leskes’ gratification, participants in the training have continued to collaborate and mentor one another, creating communities of practice that are now well-established on social media and in their regions. “I see that they give presentations, offer workshops, share advice, and provide support,” says Leskes. “As I hoped, they took ownership.”
Vivian Leskes, Professor Emerita of ESL at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, served as Chair of Language Studies. In 2017, she received the Elaine Marieb Award for Teaching Excellence. She was a Fulbright Scholar in Russia in TEFL. She has conducted trainings in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, the Far East, the post Soviet world, and South America. Most recently she has offered mentor trainings for teachers and university faculty in Egypt and Tajikistan and was an English Language Programs Master Class webinar presenter in 2019. . She focuses on professional development opportunities to ever-expanding circles of teachers, encouraging teachers to develop agency. Vivian’s other specialties include developing critical thinking skills, content-based instruction, reading and writing methodology. She speaks Spanish and Russian and is the author of Lost in Siberia.