Mentoring communities of practice: what’s in it for the mentor?

Eimear Holland (School of Health and Human Performance, Dublin City University, Dublin, Ireland)

International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education

ISSN: 2046-6854

Publication date: 4 June 2018

Abstract

Purpose

The purpose of this paper is to address the critique of researchers, who question the effectiveness and sustainability of mentoring as a continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) process. Where a lack of awareness exists surrounding the potential benefits of mentoring for the mentor, this paper investigates whether engaging in and with mentoring through a mentoring community of practice (M-CoP) assists mentors to accrue and realise the benefits of engagement. A relationship will be drawn between the community of practice (CoP) dimensions as outlined by Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015): domain, practice and community, and the perceived benefits accrued for mentors will be reported.

Design/methodology/approach

A qualitative approach was taken, using a participatory action learning action research strategy. In total, 12 mentors came together to form a developing M-CoP. They attended four M-CoP workshops where they grew as mentors, through the three dimensions of a CoP: domain, practice and community. Workshops were audio visually recorded and observed. Further data were gathered through an M-CoP questionnaire, pre-workshop questions, M-CoP artefacts, stimulus recall, reflective journals, reflective journey plans and extended focus group discussions. Respondent validation, inter-rater and intra-observer reliability were used. Data were coded manually and using NVivo-10 software.

Findings

Many of the benefits reported were directly linked to participants’ engagement in and with the three M-CoP dimensions: domain, practice and community. Such benefits related to mentor identity, support and solidarity, engagement and interaction, sharing “for” and learning “from” other mentors, and knowledge expansion and boundary spanning. Participants reported that engaging in and with mentor education through an M-CoP was an effective CPDL process, which was beneficial for them as developing mentors.

Research limitations/implications

The sample size was limited, based in one country and focussed upon one subject specialism. Such reported benefits need to be disseminated in order to raise the awareness of policy makers, teacher education institution managers and teacher educators, teachers and school leaders of the benefits of engaging in mentoring CPDL through the process of M-CoP engagement.

Practical implications

The findings from this study can be used to inform policies related to the continuum of teacher education. A recommendation is made for policy makers, teacher education institution managers, school leaders and CPDL service providers to facilitate the development of M-CoPs and to support their growth. It is also suggested that government departments of education and professional standards bodies account for the resourcing of such work in the design and implementation phase of school placement developments.

Originality/value

This paper closes the following gaps in the literature: CPDL benefits of engaging in and with an M-CoP for the mentor, the relationship between CPDL benefits and CoP dimensions and the development of M-CoPs in the given socio-cultural, historical and economic context of Ireland’s teacher education system and those of similar contexts.

Keywords

Citation

Holland, E. (2018), "Mentoring communities of practice: what’s in it for the mentor?", International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 7 No. 2, pp. 110-126. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJMCE-04-2017-0034

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Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Mentoring is said to be “a profession-building endeavor” (Chambers et al., 2012, p. 346). Though the majority of mentoring research focuses on mentee benefits (Crasborn et al., 2010; Crutcher and Naseem, 2016), there is a growing research base supporting the learning potential of mentoring for the mentor (Hobson et al., 2009). Almost two decades ago, McCorkel et al. (1998) posed the question “What’s in it for the mentor?” (p. 93). Indeed, there are some who claim that mentors are not always aware of the potential benefits (Mulcahy and McSharry, 2012; Tang and Choi, 2005). As Mooney Simmie and Moles (2011) suggested, it is important to consider wider mentoring literature in the light of the country’s context, with all its particular nuances. Traditionally, Ireland’s teacher education stakeholders have held a poor reputation for engaging in and with the mentoring process (Chambers et al., 2012). Chambers et al. (2015) referred to initial teacher education (ITE) mentoring as “the forgotten fourth leg of the academic stool” and accused academic systems for failing to “encourage, facilitate, honor and reward excellence in the mentor role” (Chambers et al., 2015, p. 17). A lack of commitment and advocacy for ITE mentoring has also been demonstrated by the Teaching Council (2013), who “acknowledged that the process of mentoring student teachers is distinct from the process of mentoring newly qualified teachers” (p. 6). Where induction mentoring has been advocated for, supported and resourced in national policy through the National Induction Programme (Chambers et al., 2012), ITE mentoring is largely still unstructured and unsupported (Young and MacPhail, 2015; Chambers et al., 2012). Moreover, Irish teacher unions have been perceived as quite powerful (Chambers et al., 2015). It is believed that their negative attitude towards teacher evaluation (Gassner, 2010) has contributed to the barriers posed to mentoring being developed at the ITE phase (Chambers et al., 2015). In addition to these barriers, it is said that the socio-cultural and historical climate has acted as a barrier to mentoring engagement in teacher education in Ireland (Sugrue, 2012; Gleeson et al., 2012).

One must also consider that the degree to which mentors can accrue benefits is dependent upon the nature of the school-university partnership and where on the “school placement continuum” the system resides (Maandag et al., 2007). Ireland has traditionally sat on the least collaborative end of this continuum: the “work placement” model (Conway et al., 2009; Chambers et al., 2011). In contrast with the “partner model”, the work placement model treats the school as a host and there is limited collaboration with and between the student teacher, the mentor and the university tutor (Coolahan, 2007; Chambers et al., 2011). Student teachers are treated as timetabled staff, with little access to meaningful mentoring (Coolahan, 2007; Chambers et al., 2011). Such a model impedes the development of reciprocal relationships, collaboration and co-reflection (Chambers et al., 2011). Thus, in turn, this fails to promote mentoring and contributes to teachers’ inability to recognise the potential continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) benefits of mentoring engagement (Simpson et al., 2007).

Ireland’s Teaching Council (2013) published “Guidelines on School Placement” in an attempt to work towards the partner model of university-school collaboration. These guidelines stipulated that the school placement duration should be extended from 100 to 200 hours, that teachers should “give generously of their time and experience” (Teaching Council, 2013, p. 7) and should provide feedback “in a timely fashion” (Teaching Council, 2013, p. 15). Scholars agreed that a change in the school placement model was necessary, but they questioned the Teaching Council’s timing and hinted at the unfeasibility and unsustainability of such guidelines in the current context (O’Grady, 2017; Mulcahy and McSharry, 2012). Teachers in Ireland sometimes perceive engagement in mentoring to be more of an unwanted burden than a blessing (Mulcahy and McSharry, 2012). The director of the Teaching Council relayed that some teachers expressed negative reactions to school placement engagement (O’Rourke, 2014), and others stated that they would not engage (O’Rourke, 2015). In the case of such extended school placements, Sugrue and Solbrekke (2017) questioned “whether teachers [would] have time and/or energy for the extra work that supporting students in a more formal way [would] involve” (p. 143). As intonated above, teachers’ willingness to engage has been further eroded recently due to the weight of the fiscal crisis (Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland: ASTI, 2016).

Despite international agreement that the mentoring process is important and beneficial (Langdon and Ward, 2015), Armour et al. (2015) questioned the effectiveness and sustainability of mentoring as a CPDL endeavour. Whilst system and school structures and cultures have been blamed for CPDL impact falling short, Armour et al. (2015) insisted that the actual educational processes for the teacher must be placed under the spotlight. Colvin and Ashman (2010) criticised many CPDL programmes for failing to engage mentors in any sustainable way. The general debate surrounding CPDL provision is shifting from “which” CPDL domain is most beneficial and “why” to “how” the CPDL is facilitated and through which processes (Aelterman et al., 2013). Therefore, the design and facilitation of CPDL needs to be re-envisioned (Parker and Patton, 2017), and mentoring CPDL is no different.

This paper seeks to reinforce and build upon Day’s (2004) point that “no one means of learning will in itself be sufficient but rather that a range of learning opportunities will need to be available” (p. 123). Acknowledging that traditional mentor education has failed to maximise the potential of mentoring as a rich CPDL process (Zachery, 2009), this paper will consider the benefits which mentors may accrue “as mentors” through their membership in a mentoring community of practice (M-CoP). Wenger et al. (2002) defined communities of practice (CoPs) as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (p. 4). A micro-analysis of the reported benefits will be conducted to consider whether the development of the three dimensions of a CoP – domain, practice and community – facilitated mentors to access those CPDL benefits. These dimensions will be delved into further in the literature review below.

Literature review

The purpose of this literature review is threefold. First, the literature will be presented in an attempt to paint a picture about why the benefits of mentoring for mentors have yet to be fully realised by much of the teacher education profession in Ireland. Second, it will consider how the traditional CPDL culture and all its inadequacies might undermine the ability of mentors to access potential benefits of engagement. A case will be made for moving away from traditional mentor education to CPDL, which considers the longer-term sustainability of mentors’ development and learning. In this vein, the literature will be drawn upon to propose that engagement in and with mentor education, through the vehicle of CoP dimensions, can offer processes which unlock more benefits of engaging in and with mentoring.

Mentoring: historical and recent challenges

Until Belton et al.’s (2010) ITE mentoring study, there had not “been published work carried out in this area specific to [physical education: PE]” in Ireland (p. 142). A lack of awareness of mentoring benefits is conceivable in education systems where mentoring is traditionally unstructured and informal (Conway et al., 2009). Thus, a failure to value mentoring can be attributed to a systemic lack of awareness of the potential benefits (Van Ginkel et al., 2016). An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2011) report found that in Ireland, only 35 per cent of teachers reported to have engaged in some mentoring and peer observation, and a further 28 per cent reported that they had never been mentored. This is compounded by a reported fear of teacher evaluation amongst teachers (MacRuairc, 2010; Sugrue, 2012). A prevailing culture of competitive individualism (Gleeson et al., 2012), professional isolation and insulation (Teaching Council, 2010) and a lack of critical enquiry (Gleeson, 2012) also serve to undermine the development of mentoring and mentor education in Ireland.

The aforementioned “Guidelines on School Placement” called for greater engagement from all partners, including “cooperating teachers” (Teaching Council, 2013). It should be acknowledged that the guidelines were not universally welcomed with many considering them to be too giant a leap for the current system to manage (O’Grady, 2017; Harford and O’Doherty, 2016). Additionally, Mulcahy and McSharry (2012) made the following statement: “Against the backdrop of fluid contracts and limited resources, schools are increasingly ill-equipped to take on student teachers for current placement requirements, never mind on extended placements proposed by the Teaching Council” (p. 99). The director of the Teaching Council acknowledged that “some teachers made it clear […] that they would never engage in such a process” (O’Rourke, 2015, p. 8). O’Rourke (2014) admitted that teachers find engagement with school placement to be “an exhausting experience” (p. 6). One of the teacher unions, the ASTI (2016) claimed that the erosion of working conditions has led to morale and goodwill being adversely affected. The cost-cutting “Croke Park Agreement” stipulated that all teachers were to complete 33 additional hours of work annually. Whilst induction was mentioned in this document, ITE mentoring was not. Moreover, when “work-to-rule” measures were put in place (Moran, 2010, p. 4), ITE mentoring was deemed to be one of the banned activities. Recent economic challenges have seen unions reverting to protective economic welfare positions, which undermine professional development as being central to the professional welfare of teachers (Poole, 2000).

Therefore, the awareness of and access to experiencing the benefits of mentoring for the mentor may have been hampered at a time when the Teaching Council (2013) was trying to promote the guidelines. They published the benefits which mentors could accrue from engaging in and with school placement: “Co-operating teachers are afforded the opportunity to share their professional expertise and to observe and be informed about a variety of approaches to teaching and learning through engagement with student teachers and HEIs” (Teaching Council, 2013, p. 9). It could be argued that teachers’ awareness of the potential benefits of mentoring might not have been particularly expanded by this statement. Therefore, the time is ripe for researchers to examine how benefits can be better realised for mentors.

Mentor education: inadequacies of traditional models

Whilst mentoring is believed to hold a rich potential for professional development and learning, the mentor education models employed to develop it too often fail mentors (Mullen, 2010). For example, the duration of programmes has been known to vary and at times is limited to a one-off, off-site basic orientation (Parker and Patton, 2017). Under time pressure, “prepackaged […] noncontextualized content” is typically offered up by CPDL providers (Patton et al., 2013, p. 457). A lack of time or flexibility leads to teachers not being afforded the space to consider or plan how the content could be applied or adapted to their “unique school contexts” (Labone and Long, 2016, p. 75). Not being facilitated to apply learning to school contexts results in CPDL being less autonomy supportive than it should be, thus reducing teachers’ self-determination to apply their learning back at school (Deci and Ryan, 1987; Labone and Long, 2016).

Where CPDL providers fail to facilitate the development of collaborative opportunities, mentors lose the opportunity to reflect together, to share their learning and to provide one another with support over time (King, 2011). It does not allow for the open and honest dialogue needed to foster collaborative relationships (Thorkildsen, 2013). This prevents mentors from accessing the emotional support they require of others “to survive in their teaching environment” (Parker et al., 2012, p. 317) as mentors. This is particularly problematic for teachers working within an organisation or community culture which does not support their CPDL (King, 2011). The limited time and interaction offered to mentors during traditional CPDL caps their capacity for “knowledge acquisition, application, and reflection” (Parker et al., 2012, p. 319).

A sense of professional identity is dependent upon teachers being able to identify themselves as a member of a professional in-group (Wenger and Snyder, 2000). If one recalls that traditionally there has been a lack of support for mentoring in Ireland, this can leave the mentor feeling alone in their interests, which reduces their sense of mentor identity (Watson, 2014). Thus, being in the relative minority and feeling part of an out-crowd can leave mentors feeling reluctant to share with their colleagues (Williams-Newball, 2014). Where professional insulation exists (Teaching Council, 2010), mentors are less inclined to assist their colleagues to overcome an “inward-facing” outlook (Keay, 2005, p. 140), and a “pooling of collective ignorance” (Craft, 1996, p. 14) about mentoring can prevail. This can make it difficult for mentors to outwardly display best practice, as their attempts to change are at odds with the culture of mentoring in their school (Fullan, 1995). All of the above factors can affect aspiring mentors’ developing practice and, as such, their opportunity to experience the potential benefits.

Given that there is widespread agreement that traditional one-off events are unlikely to be transformational (Parker and Patton, 2017; Patton et al., 2013), there are calls for teacher education to be treated more as an ongoing process (Teaching Council, 2010). Cordingley (2016) recommended a conceptual move from continuing professional development (CPD) to CPDL, indicating that whilst the focus has traditionally been placed on the support offered to teachers, for example, CPD, there needs to be more consideration made for the “learning experiences and activities of teachers as they put that support to work” (p. 53). It is suggested that CoPs can offer this.

Communities of practice: a vehicle for accruing the benefits of mentoring

If one considers the barriers to mentoring mentioned above, it is timely to explore which CPDL processes are most conducive to unlocking the potential benefits of engaging in and with mentoring. Dunning et al. (2011) recommended that the next necessary and natural step for mentor education in Ireland lay in the development of M-CoPs. Whilst there are many potential CPDL processes which can be used for developing mentors’ knowledge and skills, it is proposed that the learning characteristics and dimensions of a CoP are conducive to “a special kind of potential” (Hogan et al., 2007, p. 8). It has been claimed that they offer a professional development space, in which enduring traditional structures can be overcome (Stoll et al., 2006). The aim of this paper is to do as MacPhail (2011) suggested; that is, to share examples of positive outcomes associated with CoPs, in this case, for mentors. Whilst there is much literature describing the characteristics of CoPs and indeed the benefits of engaging in and with CoPs (Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe, 2011), this paper draws upon the three main dimensions of a CoP, as outlined by Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015): the domain, practice and community. For the purpose of focus, each of these dimensions is explained in reference to mentor education.

The domain dimension is characterised by a shared enterprise, which provides members, in this case, mentors, with a sense of collective identity (Parker et al., 2012; Wenger, 1998) and a sense of common purpose (Saldana, 2014). Unlike much CPD, in a CoP, mentors have some input into what they need to learn about with respect to mentoring (McDonald, 2014). Together, they share a commitment to develop their mentoring expertise (Wenger, 2006; Wesely, 2013). They offer their experience and knowledge to other CoP members (Wesely, 2013). Saldana (2014) believed that the “domain moves people to collaborate and participate, determine what content to share, and build sense of accountability over time” (p. 23).

Their passion for a particular domain results in CoP members developing “a shared practice, which connotes doing” (Wesely, 2013, p. 307). They work together to generate a shared bank of resources (Wenger, 1998, 2006). What they bring to the CoP and develop together influences their collective practice (McDonald, 2014). The development of the practice dimension supports the capacity of members to innovatively and creatively adapt, overcome challenges, refine existing knowledge and co-generate new knowledge (Saldana, 2014). As CoPs promote the application of knowledge, members return to their workplace to put their learning into practice (Lum Kai Mun, 2016). As Pyrko et al. (2017) stated, “knowledge ‘sticks to the practice’ in the sense that the potential to act is developed in the social context” (p. 392). When they return to the community, mentors ask and answer one another practice-based questions (Wesely, 2013). In doing so, consensus validates their practice and dissensus leads to the appropriate re-examination of their existing practice (Wenger et al., 2002; Wesely, 2013).

The community contains the people who “care about the domain” (McDonald, 2014, p. 328). It provides the social structure for mentors to interact (Lum Kai Mun, 2016). This can be a place, be it in person or via technology, where mentors develop meaningful relationships and learn with and from each other (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). Unlike traditional CPD, the community dimension allows for social learning and bonding (McDonald, 2014). As they engage in activities and discussions, and share strategies and solutions, they build supportive relationships (Wenger, 2006). There are many ways in which community is built: collaboration, social interaction, knowledge reciprocation, enterprise negotiation and shared problem solving (Saldana, 2014). Relationships can develop to the point where members communicate with one another beyond the CoP and between formal meetings (McDonald, 2014). It is said that the community dimension of a CoP serves to alleviate the professional isolation, which many teachers experience (Wesely, 2013).

Saldana (2014) suggested that “interactions within these three CoP dimensions propitiate fertile ground for group collaboration and innovation” (p. 1). Therefore, the aim of this paper, in the light of the aforementioned failings, is to examine whether mentors perceived that their engagement in and with mentoring through the CoP dimensions drew out CPDL benefits.

Methodology

The sample consisted of 12 (5 male, 7 female) mentors from 11 schools in one school placement partnership in Ireland. Participants volunteered to engage in and with the development of an M-CoP in order to enhance their practice as mentors of ITE PE student teachers. This study adopted a social constructivist, subjective interpretivist approach, as it moved beyond measuring how things are to understanding how people in the social world interpret their realities (Bryman, 2012).

As the focus of the study was on CPDL for mentors, the participatory action learning action research (PALAR) strategy was adopted. This strategy was suitable as it prioritises the action learning element, as well as the action research aspect of participation (Wood and Zuber-Skerritt, 2013). Action learning “is an iterative, cyclical process of action–reflection–learning, and continuing to the next cycle of action–reflection–learning is always new but always informed by learning from previous cycles” (p. 14).

Participants attended four two-hour CPDL M-CoP workshops (March, May, October 2014 and April 2015: Partnership University). The role of managerial guidance in the facilitation of knowledge co-production in CoPs is important and complex (Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe, 2011). However, given the scope of this study, it should be noted that a “collaborative–directive style” of facilitation was adopted, as is advised during the early stages of CoP development (Dworski-Riggs and Day Langhout, 2010). Participants provided input into what they wished to develop as a community of mentors, and dynamic activities were planned to facilitate participants to co-construct their evolving knowledge and skills (Pratt, 2015). During this time, participants learned together, shared with one another, discussed common issues and supported one another to develop their mentoring practice (Wenger, 2008). Based on their learning, participants set targets and returned to their schools to “try [them] out” (McNiff, 2002, p. 71). They then returned to the M-CoP and updated one another about their evolving hopes, fears, challenges, barriers, successes and triumphs (Chevalier and Buckles, 2013). In doing so, they also shared tangible strategies for applying and cascading their learning to colleagues (Wood and Zuber-Skerritt, 2013). Some participants also engaged in project work between workshops (September 2014: partnership university; participant’s school and Skype). For example, five participants collaborated to present two workshops and three showcases at a national education conference. This gave them “an opportunity to identify and possibly pass on their learning publicly and to celebrate each other’s contributions to the project’s success” (Zuber-Skerritt, 2011, cited in Wood and Zuber-Skerritt, 2013, p. 8). A shared bank of mentoring resources was generated in and through participants’ engagement with the M-CoP (Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe, 2011), and the resources were made available on the M-CoP’s Google drive.

Triangulation was promoted through a variety of data sources, methods and researchers (Bryman, 2012). The data collection process included the completion of an M-CoP questionnaire in the first workshop, which the mentor participants then cyclically reflected upon via a “stimulus recall entry” at the following workshops (Meyer, 2002). They also completed pre-workshop questions in order to reflect on their position prior to delving into a topic of interest. Workshops were recorded and observed, and all artefacts generated from the PALAR activities were photographed. Participants completed a “learning journey” plan, setting targets and reflecting upon their progress, or lack thereof, in a “learning journal”.

Further data analysis was undertaken across the different data sets using the “inductive – deductive” approach (Mouly, 1978) to facilitate “constant comparison” of categories and codes (Glaser and Strauss, 1967). The second stage, axial coding, involved the researcher digging more deeply into the data, whereby the categories were compared to their sub-categories and codes were assigned to sub-categories because they related to one another in some way (Strauss and Corbin, 1998). The NVivo project screenshots in Figure 1 illustrate this, whilst also providing an outline of the final themes which were used to report the findings in this paper.

Extended focus group discussions were also used as a form of respondent validation (Silverman, 2006). Participants were presented with interpretations of the data as preliminary findings, and this acted as a basis for discussion. It was very important to “check that what I was inferring [was] what people were meaning to say” (Hales, 2016, p. 83). These were also recorded and transcribed.

It should be noted that whilst many benefits emerged from the data analysis, only benefits aligned with the CoP dimensions are reported in this particular paper. It is believed that the development of CoP dimensions promotes engagement with processes and activities which are rich in high-quality CPDL characteristics (Saldana, 2014). Anonymity is supported through the use of pseudonyms (Bryman, 2012).

Results and discussion

As explained above, micro cross-analysis of the data sets was conducted by coding against three prescribed categories, the CoP dimensions: domain, practice and community. The following codes of each dimension were drawn from the data and are discussed below: domain: enhanced professional identity; practice: enhanced commitment to development; community: support and solidarity, and engagement and interaction; and all dimensions combined: sharing “for” and learning “with” others, knowledge expansion and learning from difference, and boundary spanning.

Domain aligned benefits for mentoring

Enhanced professional identity

As noted earlier, the domain dimension of a CoP is characterised by a shared enterprise (Wenger, 1998). It was hoped that bringing mentors together to focus on mentoring would provide them with a sense of collective identity (Patton et al., 2005). Participants in this study suggested that it was refreshing to come together with “people who are likeminded” (Aoife) and who respected their passion for mentoring, a finding shared by Patton et al. (2005). As noted above, through the M-CoP, participants benefitted from a raised awareness that other teachers were just as passionate about mentoring as they were. As Ellen expressed, “I am a part of a community of practice and I can see it happening in other schools and I have first-hand experience of it”. As a domain is developed, it is claimed that a sense of belonging and connectedness is experienced (Saldana, 2014). As members connect with professionals doing similar work, they become more aware that they are not alone in their interests and journeys (Wenger, 2008). Participants noted that being part of the M-CoP positively distinguished them from other mentors (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). They came to believe that a joint commitment to and perceived competence in mentoring separated them from others, as found by Wenger (2012). Eamonn added, “I’m not saying we are the elite ones but we are engaged in the process and so, surely we have to be better mentors than other people out there”. As such, participants came to see themselves as part of the in-crowd, with other less-engaged mentors beyond the CoP being considered the out-crowd (Ashforth and Mael, 1989).

Another benefit of the domain dimension related to professional identity. Mary agreed: “being part of this [M-CoP] makes me more confident about being a good mentor”. Indeed, professional identity is strongly associated with competence (Williams-Newball, 2014). Padraig expressed why: “It is backed up from me actually working on something for a couple of years”. Ellen added, “At least I can say: ‘I have spoken to other people and other people are doing it. I’m not the only eegit’ […] I can back it up by saying this isn’t just me”. Similar to the findings in Dworski-Riggs and Day Langhout’s (2010) study, participants asserted that as they became more expert, they gained more attention and respect as mentors from colleagues in their schools. Sean expressed this: “When I do have something to say, they do listen […] a bit more” than they previously did. Being identified by others in the profession as knowledgeable or expert is a boost for domain identity (Saldana, 2014). Williams-Newball (2014) confirmed that when the domain dimension is well developed for mentors, this leads members to feel a sense of pride about being linked to a “high performing community” and about its achievements (p. 79). Padraig maintained that he was feeling “excited and believe[d] that in a ‘mentoring CoP’ we can start to effect change”.

Practice aligned benefits for mentoring

Enhanced commitment to development

As a community comes together to engage with one another around a particular focus (mentoring), their practice relates to the work they are building together over time, through repeated interactions with one another (Saldana, 2014). A “time commitment to plan, evaluate, reflect and speculate” is typically demonstrated in CoPs (Lloyd and Beard, 1995, cited in Keay, 2006, p. 288). Eamonn expressed how highly he regarded the M-CoP’s contribution to his evolving practice:

I’d be nearly buzzing […] I’d be talking to [my] wife coming in through the door: “awh yeah I really enjoyed that work there” and even though I’ve been away from home for the 5 or 6 hours, I definitely felt the benefit from it.

As is typical of meaningful CoPs, participants communicated that they held a shared aim of becoming better at what they do (Armour et al., 2015). Aoife shared that the rationale for joining the M-CoP was “to support members of the community to reflect on how they mentored [student teachers] in their care”. Niamh attributed “becom[ing] more reflective […] to the community of practice”. Membership implies that teachers take ownership for their own actions and are more responsible for their own development. Even where participants were facing barriers to their engagement, they were reassuring members that they would “keep trying” to effect change (Niamh). CoP members have been known to express that they feel positive about sharing ideas or solutions to help other members (Saldana, 2014). Mary suggested that “when [they] had [a whole school] inspection”, using M-CoP resources generated by M-CoP activities “was quite helpful” and they gave them to “other departments”. With each CoP interaction, members are said to learn a little more about their domain (Lindquist et al., 2006). Participants described having had “significant conversation[s]” which led to them trying out what they had discussed and coming back together to update one another on progress, “agree[ing] that it certainly helped” (Aoife). Where the community comes together to develop the domain well, members report that their engagement with other members results in them coming up with more ideas, demonstrating best practice and generally being “more effective in doing [their] job” (Williams-Newball, 2014, p. 81). As Oisin explained, “It has helped how I look at how I practice”. Eamonn further communicated: “Definitely being involved in the [M-CoP] has helped me to become a better mentor”.

Community aligned benefits for mentoring

The community dimension can facilitate the establishment of networks, where members develop their domain as they interact with one another (Lindquist et al., 2006). Participants in this study suggested that the community dimension was extremely beneficial for their development as mentors.

Community support and solidarity

Eamonn shared that until his engagement with the M-CoP, he was “a lone wolf” as his school was “stuck in the back arse of nowhere”. He explained the significance of his engagement in and with the M-CoP. “I was paddling my own canoe and then coming here and learning from the experience of other people […] was a big thing for me because like, I possibly had no-one to discuss it with”. Indeed, it has been reported that CoPs transcend geographical boundaries, helping professionals who are on a similar journey to connect with one another (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). It was also deemed important for participants who worked as the only qualified PE teacher in their department. Whilst they appreciated working with a student teacher, they did not have another PE colleague with whom to discuss their mentoring practices: “I am the only qualified PE teacher in my school. So, me coming into the community of practice is me chatting with other PE teachers as well” (Ellen). Patton et al. (2013) found that for teachers “working in isolation”, the engagement in a CoP “make[s] a difference” because it provides them with an instant network (p. 453). The community dimension is said to offer support, solidarity and a sense of unity amongst members (Fricke, 2013). Participants were adamant that they could not have sustained their engagement with the school placement guidelines and development as much, were it not for the community. Aidan expressed this:

I can honestly say that if it wasn’t for the people who are here […] If we hadn’t the support […] we have great support off all of the people here […] Otherwise, we could go to the other end of the spectrum and just go: “Here’s my class” […] Whereas, like, we see the benefits of it and we hear the benefits of it

(from one another).

Patton et al. (2005) also reported that without the continued support of other mentors, teachers struggle to apply what they are learning and to effect change.

Community engagement and interaction

As suggested above, the community dimension offers the opportunity for members to engage meaningfully with one another (Wenger, 1998). Participants engaged with one another in different ways through workshops, smaller project meetings, conference presentations, online platforms, emails, phone calls, text messages and social media, for example, WhatsApp messages. Eamonn noted that the ways in which the community were facilitated to engage with one another were “innovative […] imaginative and novel”, making it easy to “extract information” and share with one another. Most importantly, after a long day of teaching and travelling, he claimed that they “didn’t notice the two hours fly by”. A “participative dynamic” is important for promoting engagement between community members (Thompson, 2005, p. 152). Where engagement is dynamic, symbiotic and reciprocal, members are said to benefit more (Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe, 2011).

Domain, practice and community aligned benefits for mentoring

Sharing “for” and learning “with” others

The domain, practice and community dimensions interlink well because when people care deeply about something, for example, mentoring, they wish to be included in what sustains and drives that passion (Wenger, 1998). As such, the community dimension of a CoP promotes and facilitates sharing of practice about a domain. Participants expressed that they were “impressed [by] […] how open people were to share concepts or ideas” (Eamonn). Because there is a shared interest in a community, there is said to be a greater openness to sharing with members (Wenger and Snyder, 2000). Aoife insisted that “dialogue with peers is one of the greatest ways to learn about [their] practice”. As identified by Mary, they learned from one another and saw new possibilities through “sharing stories”. There is a call for more attention to be given to the dialogic approach to CPDL (Thorkildsen, 2013). The dialogic focus allows for greater sharing of lived experiences (Van Kruiningen, 2013). This results in discussion which is less likely to be generalised, normative and de-contextualised, and increases the chances of sharing which is transparent, contextual, inclusive and relatable (Olesen and Nordentoft, 2013). For this reason, participants reported that they learned a lot from one another. They appreciated “hearing others’ perspective[s]” (Aoife) and “what works for some and what doesn’t work” (Padraig). Eamonn agreed that social engagement involved them “sitting around the table […] trouble shooting” as they identified problems and potential solutions. CoPs provide members with the community space to participate in shared activities, which prompt them to assist each other with identifying solutions (Wenger, 2008).

Knowledge expansion and learning from difference

Participants expressed an expectation that members could empower the community by sharing the practical steps they made towards progress. For example, Aoife made the following request: “It’d be interesting for the next meeting, if Ellen could tell us how she managed to do what she did”. With their drive to sustain and develop the domain of interest, CoP members are said to build shared goals, and as they work to reach them, a sense of accountability is fostered (Wenger, 1998). Community members rely upon one another to narrow gaps in their understanding and, in doing so, build a collective expertise (Wenger, 1998).

Knowledge expansion occurs as members with differences of opinion share their practice and experiences (Patton et al., 2005). Aoife appreciated “listening to other people talking about their problems with the student [teacher] or their successes with the student [teacher]”. She noted that it had “helped [her] reframe [her] thinking about [her] student [teacher] and how [she could] help him or her”. Ellen further explained how members’ thinking was expanded by the community: “There is a wide variety of teachers’ experiences that can be shared and experiences vary from year to year, so it is useful to get advice from teachers who may have different experiences in the past”. It is believed that, having come from different schools, members are exposed to difference, which makes them and the community more permeable to outside influences and thus supports the generation of new ideas and perceptions (Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe, 2011). It is believed that the community dimension offers difference (Bruce et al., 2011), and this difference acts as a catalyst for deeper thinking (Sobottka, 2013). Indeed, as bodies of existing knowledge are shared and alternative perspectives are offered, existing knowledge is said to be reconsidered (von Krogh et al., 2001, cited in Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe, 2011). Therefore, this community drive is said to challenge professional insularity (Wenger, 1998).

Boundary spanning

As CoP members become more knowledgeable and skilled as a community, it is said that they are more inclined to set collective goals to share their knowledge (Christens, 2012). It also promotes engagement with those beyond their CoP (Saldana, 2014). Padraig suggested, “Could that not be a target for us? To start like small apples and sow seeds and go back to our schools into our department”. Ellen explained that she shared “firstly with one teacher in [her] school, then with the staff as a whole”. Niamh highlighted that boundary spanning was assisting them in their own mentoring work. She claimed that “because [of] this”, this being their engagement in and with the M-CoP, colleagues “are engaging and mentoring as well, which is quite good for me because […] it’s time and effort”. Aoife credited their membership of the community with their enhanced capacity to boundary span:

Boundary brokering was made possible from the cautious confidence derived from the engagement with [the M-CoP]. We took courage from others’ boundary spanning […] This gave us a vision of what was possible in our school communities, and gave us a “template” of how we might contribute to this type of learning in our own schools.

As found by Opfer and Pedder (2011), community engagement broadened participants’ horizons as they became more fluent in the language of possibility for their practice as mentors. Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe (2011) explained that the process of “boundary spanning” involves participants interacting with those outside of the M-CoP in order to effect change, which makes their efforts to apply their CPDL easier (p. 356).

Conclusions

Armour et al. (2015) proposed that whatever the content focus of CPDL, the process itself should: account for the “dazzling complexity” of how teachers learn; prioritise contextual challenges; bridge the gap between theory and practice creatively; and foster the continual growth of teachers (Armour et al., 2015, p. 1). In an attempt to engage mentors in CPDL, it is proposed that this study followed the above advice. The study sought to examine whether engaging in and with an M-CoP as a CPDL process had a perceived impact upon the CPDL benefits accrued by mentors. It was of particular interest whether this was possible within a system which has traditionally resided at the “work placement” end of the university-school collaboration continuum (Maandag et al., 2007). Despite the traditional attitude to mentoring being quite negative in Ireland until recently (Mulcahy and McSharry, 2012), the mentors in this study have resoundingly answered the question “What’s in it for the mentor?” (Clinard and Ariav, 1998, p. 93). Participants identified that through engaging in mentoring through an M-CoP, they accrued benefits of and for mentoring beyond those published by the Teaching Council (2013). As Borzillo and Kaminska-Labbe (2011) suggested, participants noted that through working together in the M-CoP, they learned more than they expected to. However, as has been called for, participants identified that the CPDL process very much contributed to their capacity to accrue the CPDL benefits they reported. This paper has attempted to highlight that in honouring Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner’s (2015) CoP dimensions, mentoring benefits were realised by participants. Participants made many references to how the CPDL was beneficial for their mentoring, and the evidence tightly linked to each of the dimensions and how they interacted with one another. Many of the traditional inadequacies of CPDL were avoided and/or overcome, in part, through accessing the CoP dimensions, challenging what we know about effective CPDL for mentoring (Patton et al., 2013). O’Rourke’s (2013) statement is reflective of the experience of the participants in this study: “There is an immense richness of learning to be found in teachers leading each other in learning. No one person has all the answers. But a community of learners will empower everyone to find ideas worth exploring” (p. 3). This particular study found the combination of mentoring and a CoP to be compatible and mutually reinforcing for accessing CPDL benefits for mentors. The findings suggest that even where a system has traditionally resided at the less-collaborative end of the partnership continuum, engagement in a CoP can support mentors to accrue the benefits of mentoring engagement. It also provides some support for the potential of M-CoP engagement for developing a school placement partnership model to become more collaborative.

Limitations and implications for further research

They key limitation of this study is that the sample size is small and is limited to one country and one subject specialism (PE). As such, the opportunity for generalisability is low. However, to lean on the assertions of Lejonberg et al. (2015), Ireland is a small country and M-CoPs are relatively new phenomena in teacher and mentor education (O’Grady, 2017). Therefore, it was difficult to entice a larger sample, given the lack of awareness of mentoring benefits for the mentor and given the history of engagement with mentoring and M-CoPs. Guskey’s (2000) model of teacher change asserted that teachers are more inclined to buy in when they realise the benefits. As such, to convince teachers of the potential benefits of engaging in mentoring CPDL through CoPs, more research needs to focus upon the voice of the mentor (Crutcher and Naseem, 2016). As MacPhail (2011) suggested, more evidence of how CoPs work effectively needs to be shared. Van Kruiningen (2013) added that more micro-analytical research needs to be conducted on CoPs in order to uncover the interactional dynamics which make them effective for CPDL.

Whilst there is growing interest in the benefits of mentoring for mentors, this study sought to bolster the case that the CPDL processes which are selected to develop mentoring have an impact on the potential outcomes (Aelterman et al., 2013). Whilst more context-specific evidence may be required to convince teachers that effective mentor education is possible within the current socio-cultural, historical and economic climate, this study emphasises significant potential benefits of mentors’ engagement in M-CoPs and, more generally, suggests that CoPs can challenge traditional practices (Teaching Council, 2010; Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015).

Figures

Data codes and sub-codes

Figure 1

Data codes and sub-codes

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Further reading

McNiff, J. (2013), Action Research: Principles and Practice, 3rd ed., Routledge, Oxon.

Supplementary materials

IJMCE_7_2.pdf (3 MB)

Corresponding author

Eimear Holland can be contacted at: eimear.holland@dcu.ie