Mentoring to Support Educators' Learning Processes

Background, Thoughts and Experiences

We educators and other professionals working in schools need more know-how and competence in tackling discrimination in its different forms. We must be able to recognise, manage, and finally transform our classrooms and schools into safer spaces for all. What we are doing now is not enough. To meet these timely development needs, the educational field also lacks new tools and methods that would support all professionals working in schools in their anti-racist and anti-discrimination work. For this purpose, the material “Tackling Discrimination, My Learning Diary” was created. The printed materials are freely available in English, Finnish and Swedish while the web course is in English, Estonian and Russian.

The Erasmus+ project, Safe Schools for All: Teachers Transforming Societies, was organised during the years 2019–2021. At the early stages of the project, it was given a new nickname “SAFER”, which stands for Schools Act for Equal Rights. This is what we are aiming for, to build a safer school for all children and youth. The project was organised in cooperation with partners from Estonia, Slovenia and Finland: Peace Education Institute (main coordinator), Mondo, Noored Kooli, Ljubljana Pride, Kokkola city, Nove Fužine and Tamsalu schools. During the SAFER project, we had three training sessions (groups A, B and C), which consisted of two parts (all together 8 working days) and a separate training set for SAFER mentors. The last group, C, was organised as a shorter set online due to the effects of Covid-19.

The participants have been in different professions working in schools: teachers, administrative staff, school psychologists, school social workers, headmasters, etc. The core of the thinking behind the material and the course is the importance of reflection combined with the knowledge learnt and applying this to the learner’s own context.

It has been obvious from the beginning that educators need support in these learning processes. Many teachers feel that they are alone with the challenges of tackling discriminatory situations and working towards a safer learning environment for all. In addition, it is clear that nobody can transform the learning environments or societies alone. Could a peer group facilitated by a trained mentor support other teachers and foster change in our schools? Could a shared peer-group learning process be a useful model, when starting a more systematic recognising and managing process aiming to make the transformation possible?

In making the change towards equal societies and creating safer spaces for all, the triangle of recognising, managing and transforming repeats over and over again. Using methods of cooperative and shared learning processes combined with self-reflection could be one tool for transformation. This is the hypothesis we have pondered in the SAFER project, where parallel processes of mentoring training in small groups and training courses for educators were organised. The mentors’ task was to create a mentoring platform using peer-group mentoring guidelines to support other educators in their anti-discrimination work

Triangle infographic demonstrating the 3-step changing process
Change process of recognising, managing, and transforming.

Unfortunately, this process was interrupted by Covid-related issues and the planned project did not get realised as we hoped and planned. However, from this article, you can read some insights into the mentors’ thoughts and experiences, as well as about the content of the mentoring training and the thinking behind it.  

The Mentoring Trainings​

The city of Kokkola in Finland has developed mentoring systems for almost 20 years. The first peer-group mentoring for teachers was launched in 2003 as a research project carried out by the Finnish Institute for Educational Research (FIER). Kokkola was one of the cities involved. (Read more about the mentoring development in Kokkola: Johnson & Alamaa, 2012. Mentoring as sustainable school development. Peer-Group mentoring for teacher development.) When planning mentoring trainings for SAFER project purposes, the model of peer-group mentoring in Kokkola was used as a basis for the structure and guidelines for the SAFER mentoring training and further mentoring activities. The content and aims of the SAFER trainings planned for educators were combined to the entity, which offered much needed insights into the themes of anti-racism and anti-discrimination

Mentors participated in two trainings, where common guidelines were processed together, with the third training getting cancelled due to Covid19-related reasons. Instead, feedback of the experiences and learnings so far were processed together. The objectives for the SAFER-mentoring training were:

  1. Finding innovative ways to tackle hate speech and discrimination, in general, using a mentoring process as an approach. Different contexts (partner schools and organisations) and the Kokkola peer-group mentoring model give a fruitful starting point for this development work.

  2. Creating a support system for teachers. The mentoring system can be national or local, or even in use in one school, depending on the context and what is realistic. The roles and responsibilities of the mentors will be tailored to the needs of the organisation/school/NGO.

  3. Learning about peer-group mentoring guidelines and getting to know the research about mentoring systems in the field of education.

  4. Increasing understanding (theory and timely information) about racism and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Aiming to understand more deeply the complex phenomenon of discrimination.

Content of the Mentoring Trainings in a Nutshell

  • What is mentoring: Different forms and models of mentoring.
  • What is peer-group mentoring?
  • What are the responsibilities of a mentor, what are not?
  • Ethics in mentoring. What is mentoring, what is something else?
  • Can the comprehensive adoption of mentoring influence the development of school communities and the local school organisation?
  • Expectations of mentors and mentees – do they meet? Your role as a mentor – what could it be like? Your context and mentoring as a part of your work. What are the limits?
  • Peer-group mentoring supporting anti-discrimination work. What does it mean and what does it request?
  • Discussions in the mentoring groups are highly confidential and are not to be told to anyone who does not belong to the group. A contract of confidentiality can be signed by all the group members.
  • A mentoring discussion is an equal dialogue, in which people are committed to finding positive solutions to problems concerned. The ethical starting point is mutual help.
  • All kinds of talking behind anyone’s back is strictly forbidden. Furthermore, no one should either lead the discussion in a certain direction or be in a dominant role over the others.
  • Peer-mentoring is based on the idea that everyone is able to learn something from the others via a good dialogue. Meaningful learning is based on personal experiences and solving real questions and problems.
  • Why is concentrating on dialogue important?

    • Peer-group mentoring as a dialogic process strengthens the willingness to co-operate between individuals and also at the community level.
    • Good communication skills are valuable in the social field of the workplace and school community.
    • Dialogue is the key factor in the learning community for sharing knowledge and continuous development of the school.

Modified from: Johnson & Alamaa. 2012. Mentoring as sustainable school development

  • Tools for learning: how to approach your learning process in anti-discrimination topics.
  • Language:
    Defining, understanding and practising different concepts, building your vocabulary and understanding the importance of inclusive language and what this means in practice. Comparing different languages supports the process of recognising exclusive elements used in our language.
  • Deepening the knowledge about discrimination mechanisms, identity and intersectionality. The material concentrates on tackling racism and discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. It is necessary to focus to be able to make research that is more specific and focus the actions properly.
  • Tools for tackling challenges:
    The material provides different aspects and ideas on how you can approach the process of transformation in equality and equity work. Good practices shared by the training course participants are also introduced.
  • Reflecting and applying the learned information to your own context.
  • With this knowledge the process aims to support the mentors:
    To recognise the underlying processes of discrimination and hate speech.
  • To be equipped to manage instances of discrimination and hate speech.
    To be empowered to transform their operational culture.
  • When and how often? Regularity matters.
  • How many participants?
  • Where will the meetings be held? Being aware of the impact of the place and facilities.
  • Peer-mentoring groups are formed on the basis of the willingness of the participants; the process must be voluntary.
  • Safer space guidelines in mentoring
  • Trust and shared guidelines for the mentoring groups
  • Peer-mentoring in your own context: what are the best practices for you?

Experiences and Thoughts from the Mentors

Mateja Morić
Ljubljana Pride

Mentoring process in Slovenia started after the trainings (SAFER trainings organized for educators). It was held with each group separately (teachers who participated in A training had their process and the teachers who participated in the B process, their own). In both groups, we focused on reflecting the competencies participants gained from the training, their needs and where they want to go with their learning process. More specifically, we were somewhere in the process of establishing trust in the group. We have shared our fears, expectations and needs and exchanged useful materials and publications.

We had just planned the rest of the process when the pandemic hit us. We planned to start meeting both groups together (teachers who participated in both A and B training), as that was a wish stated by both groups. They saw it as a method of increasing the pool of people who can support them by sharing their experiences, asking for recommendations in specific cases and comparing the methods used.

Ideally, we would have met once a month for approximately 90 minutes. Every time there would be two parts of the meeting: 1) the short input provided based on their needs with a reflection on how they can use that in practice; and 2) experience sharing sessions among participants. The proposed overview of the sessions did not come from a vacuum – it is based on the expressed needs of the teachers.

In terms of the mentioned inputs, we would focus on 2 areas. Firstly, we would focus on increasing the awareness: self-reflection and recognising personal biases and triggers (what do I as a professional bring with me). The main purpose here would be to transform and increase the self-confidence of the teachers. Secondly, we would look into specific methods that can support them in the class, both for prevention of hate speech – by creating a safer, inclusive and diverse space and reacting to it when it happens.

If I think about the challenges we faced, language is the first one – and on a few levels. I am working in an NGO and talking about some concepts, we used different words. I mirrored some of the words they used, if I didn’t understand some terms, I would ask them and we would laugh together, and for some things I assessed as not-so-relevant on the spot, I would write them down and google it, to ensure I would know it next time. This also took a toll on the process of establishing trust, as at the beginning I felt like I was put to a test like I had to prove myself as an expert.

Establishing the common vocabulary was the red thread of our meetings. Not just because of the different schools-NGOs realities, but also because often the teachers’ lack of confidence to address some issues would start with them not finding the right term for it or fearing that the term is not adequate. Furthermore, language is also important when it comes to the content we were focusing on. One of the things we agreed to focus more on in one of the meetings was inclusive language.

In terms of other challenges, I recognise, they were mostly logistical in nature. The questions of where and when to meet took a lot of energy and time to find the answer. My personal opinion is that school is not the best place to meet – we were meeting there, and we would often be interrupted by others. It was also hard for the teachers to disconnect from work.

Other logistical challenges include dealing with the reality of teachers not being able to participate in the second training, which further highlighted the different levels of knowledge and motivation in the group. The same would be for teachers from group C – when to introduce them to the bigger group of other teachers?

In conclusion, I am not for a second doubting that mentoring can be beneficial in anti-discrimination work. Reality is complex, and the situations youth and teachers work with, are diverse and cannot be addressed by a one-size-fits-all approach. Having a space to find that size by asking questions, sharing thoughts, concerns and ideas and getting feedback can really support the learning process.

Pauliina Savolainen
Education Department of Kokkola

Project Safer was created as a response to a demand indicated by teachers around Europe for giving guidance and support on managing the increasing hate speech we are facing nowadays. The main goal of the project was to collect and develop best practices and tangible tools to tackle hate speech and discrimination in schools and surrounding society. This would be achieved by increasing awareness, information and know-how about hate speech among teachers and school staff.

The project consisted of three courses for teachers and other educational staff, each of them having two intensive residential trainings. The first training period took place in February 2019 in Pärnu, Estonia and it was for training a group of mentors. The idea was to develop a mentoring system within the project and then expand the practice to the local school communities of the project’s participating organisations. The purpose of mentoring is to support teachers in their work to tackle hate speech and discrimination, adapted to the participating organisations national contexts. During the project there were selected mentors from each participating country. The mentors created and adapted mentoring into their local context.

Within the project, mentors give support to the other trainees of the project. For me it meant meeting the other local teachers in the project before and in between the residential trainings. At first, there was no need for strictly structured sessions, since there were 1–3 mentees at a time. The sessions were mainly for preparing for and reflecting on the training. Mentoring guidelines of active listening, mutual learning, guiding and supporting turned out worthwhile.

Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the trainings and mentoring were not executed entirely as planned. The aim of my mentoring process in the future would be to gather Kokkola’s trainees together and create a functioning mentoring system in co-operation. The ideal would be to increase awareness and know-how about hate speech and discrimination in order that every teacher in Kokkola would be a transforming agent within the school system. By educating children and tackling the discrimination problem in schools, teachers can create a safer space for social transformation at schools. Transformation for a more equal and safer society begins in schools!

Reijo Väljak
Institute of Noored Kooli Tallinn

In Estonia, we met with groups A and B participants two times and the main points we focused on during those meetings were:

  • Each school had time to make a plan, how to use the SAFER content and tools at schools (events they want to hold, trainings for teachers, methods to use, etc.)
  • Each school introduced methods and best practices (what they learned on trainings).
  • Case studies and how to process them.

The biggest challenge for mentors in Estonia was the time. As we only met with the teachers two times (time between those two meetings was approx. 5–6 months) it was not enough to build up a relationship with them. Covid19 interrupted the plans. But during the two meetings, we noticed with Sigrid (the other mentor) that teachers turned to us with questions which we would have wanted to pass to trainers (how to execute the methods in the classroom, etc.) and therefore I suggest that it would be more beneficial that the trainers would also be mentors.

Anne Kraubner
Tamsalu School

At Tamsalu school, SAFER participants focused on case studies collected and processed together in a meeting that Anne facilitated. Combining the information learned during SAFER trainings, the group wanted to concentrate on case studies and with help of this shared reflection work aiming to recognize, manage and transform the learning environment. Instead of a smaller peer-group, in Tamsalu the school aimed for trainings and reflections with the whole school staff.

“At Tamsalu Gymnasium we managed to deal with hate speech by collecting comments from the students and analyzing the results. We also collected cases from the teachers to be able to have different insights into discriminatory situations at school. COVID-19 restrictions and working online challenged our plans.

In a perfect world, we would first get together with the participants of groups A and C (unfortunately 2 of the teachers of group B have left our school) and first discuss the manual, set the goals and plan for the transformation of the school environment. Then organise training sessions with the whole staff (focusing on case studies, problem-solving tasks, etc.) which can lead to the transformation of the whole school.

Also, the question of establishing a safe space at school would be a challenging task.

As SAFER set the ideas, now it’s time to implement what has been learnt into practice, which means the continuation and practical outcome of the project.


The SAFER-mentors’ thoughts and experiences are valuable; they were able to modify the shared model to their own context. The good practices found along the way taught us much, as well as the practices that turned out to function poorly. Unfortunately, Covid19 interrupted our process and at first, we were not prepared to utilise online possibilities effectively. Teachers were also struggling to somehow manage the teaching in dramatically changed conditions. Nevertheless, we have learned a lot and we have a clear direction in how to continue this process further. Mentoring benefits from regular face-to-face meetings, but online cooperation can also be used in certain circumstances. Though it must be said that creating a confidential and fruitful shared online learning space is challenging. On the other hand, online cooperation increases accessibility and gives possibilities to extend the network broader.

Reijo pointed out in his thoughts about their mentoring process, that also mentors would have needed support. It is not an easy position to be in and questions vary. Nobody has the answers to all questions and for this reason, it would be important to also have a support platform for mentors and a platform to reflect on questions and answers as well as how to approach certain topics.

One of the negative sides of our mentoring system was its vulnerable character. If a support platform is built around one person, it is highly likely that the continuation of the process might be compromised at some point. This was the case in some of the organisations. How to create mentoring training that is regularly available for new mentors? Or what about if the model would be created around a broader model, where the peers are trained together, and the responsibilities can be divided between participants more equally? Could the shared learning process mean peer-group meetings, shared responsibilities and taking turns facilitating? What about working in pairs instead of a group of 4–8 people? These questions are important when developing supporting systems for educators tackling discrimination further. We need variety and flexibility, because of our different needs and circumstances.

Written by

Eeva-Liisa Kiiskilä & Amiirah Salleh-Hoddin

Mateja Morić, Pauliina Savolainen, Anne Kraubner, Reijo Väljak


The project was funded by Europe for Citizens Programme of the European Union. 

Animated Neu and Nor are standing on top of a colourful globe.