Planning an Erasmus+ project like NEST is a complex undertaking. Details such as tasks and deliverables, as well as necessary time investment, are often planned years in advance and unsurprisingly, changes are bound to happen. While adaptations in terms of timeline or resources are fairly common, it’s not so common that one of the policy related goals of a project is actually achieved while the project is still underway.
The Austrian case in NEST was pretty unique from the beginning, as Austria had already introduced an induction phase for novice teachers some years ago, but not for career changers. In Austria, NEST was an opportunity to show that also this special group of novice teachers needs support and that the relevance of mentoring to tackle teacher shortages in Europe.
As the project approached the second year of the project, partners felt confident that everything would be much easier with all the experience gained during the first round of the experiment. However, suddenly Teach For Austria received the news that all novice teachers – also career changers – would need to have a mentor through the official induction system during school year 2022-2023 This meant that the target group was going to disappear and that there was a high risk of stopping the Austrian pilot.
How did the consortium deal with this situation?
It turned out that the planning that had happened years before was actually pretty helpful. In the NEST project, a whole work package is dedicated to internal “Quality Assurance”. The very first deliverable in this work package was drafting the so called “Quality Assurance Plan”. In this detailed document we not only defined indicators to evaluate progress, but we also thought through potential risks that might come up in the course of the project. Taking the time to discuss these risks and possible courses of action proved to be really helpful because “Changing policy climate within each country and at the European level” was actually one of the risks listed in that risk register. At the time it might have seemed very hypothetical and far-fetched, but a few years later it was suddenly very real.
Of course the Quality Assurance Plan didn’t provide detailed guidance as to what needs to be done for each risk should it occur, but because the risk register is reviewed in each 6-monthly quality assurance report, it allowed the NEST partners to identify and quickly react.
The Quality Plan did provide a framework that helped decide how to deal with this risk by highlighting necessary discussions on the management level and allocating sufficient time to refocusing energy.
In the end, there were several specific results that came out of this situation:
a) Shift of focus in the implementation:
Instead of recruiting only career changers as mentees, we decided to open the mentoring program for all novice teachers in their first five years of teaching. This gave us the opportunity to work with a broad range of teachers and widened the scope of the NEST mentors. This way NEST mentoring got relevant for a bigger group of teachers and allowed the mentors to diversify their practice and gain more experience.
b) Shift of focus in the exploitation:
As the policy that was supposed to be tested had already been legislated in the meantime, the focus of exploitation efforts is now not targeting policy-makers anymore. Instead, the focus is on building relations with the institutions that create content for the induction and for the mentors’ training in the pedagogic faculties. Away from “convincing” the politicians and the ministry of the benefits of mentoring, the Austrian pilot now move towards establishing the common goal of “how can mentoring be more efficient and effective” and “what can the experience we gathered in NEST contribute to that”.
Teach for Austria’s partnership in the NEST Project and the intense engagement with adaptive mentoring in the context of socially disadvantaged schools provided the organisation with additional knowledge and that will change the way the institutions that are responsible for implementing the mentoring in the Austrian school system perceive them and what they can bring to the system.
Ultimately, a lesson learned is that it’s possible to adapt to quite fundamental changes in a project’s setup and that internal quality assurance is key to deal with those changes.