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Making the most of the Spectrum of Mentoring and Coaching in Education

The CollectivED research and practice centre is working in partnership with Growth Coaching International (GCI), this partnership was celebrated at the CollectivED Knowledge Exchange Conference which took place this July.

Conference Dialogue

Professor Rachel Lofthouse - on right holding tablet

At this event Rachel was joined by Professor C J van Nieuwerburgh, the GCI Executive Director, in a joint dialogue keynote. This blog includes edited highlights of that keynote, which was not scripted but instead opened-up conversations that resonated throughout the conference. The opening question was asked by Christian to Rachel. Christian wanted to know why she describes coaching and mentoring as being on a spectrum?.

Christian at the conference

Professor Christian J van Nieuwerburgh

Rachel responded as follows:

“Most of us would probably think about coaching and mentoring as on a spectrum and there’s obviously a relationship between them. One of the interesting things is that we tend to wrap the two terms together but we may well mean different things. For some of us, the use of the word ‘and’ in the term ‘coaching and mentoring’ suggests that these are very similar processes and relatively interchangeable in their form and characteristics. For others, the use of the word ‘and’ differentiates between the two. Some of us use both terms in both ways and at different times and in different contexts, and maybe haven’t even thought about it that hard.

At some point in their past, teachers have been mentored and it has allowed us access to a profession and it has kept us in the game. Many of us see ourselves as mentors, whether that is by designation, by role, by responsibility or by stance, or tendency, working alongside other people and thinking about how we can support them, help them and enable them to do the very best work they can.

In our English education context, we tend to use mentors as ‘gatekeepers’. Mentors are part of the process of training, and the process of judgement. They help us understand which of our new teachers are capable of joining the profession by meeting a set of standards. The mentor plays quite a key role in that.

But, mentoring is a diverse practice, as is coaching and we get ourselves into all sorts of interesting arguments and discussions about what we actually mean when we say coaching. Many of us will have had an opportunity to train, or to read or experience a particular model of coaching and this means we are very inclusive in our use of the word coaching, but sometimes we may lose definition.

We could spend a lot of time unpacking the spectrum but for me it is an important starting point to recognise that a spectrum suggests all sorts of variability, all sorts of connections and relationships, but also an opportunity to be distinguishing and distinct about what we are doing. A spectrum is made up of individual colours, and that’s not to say that we nail our colour to the mast and say that is my definitive model but at a particular point in time we know the colour of our work when we do it well. So that is partly what I mean when I talk about a spectrum.”

Later in the dialogue Rachel asked Christian about coaching as a buzz word in education, but which seems to mean different things to different people. She was interested in how he viewed it. Christian responded as follows:

“Is coaching a buzz word? Yes, I think it is. I’ve been fascinated by coaching in education for a little while and I’ve noticed the word is in use more. I have this view that something really amazing is happening – people are talking about it, it’s part of the conversation, it is being used more and more, so on the one hand I’m very excited that we’re all using the same language. The downside to it being a buzz word is that it might begin to sound like a fad. Maybe the word itself is going to be a fad, but the idea of educators having quality conversations with each other about encouraging others, their well-being, that is here to stay. The other downside is I have spoken to schools where people are saying they want some of that ‘coaching thing’ and my worry is that we just waltz into it without a clear understanding of what it actually is.

What is it that you would like to be different? If coaching is the answer, what is the question? It’s so important to know why you are doing coaching: maybe the question is ‘How can we engage and empower our people?’ Or it might be ‘How do we improve the well-being of our people?’ Or the question might be ‘How do I connect better with the community?’ I don’t like the checklist mentality that says we should do coaching because everyone else is. The worst thing for me to hear is ‘Oh, we did coaching. It didn’t work’. Also, there’s a risk that we get too evangelical about it, that we think coaching is the answer to everything. It is our collective responsibility to make sure we are using coaching in a way that is most impactful.”

Later still Rachel asked Christian whether we are we just saying that teachers need to talk more or whether the nature of the conversation matter. His response was that “the real question here is about the quality of the conversation. What we bring from the fields of coaching and mentoring is that we help people to have better conversations. Those conversations help us to be of better service to others, especially if you’re a newly qualified teacher, you’re just into the profession, hopefully you are there because you too want to be of service, you want to make a difference. For me, coaching and mentoring is about improving the quality of conversations in schools. If a school were to ask me what would be different if we did coaching; that would be my answer: the quality of the conversations.

From the research point of view, it looks like coaching is having a positive impact on well-being, helping people to achieve their goals better, making people more aspirational, and my niggling doubt is this: is it the coaching that is doing this or is it that there is simply more talking? Could it be that someone is taking an interest in them? That people feel valued, heard, appreciated?”

Following the dialogue keynote the CollectivED conference participants engaged in knowledge exchange discussions which further developed these ideas with a host of fantastic contributors. At the end of August Professor Rachel Lofthouse joins colleagues in Australia at the biannual GCI conference. At the Australian GCO conference Rachel and Christian will hold a similar keynote discussion. Despite coaching and mentoring often being difficult to sustain in the busy lives of schools, they do offer hope for the profession. It will be interesting to see which aspects are paralleled in the international context.

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Professor Rachel Lofthouse

Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.

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