In January 2020 Professor Rachel Lofthouse travels to the ICSEI Conference in Marrakech. ICSEI is the International Congress of School Effectiveness and Improvement and is ‘a global community collaborating for enhanced quality, equity, and excellence in education, related to educational and school effectiveness and improvement’. Rachel Lofthouse will be hosting two CollectivED sessions at the conference, both of which create opportunities for participatory international dialogues about mentoring and coaching in education.
One session is an ‘innovate session’ session in which Rachel Lofthouse is joined by Australian teacher Yasodai Selvakumaran. Yasodai works at Rooty Hill High School on the outskirts of Sydney. She is a mentor, and leader in Professional Practice and mentoring who has gained both national and international recognition (being placed in the top 10 of the Global Teacher Prize in 2019). During this session Rachel and Yasodai encourage participants to reflect on and share models of teacher mentoring. The trigger is a ten-minute dynamic conversation between the two facilitators. The conversation evokes memories of a short visit which Rachel made to the Rooty Hills High School in August 2019 when discussions with mentors, their mentees and leaders elicited details, opportunities and dilemmas of practice. Through adopting a curious stance and asking “what did you notice about mentoring practices in our school that stays with you five months later” Yasodai and Rachel’s dialogue focuses on the qualities and characteristics of mentoring in the specific context. This will then be opened-up into a wider discussion, with participants asked to discuss their own insights into and experiences of mentoring, drawing on practice, research or policy development and implementation.
The second session is an international symposium with the title ‘Placebo, Sticking Plaster Or Cure: Is There A Role For Coaching And Mentoring In Sustaining The Wellbeing And Career-long Learning Of Education Practitioners?’ Joining Rachel Lofthouse are three other contributors; Dr Trista Holweck from the University of Ottawa whose research is based in the Western Quebec School Board, Canada; Dr Deborah Netolicky from St Mark's Anglican Community School and Murdoch University, Australia; and Jeremy Hannay who is headteacher of Three Bridges Primary School in the UK. This symposium is based on each contributor taking turns in a sequence of conversations, being first an ‘interviewer’ and then a ‘respondent’. This conversational format - part interview, part model of coaching in action - creates lively, fluid and informed discussion, which provoke the audience to engage in reflection and further discussion. The themes in this symposium are based on research and practice insights and focus on the following key questions and concerns:
- Addressing the problem of high stakes accountability in schools through deeper conversations
- Expected and unexpected impacts of coaching in schools
- Can the mentor-coach role be a supportive structure for experienced teachers’ well-being capacity and flourishing in school?
- Threading together career-long learning and wellbeing in a performative education system.
In any school system the teaching and leadership workforce represents both the greatest asset and the biggest expenditure in schools. Supporting teachers’ development at all career stages is critical for both their retention and growth in professional capacity. However high stakes accountability can elicit fear in teachers and school leaders – which actively reduces innovation, collaboration, growth and sustainable development. In the UK inspection and regulation are now seen as a mechanism for improvement. The consequences for the system have been a mass confusion about the role of external accountability without acknowledging one’s internal sense, corporate style management dressed up as leadership, and the deeply misguided belief that we can improve the system by focussing on individual schools. If we want our system to improve, we must design a system of improvement that focuses on supporting the growth and development of all schools, all leaders, all teachers.
Mentoring offers one means to achieve this, however mentoring as an educational practice is recognised as complex and taking many forms (Brondyk and Searby, 2013). Models of effective mentoring are diverse and can be both compromised or sustained in any individual school or educational system. Mentoring can be conceptualised as part of a practice curriculum in a teacher’s workplace learning (Billett, 2011), which intersects with more aspects of formal training, learning by direct experience of teaching, personal reflection and in some cases formal study. It can also be recognised as having certain workplace pedagogic qualities, helping teachers to explore, reflect on, articulate and problematise their practice (Lofthouse, 2018). Similarly coaching can have a number of benefits, including building teacher self-efficacy, agency and professional autonomy; improving classroom practice; and positively influencing the professional learning culture of a school. Being a coach is an empowering and identity-shaping experience; coaching for empowerment and capacity building benefits from a non-hierarchical relationship; coaching can be enhanced by the use of additional tools and approaches; and any intervention requires the support of the leadership team (Netolicky, 2016). Coaching has the power to shift the thinking, beliefs, and practices of teachers and school leaders (Netolicky, 2020). It can have unexpected, non-linear, and far-reaching impacts on individuals, relationships, and schools as organisations including measurable wellbeing benefits for experienced teachers taking on the mentor-coach roles.
It is thus important to consider and critique the role for coaching and mentoring in supporting wellbeing. For coaches, mentors and policy-makers in high stakes systems there can be a real dilemma about whose learning and wellbeing needs come first. It can prove difficult to prioritise the needs of the early career teacher as well as those of the pupils they are teaching. It may be difficult to invest sufficient resources to support school leaders when they are under pressure to ensure high-performance from their staff while all are working hard to serve complex school communities. It is possible to think of this with a health analogy. Coaching and mentoring may be an intervention put in place when a problem has been diagnosed (or self-diagnosed). Alternatively, coaching and mentoring might be recognised like a public health programme, promoting a focus on balancing professional life and wellbeing, supporting good decision making that has positive knock-on effects and reduces risks of problems in practice emerging. Campbell and van Nieuwerburgh (2017) propose that effective coaching in education is not simply about meeting the perceived needs of the coachee; it also addresses desired educational outcomes for their students and / or colleagues.