The messiness of coaching and mentoring

Over the course of my career I have worked as a coach and a mentor.

Both experiences made me a better teacher through improving my classroom practice, developing my interpersonal skills and prompting meaningful dialogue about identity, philosophy and curriculum.

Completing the NTU Coaching and Mentoring MA module has deepened my understanding of coaching and mentoring, but also prompted me to think on how teachers experience these.

Mentors feature at the beginning of one’s career and coaching often comes later. Almost all teachers have a mentor, but access to a coach is not universal. Is a coach a more implicitly desirable commodity?

In my experience, PGCE mentors often draw on coaching techniques, especially when trainees are further on in their practice – there is evidence that argues that preservice teachers would benefit from access to coaching and mentoring approaches.

So, I started looking for a model that could accommodate aspects of both. Downey’s coaching continuum was my starting point:

Downeys spectrum

There are clear links between the directive end of Downey’s spectrum and what early mentoring may look like. At this point, Downey suggests that mentees are passive, yet I feel that creating rapport and trust here creates a solid foundation for the steps ahead.

Evidence suggests that making trainees feel valued and welcome at the start of a placement is important. Research into trainee teacher identity suggests that this period is key to supporting trainees’ burgeoning sense of self.

On my first day in my own PGCE placement, I remember being asked to get out of ‘someone else’s chair’ in the English team room. After such a long time, I can still remember feeling awkward and clumsy. While the rest of the placement went well and my mentor was wonderful, I don’t think I ever sat down in that team room again. Therein lies even more of the messiness of mentoring: the issue of space. Paradoxically, mentors need to be both near and far, Armitage’s ‘anchor’ and ‘kite’.

For trainees to develop towards independence, mentors are required to ‘let go’, taking on more of a coaching role. Downey elevates this end of his continuum, which could imply that, in his view, coaching requires a higher skill set. I feel that the interpersonal exchanges earlier on underpin success here; how can mentors or mentees ‘let go’ without trusting that they’re in safe hands? And again, surely we learn as much from falling as we do from flying? (Armitage again.)

Our PGCE course cohorts have a rich and diverse mix of experiences: graduates, career changers, cover supervisors, LSAs, learning mentors or unqualified teachers. They don’t all start from the same place; therefore, it could be argued that a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t suitable.

My mentoring model uses Downey’s (2014) continuum and Kram’s (1983) phases of the mentor relationship:

Walters model

In my model, mentor and mentee relationships move through three developmental phases with the overall aim of trainee autonomy.

Stage One is Transaction; the mentee is likely to rely on the mentor, following in their footsteps.

Stage Two involves recurring separation; the trainee works by themselves for a short period and returns for guidance, support and feedback. This happens repeatedly in order to develop a mutual trust and to reassure both that the mentee can work independently. I used the word ‘boomerang’ here although a colleague pointed out that this would probably look more a spirograph doodle in practice, with many iterations of the process. I feel that this image really captures the complexity of mentoring: something is carefully created through patience and negotiation. At certain points things might be messy, but repetition and effort will eventually produce something distinct and remarkable.

Stage Three involves the mentor stepping aside; the relationship is on more of an equal footing and dialogue is developmental. The trainee seeks the mentor’s expertise when necessary but is secure in their own practice.

All three stages are anchored in the key skills of reflection, co-enquiry, empathy, listening, communication, support and challenge.

Kram’s reflection on her developmental stages commented that the separation aspects were the most challenging for mentoring dyads to negotiate. One way of tackling this could be to introduce formal contracting in September, with review points throughout the year, managing expectations and limiting potential for conflict. Contracts could explicitly state which classes trainees could assume responsibility for, clarify protocols for absence and feedback and detail how the trainee will be welcomed into the placement (and the spaces they might claim?).

In order to further support the mentoring relationship and new mentors, activities could be linked to key stages of the model in order in exemplify what practice might look like at different stages.

While my model does not capture (or fix!) the messiness of mentoring, it has given me a renewed appreciation of those who give their time and energy to develop others. There is undeniably something magical about a trainee reaching the Transformation stage. And surely part of our wonder lies in the humility of those giving others their own space in the spotlight, and preparing a seat at the table.

Aisling Walters


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