Using Coaching to Enhance ITE Mentoring

19 May 2022

I ran an online training session for ITE mentors at Sunderland University yesterday. The purpose was to look at ways in which mentors could apply some coaching principles to support their work with new teachers. They are very lucky in that the wonderful Haili Hughes runs this work at the university; if you haven’t read her brilliant book ‘Mentoring in Schools,’ I would highly recommend it.

I have run this sort of session with mentors a few times now, and believe passionately in the importance of interweaving a coaching and mentoring approach when supporting new teachers. Last year, I completed a six-month intensive coaching course with Growth Coaching, and it has reinforced to me how powerful coaching is as a tool to empower both confidence and reflection.

I wanted to explore some of the concepts around the ‘coaching way of being’ with the mentors, a phrase coined by the inspiring Prof. Christian van Nieuwerburgh (I’m currently reading his ‘Enhanced Coaching Practice’. )

The first task I did with the mentors is something I have seen another significant figure in the coaching world, Richard Boyatzis, do a variation of in his training. His book ‘Helping People Change’. is another excellent read for anyone interested in both coaching and teaching.

I asked the mentors to take a few minutes to write down the name of the individual who has had the most positive impact on them in a school setting, and to write down what qualities that person had. They then shared on the chat function a few key words that encapsulated that individual.

The results of this are often genuinely moving, with the following just some of what came up in the feedback from mentors about their chosen individual: humility, compassionate, non-judgemental, listener, positive, faith, empowered, confidence, time, inspiring.

They then repeat the exercise, but this time by reflecting on the individual who has had the least positive impact on them in a school setting, and again sharing some key reasons why on the chat. Here are some examples: arrogance, drained, micromanaged, judged, rushed, careless, ignored.

This leads in to a reflection point, with the mentors asked to consider whose list they feel they might be on, and what their own strengths and weaknesses are as a mentor are.

The explicit contrast that this task provides is really illuminating – and reinforces just how much impact, for both good and bad, we as individuals can have on others in the school context. It clarifies for us some of the universal qualities we all value when we work with others in a school setting.

The mentoring relationship, for me, can certainly elicit both of the above responses. To reflect on my own personal experience, I have had absolutely amazing mentors who I am still in touch with, but also mentors who have profoundly negatively impacted by day to day experience in schools. Both have been instrumental, as someone highlighted in the session, in defining my own way of being in education now: the positive experiences function as role models, the negative as crystallising what not to be.

At this point of reflection is the perfect time to share this thought provoking Andy Hargreaves quote:

“Mentors turn into tormentors if they believe they are always right.”

One of the ways in which mentoring can be less positive is when there is micromanaging or judgement present: when the mentee is left feeling belittled and controlled.

The purpose of the rest of the session was to look at how we can move away from a directive experience of mentoring (which has the capacity to generate some of the qualities on the second list), and nurture some of the wonderfully positive qualities outlined in the first list. For me, there is a very obvious correlation between the qualities in the first list and what is core about the values in a successful coaching relationship.

We looked at some of the aspirational ways of being that van Nieuwerburgh outlines in his writing about the coaching way of being. I asked the mentors to predict the six key features that he describes of this way of being. As van Nieuwerburgh states:

Each represents a lifelong journey of development. These attributes can be considered aspirational goals for coaches.

Self-awareness is important as you consider each point. You may already possess some of these attributes, others may require a lifetime of learning and development. We must be honest and humble when deciding on whether or not we need to invest time in any of the points below…

1. The most effective coaches are humble
2. The most effective coaches are confident in their ability as coaches.
3. The most effective coaches care about people.
4. The most effective coaches believe that their coachees will achieve more of their potential.
5. The most effective coaches treat others with respect
6. The most effective coaches have integrity.

The focus in the next task was to reflect on how these qualities might best be achieved in our work with individuals. While clearly there is an array of tools that a mentor possesses and must apply at different points, we looked at the value of taking a non-directive point over a directive one when it is appropriate.

This video from Sir John Whitmore, who is often considered the father of coaching in the business world (and lived a fascinating life!), is a brilliant practical example:

It always leads to an interesting conversation about lesson feedback – and how many of us have been subject to the ‘telling’ approach to feedback in the classroom. I know how demoralising I have found such an experience, when an observer leaps into a monologue that gives no space to allow for dialogue or rationale. I have also found such feedback to be profoundly unhelpful – leading to know change in my teaching practice, or my own ownership over what makes good pedagogy.

This then led on to a discussion about what makes a powerful and effective coaching question. I summarised the following as some of the criteria that can support asking effective questions:

Are simple.
Have a purpose.
Will be influencing without being controlling.
Inoffensive in tone.
Gather general information
Gather specific information
Shift someone’s attention to present moment
Come to a conclusion
Influence someone to consider alternative
Help someone learn
Use open (mostly)

This then led on to exploring some of Michael Bungay Stanier’s book ‘The Coaching Habit’. He has a brilliant TED talk called How to Tame Your Advice Monster, which is all about how we need to curb that need we all have to pass on our words of wisdom:

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re clear on the real challenge. You know exactly what the real issue is. The second way advice-giving goes wrong is overrating our own advice. We’re wired with a number of cognitive biases that make us believe our advice is better than it actually is. If you doubt me, take a look at all the advice you are given on a regular basis and how not-quite-right it is. Well, that’s how people feel about your advice.”

It is something I know I fall in to regularly when talking with teachers: I instantly think I need to pass on some words of advice, to fall into the directive mode. Often the advice is superficial, not getting to the root causes and subsequently ignored.

Stanier’s book is structured around seven fantastic questions, which are designed to put the responsibility onto the individual – and help us to move away from our advice monster.

1. The Kickstart Question: “What’s on your mind”?
2. The Awe Question: “And what else?”
3. The Focus Question: “What’s the real challenge here for you?”
4. The Foundation Question: “What do you want?”
5. The Lazy Question: “How can I help?”
6. The Strategic Question: ”If you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to.”
7. The Learning Question: ”What was most useful for you?”

We then explored two anonymous case studies from my own experience of coaching new teachers this year. The mentors could only share questions they would ask on the chat that would seek to help the individuals to forge their own paths and decisions about what to do in these scenarios.

  1. The class from hell. This new teacher is doing really well, but has a really challenging S1 (year 7) class. They are not malicious, but just low-level behaviour that disrupts lessons frequently and make the lessons exhausting. What coaching questions would you ask?
  2. On the edge of burn-out. This new new teacher loves being in the classroom, but is feeling completely overwhelmed. They are working day and night and can’t get on top of things. They are questioning whether the profession is right for them. What coaching questions would you ask?

These two scenarios for me get to the heart as to why coaching is a vital tool that anyone who works in a supportive capacity with teachers should have at their disposal.

In the first example, everyone who works in education has behavioural advice they can easily dispense. How many times have we heard “Oh, I wouldn’t do it like that, you need to do…” when it comes to behaviour?

What that new teacher needs, however, is to be able to work out for themselves how they can prevent this challenging pattern of behaviour. This self-discovery will help to build up their confidence again, and fuel them with a desire to take ownership of their own classroom space.

Well-being advice is even more ubiquitous in schools (I appreciate the irony of having written a book called ‘Teacher Resilience!). But achieving well-being is profoundly unique, and has to be a process that we all go through as individuals.

Yes, we can listen to suggestions and reflect on how we might make it workable, but finding how we can best thrive in schools is a deeply individual process. Probing questions that can help us to arrive at meaningful work patterns will again be much more likely to lead to long-term change, than a flippant piece of advice like ‘go to staff yoga on a Thursday afternoon.’

I am deeply conscious of how easy it will be for me to fall into the advice monster trap when I am working with new teachers in the English PGDE I will be running from August. This capacity to pause, think deeply and ask a coaching question instead will be a real focus of the work I will attempt to do.

The words of Sir John Whitmore prove a fitting end, and a reason why it is vital we give space for thinking and reflection through questions in our work with new teachers:

Thank you for reading. I coach teachers weekly on a volunteer basis at the moment, so if you would be interested in taking part in some evening coaching, please do get in touch.

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Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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