In 1965, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote a track which Lennon deemed to be one of his most honest works of all time — Help! Much has been written about the song since, however one element remains true throughout – simply that it’s okay to need help.
The concepts of setting goals, coaching and mentoring have been around for many years. Whether you’re a fan of the SMART Goals, GROWTH Coaching or simply someone who has enjoyed high-quality mentoring and guidance, you will be aware of the value of seeking support.
Over the last decade I’ve been fortunate to be part of all of the above, as well as in-school coaching and some great critical friendships. Some experiences have been life changing, shaping my thinking and practice, while others have been dictatorial and the only outcome has been to push me further away from the intended target. You see, there is a fundamental difference between coaching and mentoring. Likewise, there is often a tremendous difference in outcome when allowed to select your own coach or mentor as opposed to being handed the connection to a colleague. My aim in this post is not to criticise practices, it is simply to bring clarity to the differences you may experience and perhaps guide you into making an informed choice in the future.
A good coach is worth their weight in gold. You go to them with needs and specific skills and their role is to focus on getting you to the place you’ve identified you need to be. Coaching is often described as being ‘future focused’ in its nature. It’s a role that aims to move you forwards through a journey of discovery and supports you in taking risks. In the sports world, the coach is there to get results, drive the team forward and keep momentum going. A good coach listens and reacts to situations; however, their focus is forwards, fixed on progress and achievement.
Choosing a coach may or may not be the responsibility of the person coached. Often, when new to a staff or establishment, there hasn’t been time to identify the skill set of colleagues and so asking someone to choose their coach specific to a goal is like putting a pin in a map to choose your holiday destination- it could be amazing, or you could end up in the middle of a conflict. In this situation, seek the advice of peers and leaders. Express your goal and simply listen to their recommendations. However, what if you’re not new to an environment? You’ve identified a goal area and the person you feel could help you. Now what? Personally, I’d stop and check before diving in. Why have you identified this person? Often, we slip into the notion that we need the person who is best at something to show us how to do it. But is that what makes a great coach? Was Sir Alex Ferguson (English football’s most successful manager of the last 30 years) the greatest football player of all time? Regardless of what you think of him, he is one of the most successful coaches in footballing history. Not because he was a gifted player on the field, but because he knew how to get the best out of his players. So, you see, the best on the field may not be the best at showing others.
Lastly, and arguably firstly, there is a need to identify what sort of coach you feel you are looking for. Are you looking for an instructional coach, someone who helps you focus on practical strategies for engaging students and improving learning? Or perhaps a peer coach to help you collaborate and reflect, guiding you through solving specific problems? For some you may even be seeking a life coach, helping facilitate you towards a better whole person space to feed into your teaching career.
Whatever your decision, you need to start with your why. At the centre of any form of coaching is change. Before you choose your coach, you need ask yourself why you’re choosing to change. From there, what you want to achieve will flow and a coach will simply help you find how you’re going to get there.
Finding the right mentor can be extremely difficult. Rarely does the relationship instantly click into place. A mentoring relationship is built on trust, something that needs to grow and be nurtured. To me, the relationship between mentor and mentee is closer than that of coach and coachee. The sharing is deeper, the past is reflected upon more and used to inform the way forward. Like coaching, mentoring can focus on goals to move forward, but from my own experience, those goals were fluid and open to change. They often had open terms and were not constrained by time pressures. My mentor guided me through refining them, prompting me to return to them if I strayed too far away (as I very often did) and simply helped me find perspective.
Unlike coaching, mentoring is often described as a two-way street. Whereas a coach helps you navigate a path in the same direction, a mentor not only helps you move back and forth along the same road, they also facilitate the exploration of different avenues. Whether through their experience or reflection upon your own, a strong mentor will not only guide you towards your goals, but also show you the journey you’ve undertaken to get there. They help find you clarity and strength through a deep, trust-based relationship. And lastly, a good mentor will not simply spoon feed you the answers you’re looking for. They will challenge you, take alternate perspectives and lenses, pushing your thinking around a situation beyond the impact on you and help you shift your mind-frame. E.M. Forster once said, ‘Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.’
Which one do you need?
The only person that can truly answer the question of which one you need is you. The challenge is identifying the difficulty you are facing and working out what it is you need to do to overcome any barriers. If you can see how you could potentially move forward, then perhaps a coach is what you need. If the fog has well and truly set in, then perhaps a mentor could be the way forward. One thing is for sure, they are NOT one and the same thing. In asking an experienced principal for her thoughts this morning, she replied ‘I see a mentor as someone who works more closely, a coach is more a facilitator. They both help you solve problems.’ She continued ‘A coach is potentially working from more of a model, whereas a mentor will work within the context a person finds themselves in. Regardless of the situation, it is easy to fall into spoon-feeding a coachee or mentee. It is the level of emotional investment and the understanding of the width of the picture that makes the true difference.’ What my principal colleague expressed is echoed clearly in a University of Waikato booklet from 2011:
“The word ‘mentor’ has become widely used in organisations and in a range of professional contexts. The term is often used synonymously with the related concepts of coaching and supervision, but while the mentoring relationship may involve elements of both of these activities, the role of mentor is generally broader and less specific than either of these terms suggest.’ (Spiller 2011)
Although value must be placed on both professional coaching and mentoring, the latter must take place in a safe and secure environment. The conversation should form as a direct response to the needs identified by the mentee. Unlike coaching within a goal-focused model, it means the direction is not a foregone conclusion. The journey will ebb and flow, grow as the learner grows and evolve as the depth of both trust and knowledge deepens.
For those who are unsure, there are a wealth of resources available to you online to help you make your decision. A short read for clarity is available here, via recruiter.com and is well worth 10 minutes of your time.
As someone who has experienced both sides of both roles, each has their place. They remain strong avenues to explore and help guide your practice, no matter where you are in your career. As a mentor, I relished the opportunities to drill down into people’s practice and bring out their ‘why’- creating strong lifelong bonds with other professionals that fed my knowledge and perspective as much as I hope they fed theirs. When coaching, the security of having a model and steps to work through were a genuine positive. Knowing the order and being able to check in with a colleague, using the same language and the same level of understanding made tracking progress towards a learning area very easy. From there it was often just a case of making it visible and embedding within an appraisal process.
The education sector continues to be an evolving field of exploration. Having access to services like UChoose, CORE Education’s mentoring service, helped my own professional growth in ways I never thought possible. My mentor, Rebbecca Sweeney, guided me through the minefields, helped me find perspective and sometimes just gave me the straight answers I needed. From a purely personal perspective, in my mentor I have found not only someone I trust to guide me and help me grow, but someone I now call a friend.
Spiller, D (2011) Mentoring Teaching Development | Wāhanga Whakapakari Ako University of Waikato, New Zealand