Saturday, December 11, 2010

Coaching and mentoring

What is the different between being a coach, a mentor and a teacher?  Well I was employed as a teacher of course and that implies teaching students, however what I have come to realise more and more is that an important focus of my job has to be working with teachers, helping them to improve their IT skills and helping them use these new skills for teaching and to support the students' learning.  Some of my time, therefore, seems to be spent in the role of coach or mentor.

The new job description I was given last year included planning, preparing and delivering appropriate IT training and support to staff and acting as a mentor and coach to teachers with the goal of making them competent and independent users and teachers of technology.  So today I'm thinking about what is the difference between a coach and a mentor.

When I think about a coach, I first think about someone who coaches a sports team.  To me a coach is an instructor or a trainer.  The focus of the coach is your personal development and learning - basically the aim is to improve your performance.  A sports coach stands at the side, watches the players and monitors their progress.  S/he is focused on the end result, and gives advice on how you can become more effective or perhaps more efficient.  A coach develops specific skills - the agenda is to change and improve skills or behaviours.

How about a mentor?  I think of a mentor more as an advisor, someone whom you respect and trust.  My view of a mentor is someone who is further up the career ladder, someone who you admire for their professionalism, someone who you aspire to be like.  I think of a mentor as someone who trains and counsels new or younger colleagues.  Mentors are focused on the person rather than the person's performance - they support individual growth and give advice yet the person being mentored is free to decide what to do.  I have heard of mentors allowing you to struggle so you can learn and discover solutions for yourself because a mentor does not provide solutions - s/he asks questions and allows the person being mentored to find his or her own solutions.  I think mentoring is more of a partnership and probably each person gets something out of the relationship, but I think the people being mentored often choose their mentors and initiate and actively maintain the relationship.

So this morning, as I was reading over my job description again, I was asking myself how I can move forward in my role as a coach or mentor.  At the same time I have re-read Kim Cofino's post about coaching heavy and coaching light.  Coaching light appears to focus more on building relationships, providing resources and avoiding challenging conversations and coaching heavy focuses on improving the performance of all teachers.  I have also read that the role of coaches is to see that teachers are continually in a zone of some discomfort - as it is discomfort that motivates change and growth.  Steve Barkley says:
Coaches, supervisors, leaders, and teaching colleagues in professional learning communities need to become comfortable bringing discomfort to colleagues. In other words, we need to create environments, communities, and relationships where we are comfortable with discomfort.
This to me was a bit of an Aha moment, especially in the light of questions about whether it is a good idea to critique one's performance or ponder the direction one's school is moving in a blog post.  I suddenly realised that what I was experiencing was that people are uncomfortable with discomfort, but that this feeling is necessary for professional growth.  Steve says it's important to ask "heavy" or difficult questions but that you can only do so in a school environment that is built upon trust and respect - and that this trust and respect comes from a shared commitment to students - that the reason we are asking these "heavy" questions is because we care about the student learning that is going on in the school.  That student learning is too important an issue to remain "light", to be overly worried about relationships and avoiding difficult conversations.

What I have come to realise as I think about all these things is that it is quite easy to mentor - people seek you out because they want you to support/help/question them - and I am happy to do that because I get a lot out of it myself.  Coaching "light" is quite easy too as it also involves relationships and does not involve challenge.  But coaching "heavy" is hard and not for the faint-hearted because it produces discomfort in everyone - including the coach who is having to deal with that discomfort produced in others - but that it is coaching "heavy" that provides the real change in teaching and learning.

Photo Credit:  Helping Hand by Popofatticus


  1. I have recently moved from an administrative position to a consultant position where I wear the hats of coach, mentor or trainer on any given day..these distinctions are helpful!


  2. The thing I struggle with is how long to wait to start coaching heavy. Joellen (the author of the chapter) mentions that most coaches need at least a year to develop the foundational relationship required to be a successful "discomfort." I guess that means every time we start at a new school we have at least a year to wait before really pushing those boundaries...