Coaching and mentoring activities should play a role in the development of all teaching professionals, according to the TDA (Training and Development Agency for Schools). Although the two terms seem to be used interchangeably in the official literature, do they really serve the same purpose and if they have a strategic function to perform in school, what exactly is it? Who is the coach/mentor and who is the ‘client'? Finally, but perhaps most importantly, do pupils really benefit?
Buried in the TDA's Professional Standards for Teachers, from QTS through ‘core standards' and ‘post threshold', are three short but clear references to the importance of coaching as a tool for contributing to the professional development of colleagues. We find that to attain QTS, teachers should demonstrate that they can ‘act upon advice... and be open to coaching and mentoring' (Q9). The same sentiment is included among the core standards every teacher is expected to meet at the end of induction where teachers are urged to ‘act upon advice and feedback and be open to coaching and mentoring' (C9). Finally, the post threshold teacher is expected to ‘contribute to the professional development of colleagues through coaching and mentoring, demonstrating effective practice and providing advice and feedback' (P10).
Beyond ‘experts passing on wisdom'
While the standards framework is progressive, reflecting teachers' increasing effectiveness in their roles as their professional attributes, knowledge, understanding and skills grow, the emphasis is very much on more experienced teachers acting as role models for teaching and learning. But the idea that coaching and mentoring is all about ‘experts' passing on their wisdom as exemplary models of their craft to their less experienced colleagues is a rather simplistic analysis of the issues involved, according to Edward Gildea, ex-secondary head and educational consultant with Cambridge Education and ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders).
The tendency to blur the distinction between coaching and mentoring is not helpful, according to Gildea, who prefers to see the two activities on a continuum: ‘Mentoring lies at the "directive" end of the spectrum. It does exactly what it says: it directs the client in a traditional, instructive way. As an approach it is limited because it assumes that the coach has all the answers and the client's job is to passively receive the information. Coaching, in contrast, is "the art of facilitating the performance, learning and development of another" (Downey, 2003). Coaching requires the creation of a dynamic relationship between coach and client that is based on the belief that we have an innate capacity to learn. An effective non-directive coach seeks to access that instinct and act as a catalyst, enabling the client to learn for him or herself.'
This is not to say that the directive approach is rejected out of hand. There are times when it's a very useful tool, ie when the coach really does know the answer to a specific question and the client is at a loss to know what to do, but it is a delicate balance. As Gildea emphasises: ‘Mentoring can be very useful, especially with younger teachers, but only for as long as the suggestions made by the mentor are perceived and welcomed by the client as being relevant and helpful. It's critical to retain the vital characteristics of the non-directive model - ownership, responsibility, learning, high performance. The directive technique can quickly regress from making suggestions to attempting to control the subject. An essential part of non-directive coaching is to acknowledge that the client has experience, imagination, intuition and insight.'
Indeed, Gildea would argue that it is this last attribute which holds the key to successful coaching - a belief that is underpinned by latest neurological studies on the subject. He cites recent breakthroughs in brain research which can now explain how behavioural change actually takes place (see box, below).
The neuroscience behind behavioural change
Scientists at Northwestern University’s Institute for Neuroscience have established that during moments of insight, complex sets of new brain connections are created. These connections have not only the power to enhance our mental resources, but also the potential to overcome the brain’s resistance to change. Change will only result, however, if the insight is ‘hardwired’ – which demands repeated attention and a high degree of attachment to the idea. This is why, for coaching to be successful, the client needs to have a strong sense of ownership. (Rock and Schwartz, 2006)
To effect a transformation in someone's mental ‘map', they require some kind of event or experience which allows them as individuals to provoke themselves into changing their attitudes.
Transforming ‘good' into ‘great'
Although mentoring can perform a vital role in school, enabling experienced (and usually, but not always) older staff to help their colleagues develop their professional skills, it cannot substitute for coaching and does not fulfil the same function. While mentoring can be both formal and informal, it tends, as a rule, to take place intra- departmentally and requires neither specialist training, funding nor organisation to be effective.
Coaching, meanwhile, represents a major commitment on the part of senior management and requires all of the above. ‘When we look at ways of supporting teachers in rising to the combined challenge of meeting the social and emotional demands of their students while also satisfying the academic requirements of the curriculum, an established and properly resourced coaching programme can play an important part,' says Gildea. ‘Teaching can be a tough environment and teachers can lose their way, their energy and their morale. We need to look after our colleagues and offer them tailored support which is focused on personal development and specific need.
‘Coaching can be applied peer to peer and cross-departmentally. It can help transform good teachers into great teachers as well as retain staff within the profession who may be demoralised and drained by their experiences. Coaching can enable them to re-capture their initial enthusiasm and regain some job satisfaction,' he adds.
Despite its value and its inclusion in key documentation, including the latest recommendations by the National College of School Leadership in their guidance Learning-centred Leadership: Towards Personalised Learning-centred Leadership, Gildea has encountered very few secondary establishments that have embraced the concept seriously enough to train their own cohort of coaches and fund an ongoing scheme.
Supporting vulnerable staff: a case study
One such school is CTC Kingshurst Academy in Solihull, West Midlands. With some 1,600 students between the ages of 11 and 18, Kingshurst is a popular, over-subscribed secondary school which draws students from a very large number of primary schools in Solihull and beyond. Its students come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, with more students than average experiencing aspects of disadvantage. The sixth form is large and welcomes many new students who join at Year 12, when they can study for the International Baccalaureate (IB) in addition to vocational courses. Tim Boylan, vice principal, explains the background:
‘Coaching was set up at Kingshurst to help colleagues who were struggling in the classroom. We had a programme that identified good practice as well as not so good practice, but needed a mechanism to support vulnerable staff on a more intensive level.
‘Staff have been very receptive to the programme, often themselves recognising a need for support and so embracing the scheme with open arms. There have been a number of staff who have particularly benefited and who have perhaps remained in the profession because of this intervention.
‘Relations with students have improved because planning and effectiveness in the classroom have improved, and the performance of the students has progressed commensurately. I think that the levels of stress that these particular staff are under has eased because they are better able to fulfil their professional role and are thus happier in their jobs.'
Dealing with lack of confidence
The coaching process is overseen by teaching and learning manager Paul Harris, who sees it as the logical outcome of the school's auditing system which has, for six years, been monitoring standards of teaching and learning across the curriculum on a regular basis:
‘As we got better at auditing, we increasingly began to standardise what constituted "satisfactory" as opposed to "unsatisfactory" performance in the classroom.
‘After the first few years, we realised that there was a growing need to follow up classroom observations in a more constructive and structured way. We acknowledged that we were not doing enough to support those teachers who were falling short in performance terms. For standards of learning to be as good as they can be and for students to progress, teachers need to feel supported and know that there are support systems in place to help them.
‘In many cases, when there is a specific issue around lesson planning or organisation, the "solution" can be identified and the problem resolved with the assistance of one of our team of assistant principals. Coaching comes into its own when the problem involves multiple issues and the individual has lost confidence in their ability to teach on a daily basis.'
Cristina Garcia, Kingshurst's head of MFL, was one of the first coaches to be selected and trained after funding was approved by the board of governors in 2008. Motivated by a desire to help and an irrepressible enthusiasm for her chosen profession, Cristina found the training a revelation in itself: ‘Our one-day course was absolutely vital and taught us some invaluable techniques and strategies to use in our new role. We all thought we knew what was involved, what coaching meant and what we would be required to do, but looking back, we would have been ill-equipped to deal with what lay ahead without specialist skills and an in-depth understanding of the task.
‘I remember thinking, "Wow, that was really difficult," after one particularly demanding role play situation. We learnt the power of silence, how to listen and ask the right questions and, most importantly, how to be patient with our subjects. Sometimes it can take a very long time to make an initial breakthrough and begin the process of change.'
Gaining the trust of ‘clients'
Despite the utmost discretion and confidentiality, there is still an element of stigma and fear attached to the referral process which is difficult to eliminate altogether. Sometimes ‘clients' can be reluctant or even resistant, but this, Cristina emphasises, is only to be expected: ‘People only come to us when they are at a low ebb. If you're lacking in self-belief and have lost confidence in your professional abilities and your capacity to control a situation and command the respect of your pupils and your colleagues, you are not likely to be in a positive frame of mind.
‘By the same token however, some referrals are manifestly relieved to have been offered a helping hand and some welcome support at a moment in their career when they feel undermined, unable to communicate effectively with their students and locked into a vicious circle.
‘We start from the premise that Kingshurst only employs the best teachers and that we are there to help them get back to where they were originally. Each individual knows why they are there, what their targets are and the objective of the coaching exercise.
‘As coaches, our first task is to gain the trust of our "clients", reassure them that they have our complete confidence and that we believe in them and in their ability to get there.'
Sessions take place once a week and can last for anything up to an hour at a time. These are supplemented with classroom observations by the coach to check on progress. The system operates on a one client per coach basis and coaching may continue over a period of months and even terms. So far some 18 teachers have benefited from the service which, as fellow coach Sharon Clift (a teacher of French and Spanish) points out, represents a huge collateral benefit for the school:
‘Each teacher impacts on hundreds of pupils' experiences over the period of a school week. Every teacher that is helped by the scheme means a more effective presence in the classroom which in turn and in time converts to improved student performance and better exam results. It's a no-brainer.'
On a macro level, if the scheme has helped prevent even one teacher from leaving the profession by enabling them to turn their career around, then it more than justifies its existence financially as well as morally and ethically.
The first step is always to encourage the subject to look outside the ‘box' and take a more objective view of the ‘problem': ‘It's sometimes difficult for people to change perspective. We often hear comments like "But this is how I've always done it"; nevertheless, it's so crucial not to revert to the default position of offering advice in terms of "Well, if I were you, I would do it like this..." says Sharon. ‘Nothing is likely to make someone feel even more entrenched, alienated and isolated than being told what to do and how to do it. Our aim is to encourage reflection. You can't tell someone how to do their job; they have to find their own style and the methods that work best for them.'
At Kingshurst the coaches volunteered for the honorarium positions and were selected for suitability by senior management using a range of criteria. In addition to being excellent classroom practitioners, factors such as profile, reputation and integrity were taken into consideration. Perhaps the disciplines of the incumbent team suggest something about their credentials, for they are all from subject groups which perhaps demand an exceptionally high degree of classroom interaction and student communication: PE, music and languages. Teachers are always referred to someone outside their own subject group and attention is also paid to the matching process in terms of personality and style.
The emotional dimension
Although the key indicators behind most referrals from the audit team involve lack of student progress in exams and/or classroom participation, in combination with issues around discipline and control, 80% of cases are most definitely not about failing teachers, according to both Sharon and Cristina: ‘A lack of motivation can often be a cumulative matter. Things might start to go wrong almost imperceptibly - a bad day, a lack of planning or simply a particularly difficult student. Once someone starts to lose their professional self-assurance in front of their class, however, things can quickly spiral downwards into anxiety and stress,' adds Sharon.
‘Coaching is about getting "clients" to see and acknowledge the positive and to be open to new ways of doing things. Often we find that they have become very fearful of experimenting and that's when occasionally we take a more "directive" approach and make a suggestion which we think has a high degree of potential.
‘Sometimes it's the smallest thing, but it breaks the deadlock and kickstarts the process. It might be a useful technique for getting pupils' attention at the beginning of a lesson, for example, or laying ground rules with pupils about speaking in class or even adopting a more commanding mode of delivery, but once a "client" realises that they can make a difference and be effective again, one success leads to another quite quickly.'
Testimony to the success of the scheme is the support of the governors and the fact that Kingshurst's coaching team has doubled in number since its inception.
It is perhaps this emotional dimension that ultimately differentiates coaching from mentoring. Teachers can easily become quite defensive when they feel that management is trying to change the way they teach or challenge their performance - defensiveness which makes change and development virtually impossible. The techniques employed by successful coaches seek to overcome this mindset first and help teachers on a more holistic journey towards improved performance.
Carrie Saint Freedman is a freelance journalist. For further information on coaching see Effective Coaching: Lessons from the Coach's Coach by Myles Downey (2003) and ‘The neuroscience of leadership' webinar by David Rock and Dr Jeffrey Schwartz at www.strategy-business.com/webinars