Opening up a discussion: Do coaches and mentors make successful educational leaders?

In October 2015, I was fortunate to be able to lead a discussion session at the first ever WomenEd unconference.  WomenEd[1] is a grassroots movement which connects existing and aspiring leaders in education. The group exists to address the fact that even though women dominate the workforce across all sectors of education there still remain gender inequalities, particularly at senior leadership level. My session was entitled ‘Do coaches and mentors make successful educational leaders?’  The session was a learning conversation.  I invited the participants to discuss the fact that many women take roles as mentors or coaches in schools and colleges, playing a key role in facilitating professional development and building learning cultures, but to consider the degree to which acting as a coach or mentor might prepare us for, or dissuade us from, leadership.  While this is an issue of relevance to women in education, it is not exclusively so.  As Teaching Schools and School Direct extend the reach and scale of their combined roles in the ‘self-improving school-led system’ it seems logical that coaching and mentoring activities will expand. When working well both coaching and mentoring draw on, and build up, the cultural competency and linguistic skills of both parties. In terms of impact it is frequently reported that coaches and mentors find the role has a positive impact on their own teaching, but what about its impact on their potential and practice as leaders?

I have a history of research, teaching and school-based CPD in coaching and mentoring, as is evident by other blog posts on this site and elsewhere[2].  While they serve different purposes coaching and mentoring might both provide levers and pathways into good leadership.  However, in relation to the links between coaching and mentoring of teachers (for the development of teaching practices) and educational leadership I have the following concerns;

  • The objectives and practices of coaching and mentoring often get distorted by the performative culture in schools and can fail to have the positive impact that is their potential. In previous work we have explored this through CHAT (Cultural-Historical Activity Theory)[3]. As we wrote in the abstract of the paper, coaching in educational settings is an alluring concept, as it carries associations with life coaching and well-being, sports coaching and achievement and improving educational attainment. Although there are examples of successful deployment in schools, there is also evidence that coaching often struggles to meet expectations. We used socio-cultural theory to explore why coaching does NOT transplant readily to schools, particularly in England, where the object of coaching activity may be in contradiction to the object of dominant activity in schools – meeting examination targets.
  • Coaches and mentors have the opportunity to develop great communication skills. However, this opportunity is not always realised.  Too often these activities are squeezed into very busy working weeks, given inadequate time, or are hijacked (deliberately or inadvertently) by a narrowly-defined target-based sense of professional development.  Developing, practicing and sustaining excellent coaching or mentoring requires a certain language, and a willingness to look beyond the particulars of specific lessons. It requires a more open understanding of a shared process of informed scrutiny than is typically possible in a hurried conversation or one which has overtones of performance management.  The communication skills being rehearsed in coaching or mentoring can become rather diminished.  If they are not, and coaching or mentoring becomes more sophisticated then the participants develop a new language for talking about teaching and learning, linking together critical incidents and whole lesson characteristics (for example), and exploring each-others’ understanding using a broad interactional repertoire which allows for challenge, exploration of ideas and co-construction.  Good coaches and mentors support successful formation of teacher identities that go beyond the requirements to demonstrate a checklist of competencies.  Previous research illustrates these levels of development of both coaching[4] and mentoring[5]. But, even when it works at this level there may still be a problem.  Educational leadership has become a very managerial process – one through which a priority is holding colleagues to account.  The language of exploration and development which might be developed through coaching and mentoring does not always translate easily to accountability regimes.
  • While coaches and mentors may gain real insight into the issues affecting colleagues and learners in their school (and sometimes beyond) this ‘intelligence’ may not then be translated in to leadership. This gap may be caused by the difficulties in resolving activities at different scales.  Coaching and mentoring are typically inter-personal activities, focusing on an individual’s practices, and only the most sophisticated coaching and mentoring successfully relates this too influences of policy or society (at school level or beyond).  Coaching and mentoring can generate the sort of professional knowledge which comes from the ground up or from lateral conversations.  School leaders and managers often deal with top down implementation of the latest national agenda.  Expertise or dilemmas from the classroom or practitioner conversations can easily be squeezed out in this context.  As such, even when coaches or mentors become leaders they may not easily be able to draw on what they learned in that context.
  • Good coaches and mentors can get pigeon holed (or even pigeon hole themselves) and their talents may not be developed in relation to educational leadership. This may be exacerbated by the issues raised above. We have evidence that some coaches would rather let coaching dwindle than let it fall in to the hands of senior leadership.  We also know that if SLT set up coaching programmes they have to work hard to overcome their own tendencies to over-manage it in the direction of the latest school agenda.

So, my questions at this point are framed by a core concern of how we can use the experience of coaching and mentoring for better educational leadership. I believe that coaching and mentoring can provide genuine opportunities for educational development through a focus on pedagogy, learning and learners, colleagues’ professional practices, school and curriculum structures, challenges and opportunities for change and improvement and staff and students’ wellbeing. I am, however, concerned that the vital link to educational leadership is not secure.

Blog by Dr Rachel Lofthouse




[3] Lofthouse, R. & Leat, D. (2013) An Activity Theory Perspective on Peer Coaching. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education, Vol. 2 (1), pp.8-20.

[4] Lofthouse, R., Leat, D & Towler, C. (2010) Improving Teacher Coaching in Schools; A Practical Guide, CfBT Education Trust

[5] Lofthouse, R. & Wright, D.G. (2012) Teacher education lesson observation as boundary crossing. International Journal of Mentoring and Coaching in Education 2012, Vol. 1. (3), pp.89-103.

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