It might be helpful to offer a distinction between the terms “coaching” and “mentoring” at this point. Mentoring in the educational context is usually to do with support and advice for a colleague at a point of professional transition, often through a formal programme and by drawing on the mentor’s prior experience. In contrast, coaching is to do with facilitating learning, unlocking potential and improving performance where the person being coached is responsible for taking action and where the coach may, or may not, have prior experience. Both coaching and mentoring involve developing trust-based relationships, take high levels of interpersonal skill to do well and come to life through use of skilful questioning, listening and by encouraging reflection. They can make a highly valued contribution to professional development.

Coaching approaches vary according to the underpinning beliefs and practices which they embody. Some approaches are entirely non directive while others involve offering advice or guidance to the individual being coached. Most feature some form of goal development or solution focus to encourage an action orientation in the coaching process. Coaching also looks and feels different depending on the context in which it is used and its purpose. “Who owns the coaching process?” is an important question. Is it an imposition or an invitation? Do peers and colleagues have room to experiment with their learning or are things centrally directed? Not all coaching involves setting up formal coaching relationships; coaching also occurs in more informal peer exchanges between colleagues where their interactions are informed by coaching beliefs and where they might consciously adopt particular forms of listening and questioning in coaching conversations. As Tim Gallwey puts it in the Inner game of Work “the coach facilitates learning.” In that phrase and others like it we get a sense of why coaching approaches resonate so strongly with many teachers and school leaders.

What comes through clearly in many accounts from school leaders involved in coaching developments is the impact on their own leadership practice. Many school leaders have become used to seeing themselves as the school or establishment’s chief problem solver, and others have become used to going along with that. This is entirely understandable as a pragmatic response in the busy world of schools, but we also know it is at risk of creating dependency and adds yet more weight to the school leader’s workload. Learning through coaching is helping many school leaders unlock a sometimes unhelpful pattern of solving other people’s problems. Instead, coaching encourages them to resist “urges to pitch in with my own views [and] listen intently and encourage the coachee to reflect further on raised points,” “empower others to problem solve,” and “become more aware of what it means to really listen…and the power of questions.” (Comments from participants in a collaborative coaching development between Argyll & Bute and West Dunbartonshire and a coaching development in Fife.)

These insights suggest that coaching is professionally valuable for Heads, Deputes and others in leadership roles. Many are experiencing personal and professional growth as they participate in coach development or as they experience the benefits of being in a coaching relationship. They are also putting coaching into practice as they address issues of underperformance, aim to change the nature of PRD discussions and grow leadership capacity in their schools.

As experience of coaching develops and as coaching ethos and principles take hold we might see coaching having a wider effect on school culture. A number of authorities and schools aspire to develop coaching cultures and there is a very particular role for school leaders to play in creating the conditions in which coaching can flourish. Sometimes coaching presents a challenge where existing approaches to leadership and management are more hierarchical or less receptive to the changes in thinking and practice which coaching encourages. Sometimes coaching will take root more easily where norms of collaboration, enquiry and peer learning are already established. School leaders who seek to develop coaching cultures will themselves need to demonstrate the practice, support others, ensure there is purpose and focus and that the outcomes of coaching are valued in terms of learning, teaching and professional development.

There are many opportunities to learn from colleagues involved in specific authority projects across Scotland or to find out from your authority’s CPD leader or the national CPD team about coaching developments and to help you determine how you might take things forward in your school.

Graeme Finnie

Project Consultant to the SEED coaching and mentoring projects initiative 2006/2007