Are you a coach or a mentor?

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Would you make a good mentor or coach? With these approaches forming a core part of professional development and support in schools, John Dabell looks at what makes for effective practice

Some people make great coaches but lousy mentors. Some make marvellous mentors but crummy coaches. Some rare souls manage to pull off both along with being a role model, catalyst, change agent and critical friend.

In their excellent book, Educational Leadership Simplified (2018), Bob Bates and Andy Bailey draw some important distinctions between different roles using a “learning to drive” analogy. They say that:

  • A consultant will advise you on the most appropriate car to drive.
  • A counsellor will address any anxieties you may have about driving.
  • A mentor will share their own driving experiences with you.
  • A coach will encourage you to get in and drive the car correctly.

Some see coaching and mentoring as one and the same thing but they aren’t. Coaching and mentoring are suited to different professional development needs. Put simply, mentors are usually experienced professionals who share knowledge and experience with a less experienced person and coaches are professionals who focus more on helping someone to develop specific skills.

Mentoring is a supportive, long-term relationship between an experienced mentor and their less experienced mentee. The mentor passes on knowledge and guidance to a mentee finding their feet in a new position.

Coaching involves peer-to-peer discussion that provides the coachee with objective feedback on their strengths and weaknesses in areas chosen by them. A coach is not necessarily an expert in the subject matter, but someone who specialises in helping to unlock the potential of others.

The goal of coaching is to boost confidence to improve performance. A coach will likely set or suggest goals and measure performance periodically.

Mentoring is completely different to that because a mentor gives the mentee more say and won’t evaluate, judge or set targets. This is a partnership between two people and emphasises a mutuality of learning. A mentor will build capability and helps the mentee to discover their own wisdom. As Professor Rachel Lofthouse states (2018): “Mentoring can form part of the social glue between colleagues.”

Would I make a good mentor?

Mentors are perhaps somewhere in between coaches and teachers and take on the role of a wise and trusted advisor. This is someone who takes a special interest in helping another person to develop into a successful professional. This could be you.

All teachers need a mentor. We all need someone to help us hurdle challenges, achieve our goals and be a sounding board. We all need someone who will invest their time, energy and personal know-how into supporting our journey. Mentoring is vital to the mental health of all learning organisations and we need mentors to help us optimise our educational experiences.

Mentoring is an art and, stripped down to its most basic level, it is about a partnership and “the act of helping another learn”. So what does a good mentor do? A successful mentor:

  • Offers friendship.
  • Is dedicated to learning and helping others learn.
  • Is an active listener.
  • Shares personal and professional life experiences.
  • Sees situations through different lenses.
  • Displays bucket-loads of empathy.
  • Builds rapport.
  • Encourages a mentee to speak and find their voice.
  • Observes, reflects but doesn’t judge.
  • Provides constructive feedback and “feed-forward”.
  • Is self-aware and self-confident.
  • Has spontaneous intelligence from life experience.
  • Helps a mentee restructure their thinking.
  • Is professionally savvy.
  • Manages the relationship and not the goals.

Does that sound like you? Potential mentors are intensely self-motivated and derive satisfaction from helping their colleagues to develop and improve.

This is what Chip Bell and Marshall Goldsmith say in their classic book Managers as Mentors. They say that mentors are “people who engage in deliberate actions aimed at promoting learning”.

They continue: “Bottom line, a mentor is simply someone who helps someone else learn something that would have otherwise been learned less well, more slowly, or not at all.”

Chip Bell devised a questionnaire to help us understand if we are suited to taking on the role of mentor. This is available online (see further information) and is a series of 39 questions. We are asked to respond with a best-fit from the two available answers. This “Mentor Scale” is designed to help evaluate strengths, areas for development and tease out blind spots. Examples of these questions include:

  • People generally see me as a person who is: formal/personable.
  • When it comes to social situations, I tend to: hold back/jump in.
  • I like to spend my leisure time in ways that are: fairly spontaneous/routine.
  • I believe leaders should be more concerned about: employee rights/feelings.
  • When I encounter people in need of help, I’m more likely to: avoid/pitch-in.

The questions are cleverly created and mixed together to assess our capacity for sociability, dominance and openness, summarised as follows:

  • People with high sociability scores will find the rapport-building and dialogue dimensions of mentoring easier.
  • People with high dominance scores may be reluctant to share control.
  • People with low openness scores are likely to be cautious and reluctant to share their feelings.

If you think you will make a good mentor then you will be able to share life experiences and wisdom, as well as your technical expertise. You will be a good listener, a good observer, and a good problem-solver. You will make an effort to know, accept, and respect the goals and interests of your colleague and establish an environment of growth. Take the test yourself and see whether you are mentor material or whether you’d be more suited to being a coach.

Already a mentor?

Perhaps you have already taken on the mentor role. If that’s the case then Bob Bates (2016) in Learning Theories Simplified offers some top tips to help you become a better one. He suggests the following:

  • Invest in meaningful conversations: craft a professional relationship by making time to get to know one another so you can establish rapport, trust and identify areas of mutual interest.
  • Pinpoint the Purpose: talk about any previous mentoring experiences and share some of your own in order to display your empathy.
  • Establish the WIIFM: ensure that you can be sure what they want to get out of the mentor-mentee relationship (What’s In It For Me?). Be sure about what they need but be sure that you are clued in to the advantages for yourself too.
  • Be honest: from the outset, be very clear about what you can do and what you feel you can’t. If you set a high expectation that you cannot fulfil then your relationship will suffer. Assumption, needs and limitations need to be spelled out so there is no mismatch.
  • Discuss opportunities: talk openly about options and opportunities and the most useful kind of support you can give.

Mentoring is a personal as well as professional relationship fuelled by mutual respect, trust, understanding and empathy. Again, it is important to remember that mentoring is a structured, sustained process for supporting mentees through significant career transitions.

Coach me

If mentoring isn’t for you then coaching could well be your bag. You might think you’d make a good coach because you have accumulated the teaching air miles and educational experience. Perhaps but then look at footballers – the best players rarely make the best coaches.

So many great players think they will make a success of coaching. They know what to do, but they can’t communicate how they do it and consistently do far more damage than they do good.

To be a coach you don’t have to know how to do what you are coaching. Coaching is more of a meritocracy than aristocracy. Sports psychologist Dan Abrahams says: “Coaching is a craft. It’s a combination of an art and a science and you’ve got to spend a lot of time honing your craft to get good at it.”

Coaches focus more on getting people to grow specific skills and coaching is very much a “pragmatic trade” characterised by dispassionate feedback. Their conversations are focused, realistic and effective. It is helping someone to learn rather than teaching them.

Bob Bates in The Little Book of Big Coaching Models (2015) uses the COACHING acronym to get at the nitty-gritty of coaching and what is involved. The eight elements are as follows:

  • Clarify the role: find out who does what, when, where and how.
  • Organise goals and objectives: get those you are working with to create a vision about what they could be and set goals that will support them to get there.
  • Act with conviction: don’t dilly-dally but choose the most appropriate coaching method and follow through with commitment and conviction.
  • Confirm that expectations are being met: get feedback on the process and be prepared to edit accordingly.
  • Have a strategy for dealing with setbacks: accept that things won’t run smoothly and have strategies for dealing with them.
  • Inspire creative thinking: encouarge your coachee to be constantly thinking outside the boxes.
  • Never be afraid of failure: if someone fails a task, they have failed the task – they themselves are not a failure.
  • Get to know the person you are coaching: relationships count for everything so build the coach-coachee relationship and establish trust and respect.

John West-Burnham and Fergus O’Sullivan in Leadership and Professional Development in Schools (1998) argue for coaching as a pervasive concept of learning. Coaching, they say, is closely related to reflection and consists of:

  • Observing performance.
  • Analysing that performance.
  • Measuring performance against standards.
  • Identifying remedial strategies where apposite.
  • Evaluating strategies against change.
  • Consolidating improvements.

And finally...

For teachers thinking about moving into a leadership role, there is plenty to think about. You could be a mentor, you could be a coach, you could even cut the mustard and be both.

But being a teacher is no guarantee that you will be any good at either.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 25 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via

Further information

  • Working Papers from CollectivED: The Hub for Mentoring and Coaching (think-pieces from Professor Rachel Lofthouse for the National Coaching Symposium 2018), June 2018:
  • An online version of the 39 questions from Chip Bell’s questionnaire (Managers as Mentors, Bell & Goldsmith, Berrett-Koehler, 2002) is available via


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin