Building coaching and mentoring partnerships: Notes from the field

Written by: Dr Mari Cruice | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Drawing on her wealth of experience in the field, Dr Mari Cruice looks at the building blocks of successful mentoring or coaching partnerships

So you have agreed to mentor a student teacher or to coach a colleague as part of the Early Career Framework. Where do you start?

I started my career as a PGCE student in a state secondary school in Wickford, Essex. As a naïve but gung-ho beginning English teacher, I was blessed with a brilliant mentor, an inspirational university tutor and empathetic senior leaders.

The early support that I received set me off with a spring in my step. As my journey continued, I was lucky enough to keep meeting people who continued to challenge me to lead and encourage me to learn. I have been a head of department, a member of a senior leadership team and I have completed a Doctorate in Education.

I currently run a PGCE course at Roehampton University. My work has taken me into hundreds of schools and I have seen many mentor-student relationships flourish. Reflecting on what I have learned from experience, from literature, and from my own accredited training, here are some ideas that I would like to share under the heading of “best practice in coaching and mentoring”.

Establish expectations

Begin your work as a coach or mentor by setting up a “chemistry meeting”. This is a clumsy phrase, but the concept is crucial. An initial meeting enables both parties to get to know a bit about each other and to check that they have a shared understanding of the coaching or mentoring process.

The first discussion could include the purpose of the relationship; the length and frequency of the meetings; agreements about confidentiality; how the meeting will be recorded; course protocols; and any important personal, environmental or cultural factors which might be relevant.

If you are taking on a coaching role, you might emphasise that you are not there to give advice, but to help the coachee find their own way to pertinent problems and possible solutions. If you are mentoring, you might want to stress that you are not there to judge but to guide, encourage and model.

Create dedicated time and quiet space

Once you have a mutual understanding of the process, put your coaching/mentoring meetings in your diary. In pen. Despite your inevitably frantic life in school, honour the time that you have carved out. Find a quiet place to meet. Do everything you can to ensure that nobody knocks on the door. Switch off your phone and unplug the landline.

To coach or mentor well, you will need to give your coachee your full attention. I have had many a conversation with mournful student teachers who have had their mentor meetings cancelled or squeezed into a conversation during break duty in the playground. I have also seen school leaders who reward mentors and respect the time that they need to do the job. The investment inevitably pays off.

Maintain a positive mindset

We all know the power of three words – just do it; take back control; hands, face, space. In the field of coaching, three of the most important words are: Unconditional, positive regard.

This phrase has come from therapeutic settings and it is a powerful reminder that if we think our coachee is a problem, or if we think that they have a problem, then we have a problem.

To bring out the best in another person, we need to believe in them and value them. We need to feel confident that they can set goals and take steps towards meeting them. As soon as we lose faith in our coachee’s competence, we need to press the pause button. When we coach or mentor, we must assume that our coachee is whole, creative and resourceful. It is an empowering assumption. Unconditional, positive regard.

Listen actively

Often when we listen, the words that we are listening to become crowded out by our own noisy thoughts. If a coachee is telling us about a difficult class, we might hear our inner monologue reminding us of our own experience of teaching 9B last Halloween. We then lose focus on the other person. This is sometimes called “listening at level one”.

When we are listening as a coach or a mentor, we need to clear our mind of our own thoughts and pay full attention to everything that we can see and hear that is coming from the other person. Not only do we need to listen to the words, but we also need to notice the tone, to look at the body language, to recognise changes in energy levels.

Recently, I was working with a young, beginning teacher. Every time she said “year 7” she beamed with pride. Every time she said “year 10”, she used the words “shy away”, she hunched her shoulders and she became smaller. I played this observation back to her and she immediately said: “I need to imagine that I am in front of year 7 when I am with my year 10s.”

The process of active listening had enabled her to come up with a solution to a problem that she hadn’t fully articulated prior to our meeting.

Active listening at, what is sometimes described in the literature, “level two”, is a skill that requires practice. To work on this skill, try to avoid interrupting the speaker, keep your eyes on the speaker and make a mental note of all that is being communicated. Don’t write anything down as this is a distraction.

Repeat back significant words or phrases that you have heard the speaker say. Summarise, but do this sparingly. Get comfortable with silence – it is an incubator of ideas.

Ask short, simple questions

Asking the right question at the right time is at the heart of the art of coaching. Questions should be short and simple. That does not mean that they do not evoke complex emotional and intellectual responses.

Here are some questions that I might use in a conversation after a lesson observation.

  • What did the students learn today?
  • How do you know?
  • What pleased you?
  • What surprised you?
  • What do you want to improve?
  • What do you need help with?
  • What have you learned about yourself?
  • Do you generally end the lesson like that?
  • Are you someone who values humour?
  • What are your next steps?
  • What might prevent you from taking these steps?

Avoid asking questions that start with “why” – this type of question can come across as threatening and may contain a hidden judgement. “Why didn’t you ask them to take their coats off? might be understood as: I think you should have asked them to take their coats off.”

Also, resist asking questions that are actually suggestions. “Would you consider setting homework next time?” is a suggestion posing as a question (or a “suquestion”, as my coach calls them). What question might you have asked instead?

Learn to toggle

When we coach and mentor, we coach the topic (e.g. how to manage our workload) and we coach the person. As a result, we need to toggle between questions that focus on the topic (e.g. how many hours a day are you working?) to questions that focus on the person (e.g. are you someone who places a high value on working long hours?). There are lots of other areas that a coach can toggle between – the coachee’s perspective and a significant other’s perspective (student, manager, partner); the ideal and the real; the goal and the barrier; past successes and current problems. The point of the toggling is to help the coachee to gain insight.

Discuss accountability

In coaching, if we are not helping our coachee to work towards their goals, we are not coaching, we are chatting. The aim of coaching and mentoring is growth and development. This can come in many forms. A key role of the coach is to be an accountability partner. We are not there to take the role of a controlling parent but it is important to have conversations about how the coachee is going to meet the targets that are being set and take the steps that have been agreed on.

One easy way of helping your mentee or coachee to stay on track is to start each meeting with a question about the previous session’s goals – e.g. “how did you get on with keeping your Saturdays free?” Another technique is to ask the coachee, at the end of each session, about the resources that they have to keep them on track (e.g. “who, or what might help you to meet this goal?).

Keep learning

Kierkegaard (1941) said:“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Having looked back on some of the important lessons that I have learned, I am looking forward to leading a new course.

In September 2021, I am launching a PG Cert in Coaching and Mentoring at Roehampton University. I am excited at the prospect of teaching on this course as I believe that great coaching and mentoring is one of the clearest routes to systemic improvement in education. It empowers and enables the individuals who coach and are coached. It might just keep a spring in our collective step.

Reading recommendations from the author

  • Daloz: Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners, Jossey Bass, 2012: Packed with wisdom and inspiration, this lovely book also has helpful models of how adult learners make progress.
  • Kline: Time to Think: Listen to ignite the human mind, Cassell Illustrated, 2002: Nancy Kline has developed a step-by-step guide to developing a thinking environment in an organisation. At its heart is deep listening – a fundamental of any good coach or mentor’s skillset.
  • Rogers: Coaching Skills: A handbook, McGraw Hill, 2012: My favourite how-to guide for anyone who is about to start coaching.
  • Wright: How to be a Brilliant Mentor: Developing outstanding teachers, Routledge, 2018: This is a helpful read if you are about to mentor a student teacher. It includes information about the new National Standards for school-based mentors in England.


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