Mentoring and coaching are increasingly seen as key strategies for supporting teachers at any stage of their careers, and for improving teacher practice (Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2015). Both are relationship-based, adult learning strategies intended to promote and support an educator’s awareness and refinement of his or her professional learning process and classroom effectiveness.
While the terms “mentoring” and “coaching” are often used interchangeably, there can be significant distinctions between these two roles. Mentors tend to focus on the development of an individual teacher, and goals for the mentoring process are typically agreed upon mutually between the mentor and teacher with whom she works–although mentoring relationships may differ, depending on the structure and intention of the particular mentoring program. In contrast, coaches may work either with individuals or with classroom teams as a group, and/or may have a set agenda for classroom improvement. Often, however, the distinctions between mentoring and coaching become blurred in practice.
Mentoring and coaching are both practical and supportive ways to support teacher learning and growth on the job. Ideally, mentors and coaches are skilled in the craft of teaching, creative in problem-solving, keenly observant, able to reflect on their practice, and flexible in relating to other adults. Like the teachers with whom they work, they should be receptive to learning new information about the process of teaching, and willing to take risks in order to grow. Mentors and coaches serve as guides and role models who talk openly and directly with teachers about their work, help them improve their skills in interacting with children and families, and provide information and feedback. Ideally they should have significant experience in teaching young children, with a command of relevant skills and knowledge to share with their protégés about pedagogy and how children learn. Preparation for either role should include education and training not only in child development, and the care and teaching of young children, but also in adult learning, culture, teacher development and reflective practice.
Typically coaching and mentoring take place within the context of a formal program, however, teachers can form mentoring or coaching relationships on their own, perhaps with a trusted director or other colleague. But neither coaching or mentoring is the same as supervision. Supervisors can be pedagogical leaders for teachers, and they can apply many of the strategies used by coaches and mentors. But a supervisor also has roles and responsibilities that interfere with a purely mentoring or coaching relationship–namely, the authority to fire, promote and make other decisions about a person’s job status and livelihood. Mentors often do some assessment and evaluation of teachers, but not in a way that is linked to the protégé’s continued employment.
The primary role of a mentor or coach is to provide support and encouragement so that a teacher has someone to rely on and turn to. Trust is essential for a close relationship, along with willingness by both partners to reveal themselves and to risk making mistakes.
The goals and structures of a mentoring or coaching program can have implications for responsibilities of mentors and coaches, including who the teachers are, and why they are participating. This chart below looks at a number of ways in which these programs can differ.
Mentoring/coaching programs can vary in overall purpose:
- To provide collegial support through informal peer relationships
- To support the attainment of higher education (e.g., as a student teaching placement) and/or teacher certification
- To support protégés who are new to the field
- To improve retention of new and/or experienced teachers
- To help translate coursework theory into classroom practice
- To further a quality improvement initiative, such as a Quality Rating and Improvement System or the pursuit of program accreditation
- To help implement a curriculum or training model
The program’s desired outcomes may be to:
- Achieve higher quality ratings or classroom assessment scores
- Improve specific instructional practices (such as those focused on early literacy)
- Improve specific child outcomes (such as language development)
Mentors/coaches have varying work settings and job descriptions. They:
- May work within the same organization as protégés (for example, as a Head Start mentor-coach or within the same school district) or in a different organization
- May or may not be currently employed as classroom teachers
- May visit protégés’ classrooms, or have protégés visit their classrooms
- May work with individual protégés or with classroom teams (the latter generally being a “coaching” model)
- May work with one protégé or with multiple protégés at a time
- May work with protégés who teach a variety of age groups of children within the birth-to-age-8 spectrum
- May work with protégés within a wide variety of time frames, from a matter of weeks or months to a year or more
- May be expected to include directors in various mentoring activities, or may have little involvement with directors
Individual mentor-protégé goals and activities may be:
- Collaboratively developed by the mentor and protégé, or prescribed by the mentoring initiative
- Wide-ranging in scope, or focused on particular content areas or skills
Protégés may have varying reasons to participate in mentoring:
- By choice, or as a required part of the job
- As a component (required or not) of a degree or training program
- As a mandate because of classroom quality ratings or other assessments
Institute of Medicine and National Research Council (2015). Transforming the workforce for children birth through age 8: A unifying foundation. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Whitebook, M & Bellm, D. (2013). Supporting teachers as learners: A guide for mentors and coaches in early care and education. Washington, DC: American Federation of Teachers.