Instructional Coaching vs Educative Mentoring in Early Career Teaching

Is instructional coaching the best vehicle for the professional development of Early Career Teachers, or should we focus on mentoring instead? Henry Sauntson explores this dilemma…

There is no such thing as a generalskill; any generic concepts need to be underpinned by swathes of domain-specific knowledge. You dont train just to be a footballer’ – you train to be a Midfielder, a Goalkeeper. You dont train to be a Doctor’ – you specialise. If we are to get mentoring right in schools – and in so doing ensuring that Induction of new teachers is fit for purpose – we must first understand that there is no such thing as a good general mentor; mentors must specialise also.

Their specialism is bred out of their environment, their school setting, and we know that schools are complex environments where culture is often determined by Leadership and decision-making, priorities; if new teacher induction is not a priority area then this impacts directly on the perceived importance of the role of the mentor.

In Peak, Erikson talks of how judgment is made of expertise through the eye of experience – the assumption that a teacher who has been teaching for twenty years must be better than one who has been teaching for five(p.25) but, in reality, the research indicates that once an acceptablelevel of performance or automaticity has been reached, additional years of practice dont necessarily lead to any improvement – ‘automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve; this therefore begs the question – how do we keep encouraging teachers to improve? Or indeed, to want to improve?

Much research has indicated how professional environments are key drivers in teacher development, and recent work by Hobbiss & Sims (2020) has also suggested that teachers hit plateaus and stagnateif they arent challenged; the issue being that the effort required to translate challenge into change is significant, and sometimes the status quo is a happy place to be – why change what seems to be working? Thats the problem – maybe it isnt.

One big changein the role of the Mentor is the advent of the Early Career Framework, supporting the development of new teachers alongside their statutory Induction process; the ECF is not an assessment model, it is a professional development model.

One of the main features of the Early Career Framework is the increased focus on mentors and mentorship; there is greater accountability built into the system for mentorsprofessional development and therefore their self-efficacy.

The principles on which the ECF approach for mentors is built are largely beholden to the concept of Deliberate Practice (Erikson, Deans for Impact) – a focussed, granular approach to teacher development using a process that follows these five stages:

  1. Push beyond one’s comfort zone
  2. Work towards well-defined, specific goals
  3. Focus intently on practice activities
  4. Receive and respond to high-quality feedback
  5. Develop a mental model of expertise

(Deans, p.3)

The proposed method is for the Mentor to adopt the role of Instructional Coachfor the Early Career Teacher, moving along the continuum from Directive to Facilitative, from teller to listener.

Now, there are caveats here; is Instructional Coaching the right approach for Early Career Development? Much has been written about Instructional Coaching and its benefits – the coach must have expert knowledge of teaching in order to provide useful and targeted feedback; IC has been shown to improve teachersinstructional practices, the quality of teacher/child interactions, student motivation et al – but it isnt as simple as a silver bullet, or a quick win – its an ethos, a systemic approach.

I would argue that Mentors assigned to ECTs to support them through their engagement with the ECF and their progress through Statutory Induction dont have the time to fully engage in proper training and development as Instructional Coaches in their own right; sometimes, the more Novice / Expert dynamic of the Mentor / Mentee relationship is more appropriate.

When we pick up concepts and approaches off the shelf and apply them liberally in name, we perhaps dont consider the potential damage this may cause – a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In order to develop a culture of Instructional Coaching, I would argue that the person being coached has to have a level of expertise that allows for them to draw on their own strategies, articulate their decision-making, critically engage with their own selves.

There is also the problem of time – ideally the Coach has plentiful opportunities to observe their charge in the heat of battle, allowing for that targeted feedback and development; this isnt an option in ECT, as both teacher and Mentor have limited available time to conduct their roles – so much of mentoring in ECT is logistical and administrative, and therefore the cycle of IC is reliant on absolute honesty on the part of the ECT as they report back; even then perhaps their perception of their lesson will be flawed by the natural biases of subjectivity.

Coaching needs observed practice; back in 1982 Joyce & Showers posited that coaching without the study of theory, the observation of demonstrations, and opportunities for practice with feedback will, in fact, accomplish very little; one cannot simply walk from the training session into the classroom with the skill completely ready for use; it has to be changed to fit classroom conditions…’ – there just isnt time for this in ECT Induction.

Also, should we be using instructional coaching in a high-stakes environment with significant accountability? Ideally, notes from any coaching conversation should remain purely between coach and trainee, thus removing the fear of scrutiny; however, all ECTs are in an official Induction process consisting of observation, evidence and assessment, submitted to an external body – therefore the notes, should they be perceived as evidence, are beholden to a wider audience.

Evidence, if it must be collected, collated and curated in physical form, should only ever be indicative as opposed to exhaustive – and an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence – and should be the springboard to further dialogue; do we dilute IC by using it as a tool where there is the high-stakes outcome of Passing Induction?

It is interesting to note that even Erikson cites teaching as a potentially poor vehicle for the use of Deliberate Practice, simply because there are no objective criteria for superior performance(p.98) and that DP develops skills that other people have already figured out how to do and for which effective training techniques have been established (p.99) – is that not the role of the Induction process?

One of the tenets of DP is the granular focus, but this just simply isnt possible in a classroom environment where there are so many competing elements and calls on the teachers attention, where the simulation conditions are never the same, where the trainee or Early Career teacher is simply trying to survive – the very act of isolating a skill is hard enough, let alone devoting enough headspace to it in the heat of the moment.

With the new frameworks also come a new language, perhaps unfamiliar in its terminology to the more experienced Mentor, albeit the practice might be the same – ‘Adaptive Teaching, anyone? In order to support the ECT within the ECF, the Mentor is facilitating a learning process for the teacher – they are helping them demonstrate competency in order to pass Induction; they are not necessarily looking to stimulate further growth, lest their ECT suffer from the burnt wings of Icarus-esque ambition.

At the heart of it lie the Mentors themselves – classroom teachers with a willingness to share their practice; as Trevethan (2017) puts it – ‘Classroom teachers must have a clear understanding of, and commitment to, both the framework upon which the teacher education programme is built and their role, so as to enable student teachers to learn in an environment of mutual respect and emotional safety (p.228).

We must help them to help others by providing them with that clear understanding of the ECF and promoting further consideration of what Trevethan refers to as Educative Mentoring’ – An Educative Mentor establishes the prior conceptions, skills and knowledge of the student teacher and provides learning opportunities through experiences and professional conversations, which support and challenge student teachers to ask questions and grow(p.221).

Lets not try to badge up Mentoring of Early Career Teachers as Instructional Coaching – it doesnt need it and it does both approaches a disservice. Deliberate Practice is all very well, but for me it doesnt work as a general approach in ECT.

Perhaps, to return to the start of this piece, Mentors could specialise in Instructional Coaching, but they would need a lot more practice than the ECF allows time for. For now on then,  just let mentors be mentors.


Peak; Erikson

Deans for Impact (2016). Practice with Purpose: The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise. Austin, TX: Deans for Impact.

Joyce, Bruce R. and Beverly Showers. The Coaching of Teaching.” Educational Leadership 40 (1982): 4.

Helen Trevethan (2017) Educative mentors? The role of classroom teachers in initial teacher education. A New Zealand study, Journal of Education for Teaching, 43:2, 219-231.

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