Professional Development

Being an Effective Mentor-Coach

Establishing mentor-protégé relationships in the workplace may improve teaching practices and professional development efforts. Potential mentors may find this information useful to engage and communicate successfully to a protégé.

The following is an expert from the Head Start Bulletin: Mental Health.

by JoAn Knight Herren

A Mentor-Coach is a journey guide—someone who walks beside another on her journey. Mentor-Coaches support professional development and work to build excellence in the daily practice of teaching staff. Teachers benefit from the support they receive from a more experienced professional who helps them reach their goals and share their challenges. How do Mentor-Coaches do their work?

Getting Started
In the beginning, they build trust and develop a positive, non-judgmental relationship with their protégé. They must set aside time for learning about the protégé. As an introduction and to set the tone, the Mentor-Coach could share her own story about a past learning experience that was meaningful. Or she could ask open-ended questions that encourage dialogue, such as, “What is one thing that you like to do or care about that most people don’t know?” or “What is an environment that made you feel really comfortable and happy when you were a young child?”

The answers help Mentor-Coaches better understand the protégé as a person, give insight to what she was like as a child and what her beliefs and goals might be about the children and families in the Head Start program. Open communication lays a strong foundation for the Mentor-Coach/protégé relationship.

Working as a Mentor-Coach
Similar to how early childhood teachers individualize the curriculum to meet each child’s needs, Mentor-Coaches individualize their support to fit the protégé’s unique strengths, needs, and learning style. Individualizing support is a collaborative process, which includes planning, discussing, trying out, and reflecting together. Approaching the relationship with openness and sensitivity regardless of age, sex, racial/ethnic background, language, or origin enhances a Mentor-Coach’s ability to offer support and adds richness to the relationship.

The role of a Mentor-Coach is to be a catalyst for individual growth by engaging the protégé in dialogue and problem solving that challenges the protégé to stretch herself. The Mentor-Coach helps the protégé come to her own conclusions through reflective inquiry. It is not necessary for the Mentor-Coach to have all the answers; sometimes it is best just to listen carefully and pose helpful questions.

It is normal for protégés and Mentor-Coaches to grapple with challenges as they experiment with what learning processes work best. Protégés will face challenges, such as a fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, or sensitivity to criticism, which may hinder them as they work to achieve their goals and experiment with new practices. These challenges are “growing pains” that are a natural part of learning and experimentation.

One successful approach to these challenges is appreciative inquiry. The Mentor-Coach starts by showing appreciation for what she notices the protégé is doing well and then uses inquiry—in a non-threatening way—to query how things might be done differently. For example, the Mentor-Coach and protégé discuss a teaching strategy the protégé is using and then consider how it may be improved. This is a positive, non-judgmental approach which enriches and helps secure a trusting relationship. At the same time, the Mentor-Coach learns more about the reasons behind the teacher’s behavior and has a greater understanding of the teacher’s thinking which helps inform the mentoring process. For appreciative inquiry to be successful, Mentor-Coaches and protégés must share a common goal—to help the teacher be as effective as possible.

Engaging the Protégé 
Effectively engaging the protégé may come in the form of a wide variety of mentor-coaching activities, such as written exercises, shared reading, videotaping of classroom teaching followed by discussion, and role-playing. Presenting a scenario—perhaps based on one of the protégé’s concerns—and asking her to identify a solution can effectively build upon the protégé’s ability to reflect and make decisions.

Another activity is to ask protégés to write a poem, song, or short creative-writing piece about their vision of effective teaching and then work together to strategize how to effectively apply their vision in the classroom.

Supporting the Mentor-Coach
It takes a lot of energy, dedication, and hard work to engage the protégé. To do so, the Mentor-Coach must tap into a deep well of creativity and emotion, which must be refilled daily. It helps to find nourishment in a personal way, such as by meditating, reading, singing, or exercising. Also, setting aside time to reflect on mentor-coaching and to plan new approaches keeps the process fresh, interesting, productive, and satisfying.

Early on, establish clear expectations for your relationships with protégés. (Many protégé and Mentor-Coach pairs find it helpful to write these expectations down.)

  • Give a brief overview of the mentor-coaching process.
  • Ask your protégé if she’d like to start keeping a shared journal. Doing so will give her the chance to reflect on her teaching and respond to your questions in writing, if that is her preference. Discuss possible topics and frequency of entries.
  • Make a plan to meet regularly whether on the phone or in person. Encourage your protégé to help you set an agenda for your next meeting.
  • Reinforce that your conversations are confidential.

Throughout, ask questions and encourage your protégé’s active involvement in the process:

  • Discuss ways to develop a reciprocal relationship and treat her as an equal partner who brings unique strengths.
  • Support and encourage your protégé to make positive changes by sharing relevant knowledge and resources.
  • Encourage your protégé to talk about how he or she learns best and try to adapt your approach to meet the needs of the protégé.
  • Invite your protégé to share her professional goals and relevant ideas about teaching early childhood education.
  • Encourage her to identify any issues and interpersonal professional needs that she is facing.
  • Set aside time on a regular basis to make classroom and home visits with your protégé.

Lastly, remember that building a learning relationship is a process:

  • Reflect on how you talk with your protégé on an ongoing basis and make changes as needed. For example, do you ask open-ended questions that encourage her to share?
  • Experiment with different approaches and make changes to improve the relationship to build upon her strengths and interests.
  • Ask a colleague to do a role-play with you and pretend to be the protégé. Then, ask your colleague to give you feedback on your communication style.
  • There will always be room for improvement, but remember to pat yourself on the back for any progress that you have made.

JoAn Knight Herren was the former Chief of the Training and Technical Assistance Branch at the Office of Head Start in Washington, DC.