In this post, Maxie Gluckman & I dive deeper into what it means to “mentor for change” focusing on Dr. Bruce Barnett’s experiences and recommendations for supporting global education leaders at different stages of their careers (Enjoy Part 1 of this conversation here). He also offers insight into what this looks like as leaders work in diverse countries and cultural contexts–particularly important to consider if you are looking to create or grow successful and sustainable mentoring programs.
What are your thoughts on mentoring and coaching novice and advanced administrators?
First and foremost, I believe it is important to distinguish how mentoring and coaching differ and what this looks like as administrators advance in their career stages. Although these two terms are often used interchangeably, mentoring focuses on career development and implies a long-term developmental relationship between the mentor and mentee. Mentors are interested in the overall growth and development of their mentees over time as their career develops; coaches assist in helping others for shorter time periods aimed at improving or strengthening a particular skill, product, or event. Both approaches can be useful for novice and advanced administrators, as long as they adapt to the nuances and needs of each individual.
To my knowledge, the vast majority of mentoring and coaching programs for school administrators focus on novices as they begin the job or on administrators who need to improve their performance. I have been involved in many such ventures including my work co-
developing and delivering the SAGE Mentoring Programme with Dr. Gary O’Mahony from the Australian Principals Centre. From 2000-2007 our team had the opportunity to prepare over 1000 SAGE mentors–individuals who would work with novice administrators across various spaces and capacities across Australia. I have also conducted a variety of half- and full-day workshops on mentoring for various organizations, including the Center for Educational Leadership at the University of Tennessee, Centre for Educational Leadership and Administration at the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand), Education University of Hong Kong, Australian Lutheran Schools (Adelaide and Brisbane), University of Victoria (British Columbia, Canada), and Local Education Authorities in England (London).
These experiences reveal various challenges and benefits of working with novices. Many of the challenges focus on the logistics and operation of a mentoring program, such as (a) matching mentors with novice administrators, (b) finding time for mentors to meet with novices, (c) establishing trusting relationships between mentors and novices, (d) monitoring and reassigning mentoring partnerships that are not productive, and (e) dealing with large geographical distances between mentors’ and novices’ schools. Other challenges that can compromise the relationship include (a) convincing mentors to help novices reflect on their situations and possible solutions to problems, rather than telling them what to do, (b) working with novices who are reluctant or resistant to an outsiders’ perspective, (c) ensuring their discussions remain confidential, and (d) blaming mentors if the ideas and strategies novices use fail to achieve their intended results.
The benefits, however, can be extremely productive for novices and mentors. Novice administrators can benefit by (a) clarifying their beliefs and values, (b) improving their self-confidence and sense of efficacy, (c) learning the value of taking risks, (d) expanding their understanding of the factors affecting problems and solutions, (e) beginning to not take resistance and failures personally, (f) reducing their stress, and (g) increasing their motivation to continue the job. Interestingly, many mentors claim they believe they gain more benefit from the experience than novices do. When asked to explain this reaction, they indicate that working with novices has two advantages. One benefit is they begin to hear fresh ideas and strategies from someone who has not been in the job. Sometimes this results in novices sharing new resources (e.g., books, articles, programs) that are new to their mentors. Another benefit is that mentors find it extremely valuable and insightful to articulate their rationale for making decisions, many of which they do automatically. The work of school administration is multi-faceted and fast-paced, with little time to think deeply about motives, actions, and desired outcomes. Because mentors have the opportunity to slow down the process by reflecting on their actions and explaining them to another administrator, this allows them to clarify and articulate their beliefs, values, and attitudes. I think many effective administrators operate on “automatic pilot”, resulting in being “unconsciously competent”. Being forced to articulate their ideas forces them to become more “consciously competent”, an outcome many mentors relish.
I am only aware of one coaching program that took a different approach for more experienced principals. In 2004, the Australian Principals’ Centre established the Coaching for Experienced Principals Program, which assigned coaches to principals with three or more years of experience. These principals were not at risk or needed to strengthen a weakness, but were seeking short-term assistance in improving how school improvement occurred on their campuses. In observing the program, I sensed many of the same logistical challenges associated with mentoring programs noted earlier, including matching, time constraints, and geographical distances between partners.
To assess the value of the program for these experienced principals, we surveyed them to determine what they gained from the coaching experience. Three major outcomes surfaced (a) increased awareness of their beliefs and values, (b) clarified their strategic view of school improvement, and (c) realized they were not tapping the talents and resources on the campus. To me, these findings suggest coaching programs supporting experienced school administrators not only help them gain valuable insights about their leadership but also deepen their understanding of change and school improvement.
What does this mentoring look like in diverse cultural contexts?
Over my career, I have delivered mentoring and coaching programs in various countries (Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand),allowing me to gain a better understanding of how these learning processes are affected by cultural norms and contexts. In these settings, I have found that the vast majority of issues affecting mentoring and coaching in the USA are similar in these countries. Many of the same logistical and operational challenges and benefits noted earlier also arise in these settings.
There are, however, several subtle differences that affect how mentoring and coaching are viewed in these contexts. For instance, Australians favor an egalitarian society, acknowledging the social and economic equality of all individuals. Consequently, they do not like to put people on pedestals and tend to be somewhat skeptical and cynical about authorities, especially political leaders. One way of expressing this is what they refer to as the “Tall Poppy Syndrome,” meaning that the tallest flowers in the field should be cut down to the same size as the other flowers. Australians tend to distrust individuals who are perceived as self-promoters and arrogant. While they realize success and achievement are important, they are offended when these people act superior or try to rise above others. This issue can arise in a mentoring relationship, especially when examining the unequal knowledge and skill levels between mentors and novices. Mentors do not want to be viewed as superior to novices, preferring instead to be seen as equal partners in the learning process. Therefore, successful mentors realize they need to refrain from coming across as arrogant or demeaning novices’ thoughts, ideas, and actions.
In addition, in the Hong Kong and Chinese culture, maintaining harmonious relationships with one another is a strong cultural norm. Therefore, criticizing others, especially in a public setting, is socially unacceptable. This perspective can influence the mentoring relationship, especially when mentors might feel novices are performing below expectations and need to alter their actions or strategies.
One way we have tended to acknowledge these norms of egalitarianism and harmony is by helping mentors learn how to assist novices in becoming more self-reflective about their actions. Rather than being directive in confronting novices’ actions, we stress mentors use reflective questions strategies that allow novices to describe their perspectives of particular situations they are experiencing, what they sense is affecting these situations, and what they believe are useful approaches and strategies for dealing with the situation. Although mentors do provide their advice on these issues, the goal of reflective questioning is to build novices’ capacities to dissect situations and develop insights about how best to respond. This questioning strategy uses a collaborative approach to mentoring, allowing mentors and novices’ voices to be heard.
While much is still left to be unpacked with respect to how to design and implement successful and sustainable mentoring programs, we hope that this series has allowed us to start a conversation surrounding what it means to generate professional relationships for global change that may push our community to share their own experiences and lessons learned along the way. We welcome hearing from you!
Maxie & Paula
Meet Bruce Barnett: https://globaledleadership.org/bruce-barnett-ed-d/