George Lucas Educational Foundation
Administration & Leadership

Should a Principal Use a Mentor or a Coach?

Both can serve, in different ways, to help school leaders (and future school leaders) navigate challenges. An experienced mentor offers some ideas for determining who to turn to and when.

September 9, 2022
FatCamera / iStock

Principals are main characters in their schools, and they sometimes find themselves facing serious dilemmas, coping with drama like a soap opera character dealing with trouble that developed due to their own actions or inactions, lack of skills, or unstable performance when addressing complex situations.

Who rescues school leaders from the villains that plague their leadership? A coach, a mentor, or both? They each shape careers in different ways. A coach can target specific skills, such as communication or leadership style. The coach develops a plan for improvement and provides directed services.

In contrast, a mentor encourages a mentee by listening, expanding knowledge, offering advice based on experience, and mutually working through complex issues that require long-term visioning and transformative leadership.

My mentoring experiences developed naturally over time as I began encouraging several of my young teachers to train to become principals. Those experiences were noticed by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) and helped shape the development of the association’s PALS Program (Principals Auxiliary Leadership Service). I became a member of the first cohort of NAESP’s nationally certified principal mentors in 2003. The mentoring partnerships with my young teachers, now experienced administrators, continue to evolve.

How a Coach Can Help

Jane, a K–5 suburban school assistant principal, completed her first year. Her experience was mostly positive, yet she admittedly struggled to keep up with timely follow-through, especially returning emails and phone calls to parents. Jane’s principal addressed these issues, suggesting ways to improve, and assigned a leadership coach to target skills that Jane needed to cope with interruptions, distractions, and exhaustion from hours of multitasking.

Jane needed a coach to teach her how to organize her schedule, plan, keep track of responsibilities, and recognize the different outcomes of active and passive switch tasking (multitasking). The transition from classroom to administration was overwhelming, and without targeted help, Jane’s “villains” would eventually lead to her failure.

A school district often provides and supports coaches; if not, principals or APs sometimes hire their own at their own expense. State professional associations can assist with recommending coaches (and mentors). A coach for a principal designs job-embedded strategies to teach targeted skills similarly to how a literacy coach demonstrates for teachers how to implement instructional techniques and practices that support reflective thinking and learning.

When Is a Mentor More Appropriate?

In contrast, a mentor is often not a school-based employee, but rather an independent trusted guide and confidant. The goals of both, however, are to encourage improvement, increase knowledge, shape skills, and develop effective leaders.

When mentoring principals, there’s a greater chance of deep-rooted, long-lasting support and shared learning when a partnership develops naturally, with both the mentor and the mentee free to select each other and form their relationship as they choose. As with my experience, that relationship might be between a principal and a teacher. But a relationship can develop anywhere two individuals want to share learning—one with experience (mentor) and one (mentee) who chooses to become the beneficiary of the mentor’s guidance. Mentoring is a partnership, and its success is dependent upon both individuals. Trust and transparency are essential.

Much of my contribution to mentees was advice driven, yet I learned as much or more about adult learning and leadership as my mentees did. Where mentors are assigned, rather than self-selected, the personal stake for success seems to be less valued.

Where Does Mentoring Best Take Place?

Smart principals intentionally put themselves where they can be influenced by others in the most positive ways. They attend gatherings of principals and seek advice from recognized professionals. They form partnerships with a mentor(s) that support their intellectual, spiritual, fitness, and/or leadership development. They may have one mentor or many—those within the school or school district where they work, in neighboring schools, or connected with state and national professional associations.

The participants determine the best location for mentoring to take place—in a restaurant over coffee; by phone, text, email, or Zoom; or through other forms of interpersonal communication. The mentoring partners mutually establish boundaries while maintaining a constant focus on learning and encouragement. Together they evaluate situations and scenarios through lenses of constructive criticism with contrasting opinions. Where they accomplish this, and how they do it, is best left for them to decide.

My most valuable mentoring support and guidance happened during late-night phone calls when the mentee’s anxiety level was highest because of something they had experienced at school. We also enjoyed talks during less stressful times when we were freer to focus on personal and professional aspirations and career pathways.

Who Is Your Mentor?

This question should be asked of every individual applying for a school leadership position. A response of “None” shows a need for coaching and mentoring support. Who the applicant cites as their mentors, and the leadership circles their mentors associate with, become indications of a candidate’s understanding of career influences and the path they’ve chosen to follow. Does their response indicate a choice of continuous growth or the isolation of a lone ranger? Retired principals can be a valuable, supportive resource to those in practice.

There’s no doubt that school leaders can benefit from both coaches and mentors. But effective school leadership is a lifelong endeavor, beyond what a coach typically provides. Mentees and their mentors never stop learning and growing and supporting each other. It’s a joyous experience.

Over time, respected leaders with a notable reputation for developing other leaders become identified within local, state, and national professional settings. It’s important that smart, aspiring leaders take responsibility for their own learning and career development and connect with those individuals and allow them to influence and shape their learning. Coaches can help pinpoint and solve immediate problems, while mentors are more beneficial for school leaders throughout their careers. There can be a need, and an appropriate time in anyone’s career, for both.

If you are a principal, or want to be, understand that you will need help to survive and thrive. Listen to those who have “been there and done that,” and let them help you find the best support—a coach or a mentor—for the villains you face. 

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