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What is Coaching?

What is Coaching? An Article that once and for all might define what coaching could be. Sometimes.

This is a Free Sample Resource
Categories: Article, Professional Development, Educators

Tags: Coaching Mentoring Integrative Coach
Coaching or Mentoring?

When I present coaching workshops there's usually, quite early on, a question (challenge) from the audience: Delegate A: "...but that's not coaching is it? What I think it is, is...". At coffee, someone else will come up to me and say, (Delegate B) "That's interesting what you said about coaching. What kind of situations do you think best suit a coaching approach?" A and B have answered their own question/challenge. A was mentoring; B coaching. (Come on reader C, come back to me on this paragraph. Is it correct?).

Is it coaching? Is it mentoring? Is it something else? Does it matter what we call it? Maybe. But it's more important that everyone involved in coaching/mentoring/something else has a shared understanding of what's going on. And here's a way to do that :

Defining Professional Support

When us professionals meet up with the purpose of improving what we do - either as a remedial or developmental activity - we need to ask four questions:

1. What do we want to achieve? (focus)
2. Who is involved and how? (roles)
3. How will the work take place? (process)
4. What context will we work in? (environment)

Opinion differs about the two biggies of Coaching and Mentoring but I'll offer here my experience of what I actually see on the ground, day to day:


What do we want to achieve?

Who is involved and how?

How will the work take place?

What context will we work in?


Sustainable, coachee-led development which, over the long term, causes greater, permanent professional competence.

Trained accredited coaches; People who have attended short term coaching training; Professionals calling themselves coaches with no formal training; Middle leaders and experiences teachers.


Often, due to lack of clarity and agreed objectives coaching and mentoring are used interchangeably with little distinction between the two.

The need for swift, remedial action, often driven by external factors such as inspection and new initiatives means that interventions can be hasty and ineffective. But not always.

Anything from ad hoc arrangements to fully commissioned, contracted, resourced, budgeted, evaluated programmes, usually focused generally on teaching and learning and leadership


Fix a problem quickly; Support people in a new organisation and/or a new role by offering ideas, demonstrations and resources.

Trained mentors, Senior leaders, Experienced teachers; Colleagues from similar organisations/schools.

External interventions arranged by local authorities and usually focused on core curriculum areas, leadership and latest national initiatives; Internal support for NQTs and those who have lost their way.


The picture is not ideal. It won't be. The world can be messy, disorganised and less than effective. But where coaching and mentoring work well, the four questions above have been clearly answered and everyone has been involved in answering them.

A Balance to be Struck

My work as a coach is integrative: I don't hold to any particular coaching/mentoring model or technique, but learn about as many methods as I can, so I can best serve my coachees. But in summary: coaching is asking and nudging; mentoring is suggesting and showing. Both have their place but I always ask a new coachee what might work best for them. Try these questions as you begin your work with a new coachee/mentee:

  • What's your understanding of coaching and mentoring?
  • What would you like to work on?
  • How would you like to work together?

Starting like this marks you out as a coach and your coachee as someone who has the potential to think and grow under their own steam. And these questions can be very challenging for someone who has only ever been mentored. You are asking them to set their own agenda not sign up to yours.


The definitions of coaching and mentoring are elusive and debatable. Far better to forget the label and focus on the activity and its purpose. Consider: Focus, Roles, Process and Environment and involve everyone in the discussion. Then ask Delegate D what they think about it.

Related Resources:

Coaching Skills

Professional Learning

The Fear of Video coaching

Using Video for Professional Development


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