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Review - Books - A valuable message that is hard to hear

Mentoring and Coaching in Schools: collaborative professional learning inquiry for teachers

Suzanne Burley and Cathy Pomphrey



Practising teachers wanting to extract the juicy bits from Mentoring and Coaching in Schools will first have to negotiate an introduction in which working with their colleagues is re-christened "collaborative practitioner inquiry" and banalities like the following are held up as profundities: "The fact that teachers collaborate will do nothing to improve a school. The pertinent question is not "Are they collaborating?" but rather "What are they collaborating about?" (Dufour et al 2006)." Ah, you mean we should be thinking about our professional development and curriculum issues rather than the staff coffee contribution? So that is where we have all been going wrong.

If I am critical of the overly academic first section of this and other education books I have read, it is for many reasons. The first is that academia-speak is off-putting to anybody but academics. The endless jargon that afflicts so much educational writing obscures more than it enlightens and frequently masks emptiness of content.

Second, while I understand the academics' need to define terms and "review the literature" exhaustively, this is largely for the benefit of other academics or teachers who have opted to extend their academic studies. It constitutes a barrier to senior managers and classroom teachers who are interested in mentoring and coaching methods.

Third, it actively discourages tired people at the end of difficult days from engaging with texts that might actually improve their professional lives and the teaching and learning in which they are engaged. The medium creates barriers to the very message it purports to spread which is, when you think about it, decidedly counter-productive.

In looking at Mentoring and Coaching in Schools, the first task is to struggle past the introduction and some of the early sections to get to the interesting and enlightening stuff that follows.

I am sure this is heresy to the authors, both academics, but I am unapologetic. If they think that mentoring and coaching "has the potential for dynamic, wide-scale transformation of professional practice throughout the teaching profession", those beliefs need to be packaged in a more accessible form than that of a masters degree module course textbook whose impact will be very limited.

After all, how much can anyone take of sentences like this: "Hulme and Cracknell (2010) use 'third space' and 'hybridity' theories in order to conceptualise a space for the exploration of 'professional cultural exchange and the development of trans-professional knowledge"?

The core of what Burley and Pomphrey have to say is important and, in the latter stages of the book, accessible. But I am concerned that readers are not going to get that far. In a demanding and stressful profession, teachers have to find ways of supporting each other, and senior managers have to find ways of supporting their staff, whether personally andor with the intention of effecting change.

The old in-service models - go on a short course, enjoy the short course, return to school and forget the short course - have proven limited in their effectiveness. But there seems to be good reason to believe that the effects of mentoring and coaching, with their close professional bonding and sustained communication, can be more lasting.

It is refreshing to find the authors drawing on experiences outside the educational sphere. There is one rather Kafkaesque case study based on "the organisation" and another on an adult training company.

One of the notable things about the conclusions drawn from these studies is that the range of skills needed for successful mentoring is part and parcel of most good teachers' daily repertoire: an ability to remain impartial and non-judgemental, emotional intelligence, critical reflection, self-directed learning and high-level listening skills.

If these are skills teachers use in their day-to-day management of pupils, you would think that they could and should be usefully harnessed for professional and institutional development.

Despite my reservations about the first part of the book, it seems to me that by the end the authors have made a solid case for the transformational possibilities of coaching and mentoring for teachers and schools.

About the authors - Suzanne Burley, Cathy Pomphrey

Suzanne Burley (far left) taught English, media and drama in London for 18 years and is now academic leader for teacher education and professional learning at London Metropolitan University. Cathy Pomphrey taught languages before becoming academic leader for initial teacher education, also at London Met. She now works as an education consultant.

The verdict: 610.

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