Coach. Mentor. Friendly Critical Friend. Muse.

photo by @fionamau eltpics

I have had a role in staff development for several years, firstly as Senior Tutor in Skills for Life and currently as Advanced Teaching and Learning Coach for HE. What do these job titles suggest? As Senior Tutor one role was as mentor to colleagues, often these were tutors new to the department and we had a structured mentoring programme for all new staff to the department. As ATLC, I don’t think I’m seen as a mentor by my line manager or the HE tutors, and it has only been recently that I’ve started considering my role as ‘coach’.


Looking at these two terms for a minute, I am aware that there is a difference in meaning but I’m a little blurry on what that is. Doing some reading a long time ago I recall thinking that I was more a mentor than a coach, but recent discussions seem to suggest a closer role to coaching than mentoring.

Does having a clear definition matter? Is it the same as trying to distinguish between a teacher, a tutor or a lecturer? What I believe is important is what the person I am working with thinks

In terms of what I think – Is ‘coaching’ seen as something remedial? A top-down approach to staff development, something a manager asks a tutor to engage with because of a seen lack of something? What about tutors that want to have access to someone in order to ‘pick their brains’, or have an issue or an idea they would like to talk through with someone. How does this fit into a ‘coach’ role?

If I think about my own views of these titles and how I think people in my professional life have fitted into them, I wouldn’t say that I have ever had a coach, but I have had a mentor, a friendly critical friend and a muse.


I think there have been two people that I would view as having a really positive impact on my career and my professional development. Both have been in management roles, although only one of them was my actual line manager.

The things they both have in common are:

  •  having time for me, as and when I needed it
  • listening to my ideas and provided a steer as to where they could go
  • encouraging me to be able to step outside of my comfort zone
  • giving me recognition of my work


Friendly Critical Friend

When I took part in the ICT Effective Practice study, I was one of nine practitioner researchers, who were all asked to undertake interventionist action research projects with the support of ‘friendly critical friends’. I loved this term, and I loved them. It’s a long time ago, but I know it was with there support that I was able to develop my action research project on using web quests with my E1 ESOL group.

On one visit I was giving a demonstration, via the Smart Board, on specific ICT skills, and she asked, why didn’t I let them go onto the PCs and follow my instructions there, rather than listen to the instructions and then go and try. I replied that I wouldn’t be confident to do this as I wouldn’t be able to see their screens as I would be talking from the front. The conclusion of the discussion was that I realised that I was a bit of a control freak, and that it was my attitude and belief that was impacting on how I was delivering.

As the conversation continued, I found myself agreeing to try letting the students loose and to be able to ‘play’ with the technology, rather than give such directed instructions. this was completely out of my comfort zone at the time, and possibly why I remember it so well. This idea of letting people explore and discover for themselves, setting up peer support networks, is now a huge part of the way I embed the use of technology into my teaching.


I am very fortunate to work with an amazing group of people, but there is one ESOL teacher that really stands out for me, and I would joke that she was my ‘muse’. We already had a good working relationship, but this was really solidified the first year of the Action Research Network. It was taking part in this that both of us spent a lot of time together; talking about our classes, our students and our projects. She was such a creative teacher, and we would often joke that we’d make a great double act – she could plan the lesson with great resources and I would go deliver the session. This was the first time that I really started to explore blogging with my students and you can see the first posts all they way back in January 2006!

Looking back at the  practitioner research I’ve undertaken, the notion of peer support and bottom-up approaches to supportive risk-taking as important CPD activities is evident. I’m struggling with how the role of ‘coach’, which feels Top-Down to me, fits in with this.

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