Three ways to be a better mentor and coach

As school leader, your attention is a precious commodity. The “immediate” and “urgent” are constantly vying for top spot on your list of priorities. Being able to pull away and make time for face-to-face conversations with members of your team about things that truly matter can too often feel far from reach.

And yet, thankfully, there are moments when you are able to really listen to what another is saying and be in dialogue about the work that’s being done, the learning and growth, and the path forward.

We know this place as educators; it’s the teachable moment. Conversations when you are both in “the learning zone:” present, connected, and talking about what truly matters for them and, by extension, for you.

As a school leader, being able to shift into a conversation that is in service of professional learning and growth requires not only a precious window of time but also an approach (read: concrete skills) that can help you maximize the opportunity and impact.

Through the research completed on our work, in training hundreds of school and system leaders through the Mentor-Coaching Institute in Ontario, Canada, we have learned that when a leader is able to consistently show up as mentor-coach, with a set of concrete skills and principles to support their shift in stance from “leader” and “resident-fixer-and-solver” to “thinking-partner” and mentor-coach, the conversational trajectory is different and the learning is accelerated (Robinson, 2011).

The current research around the efficacy of coaching and mentoring within professional learning supports the practice of combining these roles (Jayaram, Moffit, & Scott, 2012) and the critical role that coaching plays in helping to improve teacher practice (Bush, 1984; Showers, 1982 & 1984; Knight, 1998 & 2007; Batt, 2010; Slinger, 2004).

Given all of this, we would like to share three foundational mentor-coaching skills to support you in inhabiting the role of mentor-coach, and to help you bring yourself, more consistently, to relationships and conversations that foster learning and growth. We invite you to use the reflective questions provided to support you in enhancing and integrating these skills into your own leadership practice.

3 Critical Mentor-Coaching Skills

(Adapted from When Mentoring Meets Coaching, Sharpe & Nishimura, Pearson Canada Inc., 2017)

Being in the Moment, Fully Present

Being in the moment involves the capacity to “be with”—open, agile and flexible, and able to respond to whatever is emerging in the moment. it also requires letting go, and not anticipating or predicting.

To be a successful mentor-coach, we need to be able to bring ourselves fully to our conversations with the mentee, listening deeply and asking questions that grow out of the mentee’s present concerns and desires.


How Do I Ensure That I Am “Here, Prepared to Be Nowhere Else” (Scott, 2002, p. xv)?

  1. How do I know when I am indeed fully present? What keeps me there?
  2. What distracts me when I am in conversation? What can I do differently in order to be more fully present?
  3. How can I enhance my capacity to be truly and consistently present?

Listening Deeply: Distinguishing between “listening through” and “listening to”

“Listening through”

  • What we experience internally as we listen
  • Internal responses and experiences as we listen

“Listening to”

  • Intentional, focused listening
  • Listener is fully present and in the moment, listening deeply

By simply recognizing these distinctions, participants in the mentor-coach training have consistently found that they begin to listen differently, more deeply.

Listening Through

When we “listen through”, we filter what we hear, listening through the distractions of our own visceral experiences, lenses, emotions, assessments, experiences, stories, opinions, notions, conclusions, and judgments.

External Physiological needs and messages Internal
● Surrounding environment, situation

● Technologies

● Comfort, wellness

● Energy

● Internal state (e.g., not present, excited, anxious, frustrated)

● Making own meaning and connections

Reflection: “Listening Through”

  1. What am I aware of in terms of internal interference in my own listening?
  2. How will I help myself notice when I am “away” and no longer listening fully?
  3. When and how does “listening through” show up in my listening with colleagues, staff, parents, and students?

Listening To

“Listening to” means that the listener is fully present, in the moment, and able to be “over there” with the other person, listening deeply, with attention and intention.

Reflection: “Listening To”

  1. What supports me in being fully present as a listener, being able to “listen to”?
  2. What is the impact on me as a listener, as I experiment with noticing when I am “listening through” and invite myself back to “listening to”?
  3. What is the impact on others when I am more consistently “listening to” rather than “listening through”?

Asking Impactful Questions

To assess the value of questions we ask, we need to focus on the impact of the questions on the mentee’s awareness, choices, and action.

It’s not what the question is, it’s what it does. The “best” questions to ask are…

Simple, Clean, and Clear

Grow directly out of the content, intent, and meaning of what the mentee has just said.


  • What stands out?
  • How can you keep this simple?

Poignant and On Target

Grow out of “listening to” the mentee and speak to the immediacy of expressed concerns. Keeping the focus on the mentee rather than on the problem also increases the traction of the question. 


  • What will this require of you?
  • Where is the opportunity in this for you?

Results Oriented

Connect directly with what the mentees wants.


  • What will success look like for you?
  • How will you know you are making a difference?

Creating Space and Perspective
Invite the mentee to examine their own thinking, step back, and access a broader perspective.


  • Stepping back, what do you notice?
  • How else can you look at this?

Reflection: What’s my type?

  1. Which types of questions am I most apt to ask? Least apt to ask?
  2. What questions seem the most impactful to use with my mentee?
  3. Where is the growing edge for me in my capacity to ask impactful questions?


Authors, Designers, Developers and Coach-Facilitators:

Kate Sharpe, M Ed, ACPC

Jeanie Nishimura, M Ed, PCC, CPCC

Kate Sharpe and Jeanie Nishimura are a dynamic team who design and facilitate professional learning programming committed to supporting real and lasting change in leaders. Nishimura and Sharpe are experienced certified Professional Coaches, award winning educators and coach-facilitators who specialize in designing and delivering customized leadership development programming for groups and teams at the management and executive level.

Most notably, this design team created and facilitates the highly successful 3-part Mentor-Coaching Institute in partnership with Education Leadership Canada (ELC) and Pearson Canada. This training provides in depth coach training, in the context of mentoring, for experienced educational leaders across Canada and in the US.

As a result of the success and impact of their programming, Kate and Jeanie have recently co-authored a book, published by Pearson Canada 2017, When Mentoring Meets Coaching: Shifting the Stance in Education.