Leadership: Participating in principal mentoring

Being a school principal is both unique and challenging. It requires a deep knowledge of a whole range of disciplines, from pedagogy and data analysis to literacy, conflict resolution and counselling.

The role can also be isolating, with many principals experiencing high demands, overwhelming responsibilities and risk of burnout, according to latest data from the Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey.

School principals who participate in professional mentoring gain access to support from a trusted peer who has a first-hand understanding of the unique aspects of the role.

Linda Mitchell, Principal of Fitzroy High School in Victoria, has had several mentors and coaches over the past few years, both in a formal and informal capacity. It first began when she was Assistant Principal and the then-Principal of the school offered informal mentoring, using the Growth Coaching Framework. In this framework, GROWTH stands for Goals, Reality, Options, Will, Tactics and Habits.

‘That was something that my Principal was trained in and so she did do some coaching with me when I was in the Assistant Principal role. That was the first time that I experienced that type of approach,’ Mitchell tells Teacher.

In 2018, Mitchell participated in the Unlocking Potential: Principal Preparation program run through the Bastow Institute of Educational Leadership, which provided a combination of both mentoring and coaching.

‘Everybody in that course had to have both a coach and a mentor. They were separate people and they had very different roles. The mentor was a current principal and it involved, as part of the course, going into their school and them coming into your school, and then working together on specific areas that were identified,’ Mitchell explains.

‘I found that absolutely invaluable because there were things that I could observe, just by going into that principal’s school, that I would never have had if I hadn’t been working with her that closely.’

At the same time, Mitchell worked with a coach who also used the Growth Coaching Framework. ‘The coach was able to help me to reflect on the relationship I had with the mentor, so that was really great. It was more based on one-on-one conversations. She would write down what we talked about and then send it to me and I would then work on some things before I saw her next. So that was a really great combination I had during that 12 month period.’

While participating in the program, Mitchell was offered the Acting Principal position at Fitzroy High. ‘When I moved into the second year of my Acting Principal role, the person who had been my mentor officially during the Bastow program offered to continue to mentor me, just out of her own good heart and that was very much a very informal process,’ Mitchell shares.

‘That was the ability to sort of ring up and just say, “oh my god, this is happening, what do I do?” and just talk through something that was perhaps something we’d already talked about in the official mentoring, but in that unofficial capacity – and that was fantastic for that year as well.’

When Mitchell was offered the substantive Principal position at the end of 2019, she was given the opportunity to choose a new mentor, as part of the Principal Mentoring Program, funded by the Victorian Department of Education and delivered through Bastow. It forms part of the department’s overall Principal Health and Wellbeing Strategy.

Mitchell was able to choose from a selection of ex-principals by examining their expertise and looking for a mentor that could support her in specific areas of her practice.

‘I chose my mentor – even though she worked in a very different context to mine – because of the particular skills that she had. Sometimes it’s interesting to have somebody who, even though they might come from a different context, their values might be very similar or perhaps the things they’ve developed expertise in.’

The same person is still her current mentor and has supported her through the challenges of the past two years. They typically talk once a month on the phone, as the COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging to meet face-to-face.

‘Sometimes we speak for an hour, sometimes 90 minutes, depending on what is needed. It started off as quite formal with an agenda in mind. But then the other day when I spoke to her it was quite informal, as in there was something that was troubling me that was going on that I needed some support with and I was able to talk that through with her,’ Mitchell shares.

‘Because I’ve been having her as a mentor for a year now, she was able to put that in perspective and give me some advice and reflect with me about next steps to deal with the situation. But overall, we have got set goals that we work on.’

Mitchell says her mentor really supported her through the process of doing her school review and developing a new strategic plan. She has also offered personal support on more immediate issues she faces in her role.

‘I might be having some issues dealing with conflict resolution with either members of staff, or issues with particular students or parents, or things that I’m struggling with on more of an emotional level. She would be able to provide some perspective on that and lead it back to: “Where does this fit into the strategic direction?” And, “how can we pull back from your immediate situation?” and see it in that context. She’s been really good at doing that,’ Mitchell shares.

Overall, she says there are lots of benefits to having a mentor to support her in her role as a school leader.

‘I would say the most important benefit is having someone who is there for you that doesn’t have any other agenda, they’re not part of the organisation. You can have an honest conversation with them and tell them things that perhaps you wouldn’t feel comfortable doing, even with someone who is a support for you in the organisation. So it’s that ability to talk to someone on a professional level...’ Mitchell says.

‘It can just give you that ability to talk to someone who’s totally there for you and who listens and who has the time to listen. It’s someone who has been there and understands it. Maybe not in the exact same way as you’re going through, because they may have been a principal some time ago, or as I said before, in a very different context. But, they can provide a really useful perspective.’

As a school leader, do you participate in mentoring or coaching? What have you gained from the experience? Are there any particular areas of your practice that your mentor has supported you with?

What are some of the personal qualities you look for in a mentor? How do you ensure you’re getting the most out of the relationship with your mentor?