Mentors Who Coach - Coaches Who Mentor: Accompaniment and Stance as Unifying and Liberating Concepts

To cite this working paper please use the following format:

Booton, J., Hollweck, T. and Munro, C. (2023), Mentors Who Coach - Coaches Who Mentor: Accompaniment and Stance as Unifying and Liberating Concepts, CollectivED [17], pages 5-14, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.

Mentors Who Coach - Coaches Who Mentor: Accompaniment and Stance as Unifying and Liberating Concepts

Jasen Booton,Trista Hollweck and Chris Munro


Learning described as a ‘journey’ is a well-worn metaphor in education, however its frequent use has led to it seeming tired and clichéd. Yet, when it comes to educators’ professional learning and development, there still remains a sense of forward momentum - learning as a growth-oriented process. How to support educator growth and who is best positioned and equipped to accompany them on their learning journey remain important questions. For early career educators, mentors have been shown to play a pivotal role in teacher development and professional growth. The use of coaches is also gaining popularity in schools to support educator growth. But questions remain. What is the difference between a mentor and a coach? What does it mean to be a mentor and/or a coach? Are these roles fixed or fluid? Can mentors coach and can coaches mentor? How does our understanding of the terms influence our work?

This ‘think piece’ represents a meeting of three minds around a shared interest in the tensions and nuances of language and what it means to be engaged in “collaborative-based professional development”, such as coaching and mentoring. Although each of us have been thinking deeply about our own mentoring and coaching work with educators in different settings and geographical contexts, our connection through social media and previous contributions to CollectivED papers led us to consider how a collaborative writing process might move our own collective ideas forward. Our chosen structure and writing style for this piece is intended to convey the unfolding of our thinking over time. We hope that it helps others grappling with the same nuances that we have been struck by.

Our shared intent and beliefs

A shared bond and common thread through our discussions has been our desire to support others to get better at doing what they do in the most respectful ways possible. Here, respectful means treating educators as thinking professionals and acknowledging and empathising with the complexity of the work that they do. We share the view that these respectful interactions should be positioned as partnerships based on equality, humility, dialogue and autonomy.

Two key concepts triggered our initial interactions and catalysed our decision to collaborate:

the concept of a ‘continuum’ of professional learning conversations and the implications of this for the ‘stance’ of those initiating or leading learning conversations (Munro, 2020); and the intriguing term ‘accompaniment’ (Hollweck, 2022).

Why accompaniment?

We believe the term accompaniment offers powerful potential for those of us working in the mentoring and coaching field.

Defining accompaniment

According to Merriam-Webster, accompaniment has two key definitions: In music, it is described as an instrumental or vocal part designed to support or complement a melody. It can also be understood as an addition intended to give completeness or symmetry to something, in the way potatoes accompany a main dish or a tie complements a suit. In this think piece, our interest in the term draws on Trista’s recent work for the Leadership Committee of English Education in Quebec (LCEEQ), and its 18-month pilot project that she leads called “Accompaniment: Practice and Research” (see the project description here).

In this work (Hollweck, 2022), Trista posits that accompaniment is best understood as an umbrella term that encompasses a wide variety of collaborative-based professional development, and where educators work alongside one another in a variety of formats, such as mentoring and coaching. Accompaniment is a process of change and transformation whereby educators work together to improve their practice day by day, and become more confident and competent in their professional life. Yet, accompaniment is a reciprocal learning journey; an excursion in which people from different backgrounds and experiences can work together and move forward respectfully as equals. Ultimately, accompaniment designates an approach to collective mobilization. It is about moving forward with a focus on improvement and growth and embodies the idea of someone who joins another to go where they are going, at the same time, neither too far ahead nor too far behind.

Roots of accompaniment

At the risk of introducing another new term into an already crowded space of edubabble, it is important to note that francophone educators in Quebec, Canada are very familiar with the term ‘accompagnement’ and it first appeared in the professional and organizational literature around the 1980’s (Chouinard, 2014). The term is often used in connection to teacher induction or ‘insertion’ in French (Tardif & Borges, 2020). In the English-speaking educational community, accompaniment was first introduced in 2002 as part of a 6-year Research Accompaniment Training project (Lafortune, 2009) that was launched to support educators with systemic change and a new curriculum reform. In the LCEEQ Accompaniment Project, Trista and colleagues build on the already established work in the province and define and develop the concept further. Accompaniment is now understood as a way of being and a lens through which system improvement is viewed. The ultimate goal for the LCEEQ project is that every teacher and leader– no matter their career stage– is ‘well held’ through the process of accompaniment.

Beyond Quebec, accompaniment also has links to the Spanish verb ‘acompañar’ which means ‘to accompany’, and Latin America’s ‘accompaniment’ movement rooted in social liberation theology (Fals-Borda & Rahman, 1991; Freire, 2010). In the last chapter of her newest book, Atlas of the Heart, American researcher Brené Brown (2022) revisits the theory of ‘acompañar’ that emerged during her doctoral studies as an approach to explain how helping professionals build and maintain connection with the people they serve. In unpacking what she means by ‘practising the courage to walk alongside’, Brown poses an important question: ‘What does it mean to be other-focused, to use language in the service of connecting, to be compassionate, empathic, and nonjudgmental?’ (p.261). Certainly this question resonates for those of us who work as mentors and coaches. In answering the question, Brown sees accompaniment as integral and how as an approach it is ‘a commitment to be with people – not pushing them from behind or leading from the front, but walking with them in solidarity’ (p. 262).

What does accompaniment offer the mentoring and coaching world?

One of the most important contributions of the concept of accompaniment is that it provides an alternative term to describe how mentors and coaches practice the courage to walk alongside others with curiosity, empathy, nonjudgement and compassion. Both the terms mentoring and coaching are understood and practised in different and sometimes conflicting ways in different contexts and can be fraught with misconceptions and assumptions. For example, we can see how coaching and ‘instructional coaching’ in some international contexts is being implemented in a much more prescriptive, rigid and performative manner than its original conception and current understanding (Knight, 2007, 2017, 2022). Using an umbrella term like accompaniment makes space for different definitions and conceptions of mentoring and coaching, but also signals the importance of collective mobilization, reciprocal learning and being other-focused. The term accompaniment also offers educators the opportunity to explore the different ‘stances’ that they take when working collaboratively with a colleague.

Exploring the concept of ‘stance’

Language helps us to think and act together (Mercer, 2000). For this reason, it is important to explore the language that helps make sense of the concept of stance in the context of accompaniment. Firstly, we need to reflect on the fundamental language of coaching and mentoring, as these terms can often be used synonymously, causing confusion for educators. Jasen’s personal story helps illustrate this very common experience:

My introduction to coaching and mentoring was as an ‘Advanced Skills Teacher’ (AST) in primary schools in England. Acknowledging the problematic title, my role was to support vulnerable teachers, often working in schools that had failed a government (Ofsted) inspection; the teachers were under intense pressure to improve, with some facing competency procedures. AST status was awarded in light of my expertise in learning and teaching, but the truth is, initially I had no idea how I was meant to behave with the teachers I was helping. I had no concept of how I was meant to be! As an AST, I felt confused as to whether I should be coaching or mentoring. Even though exhausted and sometimes bruised teachers welcomed mentoring with the sharing of models of practice, they also required a sense of agency that I associated with coaching. My own experience of receiving coaching professional development emphasised that the role of the coach was only to ask questions, and never provide answers. So when guiding teachers to take ownership of solving their own problems through coaching, did this mean that I should never provide an opinion? Was it wrong to explain my own approach? This sense of confusion led me to doubt my capacity to coach; I wasn’t sure which hat to wear! Having spent years facing and reflecting upon these dilemmas, I welcome Trista’s explanation of accompaniment as a ‘reciprocal learning journey’; a responsive relationship, respectfully meeting the person at their point of need. “I wear many hats” - was my cliched introduction to Chris, in an effort to describe the varied roles and approaches I adopted when facilitating teacher development. Having been on a similar journey himself, Chris tactfully challenged my thinking, by offering the alternative perspective of ‘stance’. Our connection and collaboration led me to unpack the concept of stance and explore how I perceive it to align with accompaniment. This process has been transformational and liberating.

Grappling with role titles, expectations and needs when trying to support the professional learning and growth of educators is a familiar theme in our work. In Trista’s research (Hollweck, 2017, 2019) on the work of ‘mentor-coaches’ she used a mobius strip to represent the multi-faceted and fluid nature of their work, seamlessly moving between coaching and mentoring in response to the needs of the collaborating teacher. Chris’s CollectivED working paper (Munro, 2020) builds on previous representations of the range of approaches that may be required of a coach or mentor (van Nieuwerburgh, 2012; Downey, 2003), presenting these as a continuum of professional learning conversations moving between less-directive and more-directive stances. The continuum concept is intended to convey the need to subtly ‘shift’ stance in conversations rather than be constrained by a particular role. Three key stances are described along this continuum: a facilitative stance - based on inquiry; a dialogic stance - balancing inquiry and suggestion; and a directive stance - advocating approaches.

Defining stance

Dictionary definitions of the word ‘stance’ offer two meanings, both of which are appropriate in this context. The first, a way of standing or being placed, or our posture or pose, could mean how one literally positions oneself during the conversation. In relation to the concept of shifting stance along a continuum, we need to interpret the word more figuratively as how one positions oneself in terms of our contribution to the conversation as it unfolds. This may be influenced by the second meaning of the word: stance as an intellectual or emotional attitude or way of thinking about something. Stance in mentoring and coaching conversations is a combination of how we consciously ‘show-up’ and what we do in order to support the thinking and progress of our conversation partner.

What does stance offer the mentoring and coaching world?

The idea of coaches shifting stance can also be seen in the work of Elish-Piper and L’Allier (2014): the coach as listener/clarifier (facilitator); learning partner (collaborator); and guide (consultant). As listener/clarifier the coach ‘offers an ear’, listening without interruption. As a learning partner the coach offers a thought, the merging of minds. As a guide the coach offers a hand, providing suggestions and pointing the way forward. The coaching stance depends upon the level of resources that the coachee has at that moment in time. Resources may be levels of knowledge, skills and understanding as well as confidence and even energy. In a sequence of learning (a coaching cycle) the coach’s stance aligns to the needs of the learner (coachee). The coachee trusts that the coach has the capacity and competence to form different stances according to the contextual need. This view of the coaching (or mentoring) relationship aligns perfectly with the notion of accompaniment. The concepts of stance and accompaniment also align naturally with the principles of partnership by valuing and respecting lived experiences and human connections. Jim Knight (2022) makes a compelling argument for coaches to ground their work in seven ‘Partnership Principles’ which support and foster what he calls ‘mutually humanizing learning conversations’. In a collaborative coaching relationship, forming a stance requires the coach to notice, refigure and respond. The collaborative relationship is embodied, agile and in the moment. The coaching conversation is alive!

One further thought (or shift?) on the language we use

Jasen’s particular fascination for the affective/emotional quality of words led to a further teasing out of the verb ‘shift’. ‘Shift’ is not wrong, but with an emphasis on embodiment and emotional intelligence he pondered on alternative verbs and proposed the term ‘refigure’. The coach responds and refigures to the appropriate stance, reflecting the needs of the coachee. Refigure gives a sense of ‘figuring out’ the best fit stance. The word ‘figure’ gives a sense of human figure, form and embodiment. Shift is perhaps more mechanical, like shifting through the gears - refigure might convey more of a sense of being in the moment – a human connection. We’ll leave that one with you to ponder.

Concluding thoughts

Arguably, certain language may be heard and said so often that its meaning becomes assumed. Intentional and nuanced use of language is at the heart of effective coaching and mentoring. It may seem somewhat ironic then that the terms coach/coaching and mentor/mentoring are not always well defined and understood by those on either side of these relationships. Where definitions or role descriptions are clearly defined, they can sometimes lack nuance - ‘a mentor shares their expertise and wisdom’ or ‘a coach never gives advice’, for example. Absolute, rule-bound language may initially provide some security and certainty for coaches and mentors but it can also create tensions. Their lived experience of the roles, especially in education settings, tells them that there are times when the rules or terms of their role do not seem to fit the needs of the person in front of them - they have come up against a role boundary. They may feel the need to provide a bit more direction or alternatively, they begin to see that they have been dispensing too much of their wisdom and creating a dependency. We should provide an important caveat here. We all have an unhelpful tendency towards advice giving (Schein, 2011) and doing the thinking for people. When we see someone stuck or seemingly asking for our help, we invariably default to providing answers or giving unsolicited suggestions. However well-intentioned this help is, we may end up doing the thinking work for our learning partner. In this case, some ‘rules’ and directives can help us to manage our ‘advice monster’ (Bungay-Stanier, 2020). Professional learning on coaching and mentoring can play an important role here in raising self-awareness and deepening understanding of the dynamics of adult learning conversations.

In this think piece we have proposed the concepts of accompaniment and stance as helpful ways to think about coaching and mentoring that take account of nuance and alleviate some of the tension between these forms of learning partnership. We do not seek to replace the terms mentor or coach but to offer a couple of overarching concepts that may be illuminating and possibly even liberating for coaches and mentors working in educational contexts.

Sometimes, in the process of sensemaking and exploring nuance we can tie ourselves in metaphorical knots that leave us feeling more intellectually overwhelmed than we were at the start! As experienced mentors and coaches, the three authors of this paper are comfortable in this process and enjoy working through it. However, we do appreciate that in trying to unpick concepts in an attempt to make them clearer, we can inadvertently make things seem more complex or harder to apply. With this in mind, we’d like to finish with some words of reassurance for any beginning coaches and mentors out there. Regardless of your title or role, if you are showing up for others in the spirit of accompaniment and partnership, and have a genuine attitude of benevolence and faith in your partner, you will not go wrong. Role clarity, process, skills and way of being develop over time supported by a process of critical reflection as our experience grows. It is fair to say we can all become more intentional and confident in our coaching and mentoring conversations.

Some final reflective questions:

● How would you describe your default stance?

● What have you noticed about yourself as you have read this paper?

● What might you need to do or be more of?

● What will be different as you engage in your next coaching or mentoring conversation?

● What will be the small signs of that?

● What might your conversation partner notice?

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To cite this working paper please use the following format:

Booton, J., Hollweck, T. and Munro, C. (2023), Mentors Who Coach - Coaches Who Mentor: Accompaniment and Stance as Unifying and Liberating Concepts, CollectivED [17], pages 5-14, Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University.

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