An interview with Dr Julie Mathews - What my doctoral studies on mentoring and coaching of early career teachers and potential school leaders revealed

A highly experienced and credentialed former educational leader and teacher, Julie Mathews completed her doctoral studies on mentoring and coaching of early career teachers and potential school leaders. In this interview, we ask Julie about what led her to coaching and what she believes is the most efficient way to develop teachers and future leaders.

Julie, during your twenty years as a senior executive you developed a deep understanding of national education systems and teacher needs; how has this experience led you to coaching?

For centuries, teaching has been considered a noble profession which many have aspired towards. I was one of those people and can honestly say that I have loved my roles as a teacher and education executive. Today, the teaching profession is facing a number of challenges. Evidence from research suggests that approximately 50 percent of graduate teachers leave teaching within five years after graduation. (Watt & Richardson, 2011; Hunter Institute of Mental Health, 2016). My experience as an education leader and reasons given in research for this exodus of teacher include:

  • Few permanent positions available (in certain areas of teaching);
  • The graduate teacher's unpreparedness to teach;
  • The graduate's lack of understanding of a schools’ 'community of practice' (Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training, 2007); and
  • That early career teachers are challenged by a lack of work life balance, managing their workload and responsibilities, and difficulties finding the time needed for planning and collaboration (The Hunter Institute of Mental Health, 2016)

Research also indicates that over the next few years there will be a generation of teachers and school executives who will be retiring. This will leave many schools either understaffed and/or without experienced executive.

The need to have and keep great teachers who are committed to the teaching profession and are prepared for the responsibility of ‘running a school’ led me to see the need for coaching and mentoring of our teachers both as tools for their skill set and to enable them to have access to mentoring and coaching for themselves. As I have gained experience as a coach and a facilitator of coaching programs I have seen the how coaching and mentoring assists in the improvement of the quality of conversations in our education communities (leaders with teachers; teachers with teachers; leaders and teachers with parents; and everyone with students) so that leaders lead well; teachers teach well and are more satisfied with their role; parents contribute well and student’s well-being and learning are enhanced.

How do you think that developing the coaching skills of individual teachers and leaders helps to create a coaching culture in schools?

When I first began teaching, a classroom was ‘a teacher’s kingdom’. You would shut the door at the commencement of a lesson and strangers were not welcome. This still applies in one sense, in that a teacher’s role is to ensure that teaching and learning is taking place for the students he/she has in front of him/her in that particular class. The classroom, however, is only one area of teaching and learning. The demands of our education system require every teacher to be concerned with not only the academic but the physical, spiritual and social development of their students. A teacher alone cannot and should not aspire to fulfil every students’ needs in every area. Teachers need to work in teams to develop suitable curriculum across stages, pastoral care of students throughout their 13 years of schooling, develop individual programs for those students with special needs and to develop appropriate and realistic assessment of students.

Coaching gives skills to teachers and leaders to enhance quality conversations across all aspects of school life. I have witnessed effective staff teams in schools where these coaching conversations are taking place and coaching skills are being used in meetings and discussions amongst the staff. In schools where staff have experienced peer coaching they feel comfortable to observe and be observed in their classrooms to enhance teaching skills. Such schools have created a coaching culture. Wilkins (2012) says,

“A coaching culture exists in an organisation when a coaching approach is a key aspect of how the leaders, managers, and staff engage and develop all their people and engage their stakeholders, in ways that create increased individual, team and organisational performance and shared value for all stakeholders.” (p. 21)

A coaching culture enables teams to work more coherently in schools to plan for and action effective teaching and learning for the benefit of all.

In your doctoral studies, you completed research and analysis of a mentoring program. Your thesis presented the benefits of mentoring for teacher education students who are transitioning to the profession. What key insights did you discover ? Are these insights transferable to the coaching/mentoring of early career teachers and potential school leaders aspiring to higher leadership positions?

My research was a qualitative study of 14 teacher education students’ experience of a mentoring program. Those teacher education students (mentees) who experienced a collegial relationship with their mentor teachers considered they were better prepared for teaching than other teacher education students how had not participated in the program. Their mentor teachers and the executive staff concurred with this finding. The mentees concluded they were better prepared for their future role because their mentor teacher:

  • Developed a plan of action with clear goals for the mentee
  • Was supportive and encouraging
  • Was able to discuss aspects of teaching openly
  • Encouraged the mentee to practise teaching skills, and
  • Encouraged reflection of teaching pedagogy

The overall study showed that a collegial relationship is able to develop and a successful program ensue when the following aspects occur :

  • Suitable mentors are selected. A positive relationship between the mentor/mentee is pivotal to a program’s success.
  • Training of mentor/mentees regarding the theoretical framework, purpose and content of the program is necessary for the participants to understand and enter into the program with applicable knowledge.
  • There should be a structured framework for the mentoring program. This structure ensures that both the mentor teacher and the mentee fulfil the purpose and plan of the program. In addition, a feature of the mentoring relationship would include the practice of engaging the mentee in critical thinking and reflective practice of observed and practised teaching and leadership styles. Reflective practice and critical thinking ensures ongoing development of the mentee’s thinking about his/her teaching practice and leadership.
  • Strong communication between the mentor teacher/mentee and the program coordinators to enable monitoring of the program and opportunities for input and feedback for all involved. This could be done in an online and face to face situation.

Each of the above insights that were found in this study are applicable to coaching and mentoring programs for both early career teachers and aspiring leaders. The need for a collegial relationship to develop between coaches and coachees and mentors and mentees is critical. This collegial relationship will only develop if the coach/mentor is suitably selected, trained and matched with the coachee/mentee.

At Growth Coaching International our structured framework has been shown to be the reason for the successful coaching of so many. Finally communication between coach/coachee and mentor/mentee and the program organisers allows for opportunities to improve a program and allow for the different nuances of different programs for early career teachers and aspiring leaders to take shape.

And how have you incorporated coaching/mentoring into some of the programs you helped to design and deliver, including Masters programs, for teacher education students and potential leaders and teams in schools across Australia and in China?

The research project that I reported on was an adjunct mentoring program to a Graduate Diploma of Education. The program which took place in 2012 was a pilot for ensuing programs which have expanded to include other schools in the area. The development of two Masters of Teaching programs in 2014 at the University of Wollongong and Excelsia College saw the inclusion of mentoring as an integral component as a result of this research. A new Master of Educational Leadership (Excelsia College) has incorporated a practical mentoring component as part of a unit for potential leaders in schools. The AITSL professional online programs includes a unit on mentoring which was compiled on the basis of this research by the University of Wollongong for mentor teachers of teacher education students.

Over the last four years I have been privileged to lead a team of teachers who conduct annual professional development for teachers in the Sichuan Province of China. Our role has been to demonstrate and then train the teachers in different teaching styles using our coaching method. These 40 teachers are then expected to go to their schools and assist the teachers they work with. We also encourage the teachers to peer coach. This often needs to be done online as the teachers often work in remote villages.

For more information on coaching-based professional learning programs for educators visit


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