#1 The mentor has some great answers for your questions.

The mentor has sone great answers for your questions.

Are coaching and mentoring the same thing?  Over the coming weeks, the answer becomes clearer. Whilst asking the right questions is important, it's the mentor who has the knowledge and is the one who takes their mentee on the journey. In this episode, experienced and retired primary school principal, now mentor with The Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership, Deborah Patterson, shares her story with host, Loretta Piazza. And at times, her story is outrageous....


Contact Deborah Patterson on 0409 425 778


#1 Deborah Patterson

You're listening to Loretta Piazza, experienced school principal, mentor, and coach, and together we're 'talking out of school'. You will hear from leaders who have lived and breathed so many experiences, agonised over decisions and have tossed and turned through countless sleepless nights. These are the people who will help you stay ahead of the game.


These days everyone knows what mentoring is. In fact, having a mentor is a bit like the latest must have fashion accessory, but mentoring is certainly no fad. It's a very serious business that will help you get ahead in your career. If treated with respect.  For me, the issue lies in the way mentoring has become quite synonymous with coaching, especially in education.

That's not to say that a mentor can't use coaching techniques or engage in coaching conversations with their mentee.   Nor does it mean that a coach can’t help with achieving long-term goals, just as a mentor. No wonder there’s confusion; not even the Oxford dictionary gives a clear and concise definition. It tells us that a coach is a teacher or an instructor and is associated with sport.

Well, I'm both a mentor and a coach, but I'm not a coach of sport. Are they the same thing? Well, the short answer to that is no. Despite the fact that there's this tendency to use the terms interchangeably.  Let's firstly, look at what they have in common. Both mentoring and coaching are really effective for learning. And if managed well, they can increase a person's confidence and also improve their job performance. Both can play a part in any workplace, whether it be a private organization or a school and both mentoring and coaching build strong connections and relationships. So what's the difference then?

Well, let's look at mentoring first. It's the mentor who has the knowledge and experience and takes on the persona of the wise counsel. The mentor usually helps with the holistic development of a person's career. In schools we often associate mentoring with succession planning, for example, an assistant principal being groomed to become the next principal.

And because the focus is on overall development, there's less of an interest in coming up with specific and measurable goals as would be the case if a person was coached with the intention of improving their job performance. This is not what mentoring is about. And it's usually the mentee who is asking the questions and tapping into the knowledge and experience of their mentor.

Coaching, on the other hand, takes on a vastly different approach and context, and it can be achieved in as little as a one hour session. The coach must be a good listener and the coach must be able to ask probing questions. They've got to be comfortable with periods of silence and a good coach also knows it's not their place to give advice or answers even when the solution is glaringly obvious to them. In coaching the answers and solutions come from the person being coached. And consequently, it takes a skilled coach to enable this.

My guest today is Deborah Patterson. Debra is a retired primary school principal who works as a mentor for Bastow, now known as the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership. She also runs her own private consultancy.

Interview with Deborah Patterson

Loretta: Hello, Deborah. Welcome to talking at a school.

Deborah: Thank you, Loretta. Looking forward to it.

L: Deb, I've known you for a very, very long time and it's just incredible how much you've been able to fit in outside of being a school principal. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

D: All right. Well, as you know, I'm currently mentoring. Um, to be six at the moment. I've finished with three. So I'm mentoring six principals, and I have been doing so for, or most of this year. I'm writing a book, tools, tips, and tricks, the passionate unconventional leader. Um, as you know, I spent 46 years in education and a principal in three schools. I loved my volunteer work with the YMCA. I was on the local Whittlesea board, their president for six years, and I was on the national Australian board for three, three years where I actually chaired the National Redress Committee. And I was also on the Licensing and Governance. But I especially loved my work with VACRO. That's the Victorian Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. And I actually mentored three women in the Dame Phyllis Frost Detention Centre. So that's sort of been most of my work. As you know, I'm married, two children and four lovely grandchildren. So been very busy.

L: Absolutely. I'm really interested in the work that you've done with the female offenders. What does mentoring with them look like?

D: Well, uh, obviously you have to do the training course with VACRO, and then they match you up with, um, somebody who…the actual inmate put out a profile of what sort of person they would like the mentor to be, but they know nothing about your professional or personal life. So for example, um, one woman I was linked up with, I looked at the profile and it said 55 year old woman liked, um, animals. Um, we'd prefer to link up with a mentor face-to-face every fortnight. So I sort of put my hand up and, uh, linked up with her. And I met her at Dame Phyllis Frost Detention Centre with a rep from VCRO, and we chatted for a while. And then at the end of the session, if it's agreeable with the inmate that she wanted to continue the relationship. We met on a fortnightly basis for, um, was really six. It was three months, but we actually continued the relationship for six months.

L: Was it a successful association?

D: Yes. Yep.

L: And how do you know,

D: Uh, well this was, this was a woman who was pretty well…she didn't want any particular….because of her case study and because of her background, she was a very hurt and, um, defensive type woman. So I was able to go in there on a fortnightly basis and just focus on her. She didn't have any family, any visitors. She was someone who was going to be in there for quite some time. So for her to let down her defence mechanism and it, her barriers and look forward to actually have someone coming in. And initially we did the behind the screen type relationship or type visit. And then once she became more comfortable with me, we're able to actually meet face to face in these sort of, um, kitchen, our dining room area.

L: What did you get out of it?

D: Oh, gee, you have bit of insight into what goes on in, uh, in the female prison and probably…

L: Nothing like Wentworth?

D: Uh, yeah, well, yeah, it's, I mean, that's to the extreme, but there were a lot of similarities and, um, you know, many a time I would return for the session and there would be, um, there would be something that I wouldn't be able to talk about that I could tell quite obvious that she had been in, um, maybe a dispute of whatever. And, uh, so you learn to be very tactful in the type of questions you did not, um, talk about. It's certain issues that went on in, in there because you've been watched all the time and other inmates are also watching you speak to her. And there are ramifications the consequences that you may not be aware of, but you have to tread very, very careful.

L: Talk about a high level of emotional intelligence to work with these people.

D: Definitely. And as you know, being in education and having to work with some of the parents we've had to, as a principal, I've had uh, I've had to work with people who have actually been in and out of jail. And, um, many, a time I've been told that, um, various fathers would want to rearrange my face. And, um, so I had a bit of experience as a principal working with very difficult people. So I thought that, um, with helping women in, um, Dame Phyllis Frost would be relatively easy, but, uh, it's, it's just as different.

L: You know, one of my famous recollections was a parent, a male father who turned up and within about two minutes, he ripped open his shirt and showed me two bullet holes in his chest. And, you know, we actually got on really well after that. I knew, I knew exactly where I stood with him. What I saw is what I got.

D: Well, that's right. I remember having a father and he sat down and he said, you know, I've been in prison for 14 years for murdering someone. And I said, oh, well, I had better be nice to you.

L: Well, it just goes to show. We never lose that sense of humour, do we?  Have you ever been mentored in your 40 plus years?

D: Yes, I've, I've been mentored a couple of times. I was mentored once when I had breast cancer, that was all a personal, um, personal nature, but more so….oh, I haven't actually directly had a mentor because we were quite lucky. Our collegiate group was very collegiate and sharing. And so I was able to use people like that within the profession. A couple of times I had, uh, a regional advisor because you have to go on various interviews. And so I would get feedback on my, um, my application process and my interviewing techniques. And I remember a couple of the more senior personnel would advise me say, Debra, you need to do this, why don't you try this? And so, uh, I sought feedback and I took note of what they said. And, uh, it, uh, in the end I was successful in some of the applications that I went in.

L: Can you tell us about the people that you mentor now?

D: It's well, the, the principals that are from two type programs that are offered: the principal mentoring program for new principals and the principal Evolve program, again for new principals, but more specifically related to the Evolve program, the strategic, the human and the technical aspect. So, uh, when I'm, when I link up with the mentees, they have 12 sessions with me and they can have it weekly, fortnightly or monthly. And the idea is that they are to, we, we meet on the first session, establish that relationship, talk about the goals, do a mentoring agreement, and then we can go about when we meet.

L: Okay. So what does a typical mentoring session actually look like?

D: The first, uh, the agenda is, well, we start off with, uh, a meet and greet. Uh, welfare check-in because as you know, with principals, the welfare check in is probably the most important aspect of, of the session. So I usually ask them, you know, how are you feeling? And they give me a score out of 10. And in what gear are you working at? I'm wanting them to tap into their, what they're doing, but also to be in sync with their body, their feelings, because I consider that to be, if you're going to be here for a long time and sustainable leadership is something that we encourage in Victoria. Uh, you need to be in tune with your emotions in your health and wellbeing. So we do a little bit of a check-in. Are there any important issues that you would like to talk about? Uh, you know, they're important or they're urgent. So we deal with that. And then they've got three goals that they would like to speak to. And that could be a workforce planning goal by goal, um, dealing with difficult people. So we usually go back to the goals and talk about where we're up to with that. And then we finished off with a little bit of a reflective session. What was good about today's session? What would you like me to do or prepare for you next session? Or what, what, what, uh, what sort of things are you going to do in the next coming fortnight? And then we agree on the next set date and time, and the session finishes after.

L: Uh, Deb, I sort of wonder, do you follow a set script or do you work more intuitively based on what you think is needed and what you're picking up from your mentee?

D: Yes. Uh, all I do, I do have the script at the side of the agenda. But mentoring, you have to be at the beck and call of the mentee, and it's totally up to them though, the way that the particular session goes. And, and you can usually tell by the, the, well, the check-in and it just, by listening to their tone, their conversation, you, you really using all your IQ, emotional intelligence and tune in, and the the session could go one way or it could go another way, but it's all up to the, the mentee themselves.

L: You bring up relationships quite a bit, the need or the importance of having a good relationship with your mentee. How do you actually develop that relationship given that you don't know these people from a bar of soap?

D: So. Yeah, well, yeah, we don't know them, but being a mentor we've, we've got the knowledge and the experience related to the profession. So usually if they talk about any particular incident or issue that they are, well, that they are feeling challenged by it, uh, we can tune in. You know, that first session is important to build that trust in the relationship. And at the end of the session, if they don't like me, they don't want to continue, they say so. And I've actually had to deal with people who've said no to one, two or three mentors. And so that relationship, you just have to be honest. You have to, they don't want anybody to beat around the bush or fluff around them and to patronize them. They know what they want and they want someone, they want to mentor. You understand the context who is honest, who is skilled and knowledgeable and could, and can ask them lots of questions related to what they're actually saying. And above all understanding the concept, the, that the context in which they're there working that is really, really important.

L: I gather the mentees have a fair amount of choice as to whether or not they're going to select you as their mentor or say no and go onto someone else. Have you ever been in that situation where you think, oh dear, I don't know if I can do this with this person?

D: Well, Loretta, I can, I can usually go click click, work that person out probably within the first couple of, um, couple of minutes, but, uh, you know, I've worked with the rather difficult alpha male who's got the one type of commander type leadership style. And then he wonders why he's not getting traction within his school. But it's about, well..

L: you've told him why…

D: …and he said to me, you know, all I was told you were, you would challenge me and well, that's my job. If you want a pat on the back, if you want me to patronize you, that's not what mentoring is all about, but let's look at perhaps the style of leadership um, that your most familiar with. And when I ask him, maybe let's look at, tell me about your school improvement team. Tell me about their capabilities and their qualities. Tell me about the context of the school. And he realized that he was actually going into a school, which was already performing, was a high functioning school, looking at their teacher judgements, Naplan, essential assessment evidence. It was showing that the school was already, uh, as I said, a high functioning school. So you don't need that top down dominating, commander type leadership role when your skill level of the improvement team is relatively high. You then convert to a democratic team approach where you are collaborative. And so you don't get off your high horse, step down and accept the capabilities. And that's actually a strength of the school. It's a shame.

L: He couldn't say that, but then that's your job though, isn't it? To help them see that?

D: Well, you could be when you asked the question, you know, when you, when you say you're not getting traction, tell me about what are you seeing? What are you hearing? And then you could, then you unpack that and then you make you talk about, well, what's another, are you aware of synergy values, leadership style? What other style could you use? So you, you want the minty, do you become aware themselves that they need to change?

L: I think it's interesting that you talk about asking particular questions and that reminds me a bit about coaching because that's what coaching is; asking a lot of deep questions. So what's your take on coaching and how it can slot into mentoring and make it that little bit more effective even?

D:  Well, really, um, with mentoring, it's all about the process of learning with coaching.  With mentoring is the process of learning. You want them to learn for themselves and work through it and, and be guided. With coaching, it's about empowering the coachee to, to actually on a day to day basis. Go about the business and you, you can use various models like the growth model or, you know, the, um, there are other models that you could use, but it's coaching is day to day. You have to be with them and guide them and empower them as they go along. Whereas mentoring is, you can suggest that they do something, but they do that over a period of time.

L: So do I take it then that you don't get involved with any of the coaching styles?

D: No, I, I do. I cross over, I cross, I cross in and out at certain times.  I'm a mentor, but then sometimes I might use some tips and coaching techniques and I will talk about what I'm doing with the, the mentee, and you'll go through it. But I was talking about, I'm mentoring you here, but I'm using a coach, a coaching model here, and it's good for them to know the differences.

L: Yeah. Look, I have to ask you this because I know you so well. Have you ever knocked back anybody and said, no, I'm not going to mentor you?

D: Yes.

L: Tell us about it.

D: Uh, or it's not within education, but as you know, uh, it was in the corporate world and I get asked by the corporate world a lot of times as well. And I mentor, um, I've mentored a couple of people in, in, um, with the YMCA, but I was asked to mentor this particular person, and I was only given a small debrief information. So I spoke with the person, linked up with them, had a check, then had a second chat. And it was then that I knew not this is out of my realm. Uh, and there are times when you could, I could tell there were mental health issues and this person needed professional assistance. And I told them, so. Uh, I said, you know, unfortunately I'm not going to mentor you. You actually need professional help. And I would suggest you get to you, your GP as soon as possible. I'm going to ring you tomorrow and see if you've made that appointment, but you need help. Um, and as a mentor I cannot fix it. You need professional help. And, um, Yeah, it was good that he did that. I ran back to the next day. He made an appoint with his GP and he's actually getting professional help. And to a certain extent, as you know, in our profession, when we can see somebody who's going down that spiral and down anxiety, depression, and contemplating, um, suicidal thoughts. They need professional help.

L: Absolutely. What are your skills?

D: As a mentor love what I do love, love, love every day. I just, um, I'm enthusiastic. Uh, um, you know, me, I'm out there. Oh, I just love passing on my knowledge and helping those new young leaders that come into the profession because you come in with all this passion, you come in with the excitement and you want to make a difference, but it's what you don't know. Which is important. And if you can pass on, because there's not as, you know, like you 22 years as a principal, there's probably not any particular situation that we haven't gone through it. And we've had to go through it and learn from it. So passing those that, that knowledge on to the new principal. Gee, you can't, you can't get all that money. Doesn't pay for that. So, um, I'm just enthusiastic. I’m finally reading all those books, Loretta, as you know, we used to go to umpteen conferences, you know, Hattie, Hargreaves, you always bought their books, would go up to the counter and I would get a half a dozen books and I would hold them under my arm and parade around.

L: I bet they look good on your bookshelf?

D: And people used to come in and say, oh, Debra, you must be so clever. Um, and now finally I've actually read every single one of them and I've summarized it into one or two pages. And that's what I give to my mentees. Um, if they want something on conflict resolution, I'll shoot them out some reading material. If they want some templates on, on a particular topic or a project that they may be doing, I shoot the email out something like that. So glad that I've had time to be able to do that and now share it with the new mentees

L: You’d be a good listener wouldn't you?

D: No, no, no. But I look like a successful mentor. And these are skills that we develop as principals anyway, in particular being a good mentor and having high levels of emotional intelligence. There are heaps and heaps of behaviors that we have to demonstrate.

L: So you're a good listener. What else?

D: Well, you've got to be good at questioning. You've got listening skills, there's the, you know, the empathy, the reflective, the activation type listener. You've gotta be spot on, you know, a high order thinking. Questions. You've got to pinpoint. Well, tell me more about the context. What is your purpose? What's your plan? What are your models? What are your mental models going into that meeting? Uh, what, what do you want to come from the meeting? What, what is your vision? What's your mission? So by asking those questions, You can, it makes the mentee actually be in the moment and think, and that's, what's important because if you go into something unprepared and you think that you can fly by the seat of your pants while you're….because you're not doing justice to yourself. You're not doing justice to those that you're working with and above all, which is why we are here as principals. It's not good for the students. You need to know what you're doing, why you're doing it, how you're doing it for to get the desired outcomes that you want.

L: So what are the responsibilities of the mentee?

D: You have to commit to the timetable at the time that we made you respond to my invitation, uh, invite you make that time in your diaries and you are in the moment. And I've I've, I'm, I'm quite lucky because all the, all the principals are relatively responsible. The only time that they may have to cancel it is usually when something very, very important comes, comes up. And I, I perfectly understand. So they have to be committed. Do the time. Totally. Hmm. Actually follow through with anything that we two together that we decided to do, um, follow through and actually do it and then get back.

L: What advice would you give to someone who's contemplating finding a mentor?

D: I wish I had gotten, had a mentor, even, you know, a mentor, having someone who you can ring up at the drop of a hat and work with and who just cares about you. So anyway, look around, uh, by word of mouth. Um, most of my work through word of mouth. Oh, Debra worked with so-and-so. Can she work with, you know, this person?  So by word of mouth, it's also on LinkedIn. I have my own business DP coaching solutions.com. You really have to do your homework because mentors, there are a dime. Shouldn't say this, like they are a dime a dozen, but it's getting the right one and you can use. If you have to try before you buy we'll do that, you know, try it one or two or three until you feel comfortable. You feel that they got the knowledge and the skills and are listening to me. They then, they're there for me. And when that relationship and when it feels right, it's a bit like a marriage Loretta, but you know, when you get the right partner, but only mentoring is, is not a marriage. It is a relationship based on trust and confidentiality.

L: Got to hand it to Bastow they've done a fabulous job in all of this, but it took the death of our very dear friend and colleague to get things happening within the Department. And for the Principal Health and Wellbeing initiative get underway. So, um, I'm thinking that for all the principals and assistant principals out there who may need a little bit of help, they may need a bit of support or they just want someone to give them a bit of advice. What do they do? Where do they go?

D: Well, you're right.  Yeah. They've actually only this week, just advertised for assistant principals to actually take up a mentoring program. So that's a positive. Uh, a positive thing, but what a pity we had to lose a fabulous educator who was going through difficult times within the system. The principal role is a very, very lonely role. And it's one that we do because we love it. You're not told about the workload and waking up at six o'clock in the morning and going to bed at 10 o'clock at night, 16 hours of headspace is devoted to your profession and you've only got eight hours to reset. So if you can have a mentor and the Education Department is certainly putting a lot more funds through Bastow, which will be, um, as we know the new name, the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership. So if any inspiring leader wants to have a mentor or to do any of their health and wellbeing courses, they apply to the Academy. And they go through that.

L: And just to finish off, I'd like to say thank you very much. We've gained great insight into you, into your personality, into your role as a mentor. You're no nonsense approach. And I think that's what we love about you. You tell it like it is, and I have no doubt that your mentees gain a great deal from working with you. So thanks again. I wish you all the best. Oh, look just before we sign off, tell us a little bit about your book.

D: Oh, my book. Uh, I hope, I hope for it to be out next year. Uh, it's about sharing and imparting all the tools, tips, and tricks of the trade. Um, you know, the old mother Hubbard routine, you've got to go into a meeting and you've got absolutely nothing in the tank. What are you going to do then? The wise old owl, our routine working with quirky people. What's the purpose? You know, how do we go about developing our purpose? How optimistic or have to attend an interview. What do teachers look for? What do principals look for? So they're just little, sort of little quirky tips that will you be able to pick up and read and gives you a little bit more of an insight into teaching and what it's like to be a leader. So I'm hoping that to be out sometime next year.

L: I've got to ask you though. What made you write a book?

D: I’ve been dying to write this book for years.  Uh, really it's, well, if you're not going to impart, where are people going to pick up and you like to be able to pick up a one on one book? It’s like a one stop cookbook. Um, but I've always wanted to do something I've just never had the time Loretta I've had the passion. But I just have never had the time. And now when I'm giving back in mentoring and I'm hearing and seeing what the mentees need, I'm thinking, gee, if they're just little tips that they should, that they need to pick up. And if they did pick up those little tips, gee, it would make their life a lot more easier and less stressful.

L: Well, thank you got to hand it to you. You've got an incredible amount of energy and passion, so thank you very much, Deb wishing you all the best. I can't wait to get my hands on that book.

D: And Loretta, I'd love to say thank you to you. You also were an educator and are an educator that gives so much. So much back to the profession and you are also successful in what you do.

Thanks for listening to this latest episode of talking out of school, where we cover topics and dilemmas associated with the ups and downs, and even the downright curious of the school leaders job. Want to know more then visit me at www.shapingleaders.com.au

But for now here’s to staying ahead of the game.