By Hazel Owen on Feb 18, 2016 04:00 am

cabbage tree

Ka whati te tī, ka wana te tī, ka rito te tī
‘When the cabbage tree is broken it sprouts and throws up shoots’

This fabulous whakaktauki (proverb) encapsulates the idea that even when things appear to be broken and beyond repair, something with deep roots and strong life-force can start anew. It also holds notions of the inevitability of events once they are set in motion — including change.

Learning, by its very nature is change. When we learn we will have changed our skills, our behaviour, our beliefs, our identity, or a combination of all four. Change can, however, be uncomfortable, sometimes threatening, and occasionally something we don’t want to work through as things feel as though they are working fine for us.

I remember a few years back working in a super team of teachers to develop a fully integrated blended course for students. We loved teaching the course and the feedback (and academic results) from students was very positive. In the second year we received notification that the Learning Management System would change from WebCT to Blackboard. It would mean hours of work, and getting used to another platform, and I was fuming. It turned out to be a really positive event; the growing team pulled together to re-develop the online course with some students also helping out. Many things were improved, and the evaluative points from students around their user experience were easily integrated into the design. Looking back though, I would have really benefitted from (and appreciated) being able to make more sense of my initial reaction, and have had support to lead the team through the change more effectively.

I’d like you to now imagine….

You are a tumuaki / principal / leader and kaiako / teacher / education practitioner in a small rural school, kura, or Early Childhood Centre. The number of learners / ākonga is decreasing and you know that change is both necessary…and inevitable. To plan and be ready for the change you realise you need some professional development around working with change, as well as developing other practical skills. You have started working with the community, and every day you also take a walk and listen to podcasts about education innovation; in addition you have several colleagues you follow on Twitter. You still feel professionally isolated though, and uncertain about how to move forward. The idea of enrolling onto a ‘formal’ Professional Learning and Development (PLD) course is not appealing given your current work commitments, but you do have a wide range of ideas and approaches that you feel may work in your school. A friend suggests you look for a mentor, however the nearest place where you might find a suitable mentor is a 3 hour drive away.

This brief scenario may well sound familiar because it is the situation that many education professionals in Aotearoa New Zealand face. So what options are available?

Virtual mentoring as a form of flexible PLD is growing in popularity. It has a lot going for it – not least the fact that you don’t have to travel to a physical location (although you may not necessarily be way out of town, but could instead have a really full-on schedule that the PLD needs to fit in with). One of the beauties of having access to the Internet…or a phone (landline or cell phone)… is that you can access support and PLD virtually – at a time that suits you. What’s more, the focus and aspirations are yours. So, if you are working through change the PLD will be framed by your change and your context enabling you to build and shape relevant knowledge and skills, supported by a mentor and — where possible by an online Community of Practice or Personal Learning Network.

So — what is mentoring?

Mentoring has many definitions (Ives, 2008). In part, the sheer range of definitions is indicative of the way the mentoring / coaching dichotomy emerged, as well as the multiple influences from, for example, therapeutic and personal-development approaches (Williams, 2014). The situation is further complicated because mentoring practice includes coaching approaches (Kram, 1985), and many aspects of coaching have arisen directly from mentoring (Garvey, 2010).

In the uChoose programme we use the following definition:

Mentoring is a developmental alliance between equals in which one or more of those involved is enabled to: increase awareness, identify alternatives, initiate actions and develop themselves (Hay, 1995, p. 3).

As such, with a developmental approach the focus is on the mentee’s personal and professional development, as opposed to a functional or process-focussed emphasis. Other key aspects of this approach include support to:

  • work with challenges “to promote self-examination and further development of alternative perspectives” (Stokes, 2011, p. 8)
  • identify shifts in perspectives and thinking
  • enhance motivation
  • use a sounding board for ideas and inspirations
  • take informed risks
  • recognise and celebrate successes and positive growth
  • see non-achievement as formative, and
  • hold up “a mirror… to extend … self-awareness” (Daloz, 1986, in Stokes, 2011, p. 8)

The non-directive nature of the developmental approach provides opportunities for education practitioners (or a small team of education practitioners) to work with a mentor in a collaborative, egalitarian, supportive relationship where the desired outcome is positive change (Owen, 2015). The mentor works with the education practitioners to comprehend a situation, recognise suitable strategies and understand the implications of implementing those strategies.

skype chat

Virtual mentoring

Virtual mentoring is also known as distance mentoring, remote mentoring, tele-mentoring, cyber-mentoring, and e-mentoring. With the exception of tele-mentoring, which tends to be via a phone, a virtual mentor works with a mentee using:

  • synchronous tools: webinars, Voice Over Internet Protocol — such as Skype, a phone, and text chat; and
  • asynchronous tools: emails, discussion forums, blog posts, and comments on posts.

A virtual mentoring session can take many forms and shapes. For instance, at a pre-arranged date and time the mentor and mentee have a Skype session together (usually between thirty and sixty minutes, once or twice a month) — the mentee could be at work, home…or at the beach! Beforehand, the mentee (or group of mentees) may have decided what they would like to focus on and shared these points with the mentor. Or they might agree to look at things the mentee was working on to see how they are going and reflect on next steps and/or areas to develop. Alternatively, the mentee and mentor might re-visit the mentee’s goals and discuss progress toward them, focus on ‘what’s on top’ for the mentee, or work through a resource (such as a framework or tool) to see how (or if) it might support the mentee in their professional practice. There are many approaches, and they are likely to change for each mentoring session.

The key thing is flexibility. The mentee is not tied into a curriculum, and can develop their professional practice at a pace that suits them — and they can change the focus of a session at the last minute if something urgent has occurred that they would like to work through with their mentor.

Between sessions, the mentee and mentor might stay in touch via email, a short call, or a shared online document. This means that there is ongoing support if and when the mentee needs it. Also, it is great if the mentee is also participating in an online community of practice (such as the uChoose, or VPLD ones) where they can share and access a wide variety of perspectives and insights, as well as access practical resources and ideas.

Why try virtual mentoring?

While some of the benefits of virtual mentoring are likely to be similar to a face-to-face mentoring context, others are attributable to the virtual nature of the PLD, in particular those that are reliant on trust, regular and easy access, and the opportunity to talk without someone outside of your immediate professional context.

Virtual mentoring fits alongside other forms of PLD you are involved in, helping to ensure a more complementary, consolidated experience that builds toward a your goals. It also means that:

  • issues with professional isolation are addressed no matter where you live,
  • the PLD is portable (if you or your coach moves, even to another country, you can still work together),
  • you can tailor your participation,
  • timing is flexible, and
  • costs are kept low

(Owen, & Whalley, in press)

Final musings

Having been a virtual mentor since the end of 2009 I have worked with many education practitioners and leaders, who, like the one in the scenario above were facing, or working through, change. For some it felt as though things had been broken — that things of value were being lost. However, as we started to talk and unpack things, to identify ways forward, the ‘green shoots’ become apparent, along with the promise of the future — and sometimes the impact was such that it changed not only their practice, but their life.



Gray, D. E. (2006) Executive Coaching: Towards a Dynamic Alliance of Psychotherapy and Transformative Learning Processes, Management Learning, 37(4), 475-497.
Ives. Y. (2008). What is ‘Coaching’? An Exploration of Conflicting Paradigms. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring,  6(2), 100-113.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of knowledge and development. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs: NJ.
Kram, K. E. (1985). Mentoring at work: Developmental relationships in organizational life. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.
Owen, H. (2015). Making the most of mobility: Virtual mentoring and education practitioner professional development, Research in Learning Technology 2015 (ALTJ), vol 23, [online] Available at:
Owen, H., Whalley, R. (In press). Facing down dragons and discovering gold: A tale of virtual mentoring and coaching. Proceedings of the DEANZ Conference 2016. Hamilton: University of Waikato.
Williams, P. (2014). Coaching vs psychotherapy: The great debate. Choice Magazine 2(1). 38-39.


Cabbage tree. CC ( BY NC ND ) licensed Flickr image by Hazelowendmc:
Virtual mentoring in Skype. CC ( BY NC ND ) licensed Flickr image by Hazelowendmc:

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Hazel Owen

Hazel Owen has been recognised for her work in education in New Zealand and the Middle East, and is the recipient of several awards and nominations for programme design, research, and teaching practice. Hazel has had more than 15 years experience with e-learning within a range of institutions, managed and developed projects, designed and facilitated innovative professional learning initiatives. She has also had her research published internationally.
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