Culture shock

Take the culture shock out of teacher coaching

You may have noticed a new approach to professional development being talked about recently on social media and at online conferences: educational coaching.

It’s a method many senior executives are passionate about: a trained coach works with teachers one-on-one to help them develop their teaching – and there’s plenty of evidence to support its effectiveness. Speaking at the 2018 National ResearchEd Conference, education researcher Sam Sims argued that “educational coaching is currently the best-researched form of professional development we have.”

Rather than using graded observations, which encourage teachers to focus more on being “good” than improving, instructional coaching – when implemented well – would result in a form more thoughtful and supportive CPD.

But when people rolled out instructional coaching, some teaching and learning leaders found it wasn’t the change-maker they thought it might prove.

So what’s wrong? Problems often arise when a coaching approach is introduced into a school that does not have the culture to support it. If the culture isn’t right, coaching will never be as effective as research promises.

After all, many teachers have never been asked to engage in deliberate practice before; in fact, it is quite possible that they find condescending to the very idea of ​​consistently and repeatedly applying their teaching techniques.

Additionally, without full school buy-in, coach feedback can involve a lot of talk and little action, with staff feeling uncomfortable about coaches visiting their courses.

So how can leaders remove the barriers to the culture they want, while incorporating the elements that will help a coaching culture thrive?

1. Improve, not prove

To borrow a phrase from coaching guru Chris Moyse, head of staff development at Bridgwater College Trust, a culture where teachers are asked to “prove” the quality of their teaching is anathema to a culture where staff are motivated to bring constant improvements to their training.

It is critical to remove or delineate judgment-based performance management practices. The best option is to completely delete the noted comments. If this is not possible at this time, ensure that staff are not coached by the same person conducting the performance management review.

2. Aim for equality

It’s very easy for staff to spot when leaders are saying one thing but doing another. If SLT members want to be seen as credible and supportive coaches, it is important that they themselves are open to coaching. A school where everyone receives weekly coaching is more attractive than a school where there is a strict separation between those who coach and those who receive coaching.

Similarly, it helps to recruit your coaching staff from a wider pool than the SLT. The possibility of training to become an educational coach should be open to everyone in a school. Ensuring that every teacher has the knowledge and skills to become a teacher educator will transform your school’s ability to keep improving.

3. Create Workout Champions

Often a carefully planned initiative can fail because the right people within the staff body have not given it their vocal support.

Sometimes all it takes is a reputable teacher giving a testimonial like, “My coach really helped me with 9C,” for others to change their minds about what coaching can do for them.

Make sure a school’s key figures, especially those in influential groups, such as subject leaders, gain excellent coaching experience so they can become your “champions”.

4. Slow down

It can be tempting for leaders to rush the implementation of instructional coaching. And that is understandable: after all, we want all our teachers and students to benefit from it as soon as possible. But, with a complex implementation project, it is better to go slowly.

Let your coaching program grow organically so that coaches have the opportunity to develop their skills with each other before getting started in earnest. Roll out coaching to a test group first, like trainee teachers, or even offer it as an opt-in program while you work to build the right culture.

5. Invest in training

Being an “expert” teacher certainly does not guarantee that you will be an excellent coach. If we want to ensure teachers get a lot from their coach, we need to invest time in training coaches in the knowledge and skills they need.

Invest in the regular training of your coaching staff; question the action steps defined by your coaches; and create opportunities for coaches to receive “coaching on coaching”, where you can work with them to improve their skills by watching them in action.

6. Deliberate Practice Model

Deliberate practice is how most performing professions improve: in sports, music, and medicine, the performative aspects of the job are honed through repeated and regular practice. In teaching, however, it is more common to learn on the job, trying to perfect certain aspects of the craft while managing the extraordinary complexity of the classroom.

If you want staff to practice teaching, show them how by modeling yourself. When you do this, do it shamelessly. Replace “Sorry guys, now for what little I know we all hate” with “We’re going to practice this skill now, to make sure we get it right in class”.

7. Make the practice real

If you want to build a culture where deliberate practice is seen as integral to improvement, avoid “false practice” at all costs. For example, practicing an aspect of questioning by asking our partner what they ate last night will not work, but it will engender a culture where the practice is seen as pointless and slightly ridiculous.

But here’s an important rule: the more realistic the training scenario, the more real it will feel to those involved — and the more likely it will be to help participants build powerful habits.

We don’t often have a room full of students in a CPD session, but the practice can be made real by framing it in the context of an upcoming lesson. Practice questioning by planning the next day’s lesson, deciding when questioning will take place, scripting the questions you will ask, and then rehearsing that.

Suddenly the practice seems useful, vital and beneficial – and you’re just one step away from building a culture that will allow instructional coaching to thrive.

Josh Goodrich is an English teacher and founder of Powerful Action Steps and Steplab learning platforms.

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2021 issue under the title “Eliminate Culture Shock from Teacher Coaching”