Five Steps Towards an Embedded Coaching and CPD Culture.

Lots of schools are now reviewing their approach to teacher development, appraisal, quality assurance, lesson observation, performance management, CPD, the Early Career Framework….. trying to make it all more integrated, more coherent, more motivating and, ultimately more successful in improving the quality of teaching leading to better outcomes.

The challenge school leaders often wrestle with is knowing where to begin. For sure, you can’t just leap from a culture driven by top-down scrutiny, non-negotiables and graded lessons to one founded on teacher agency, coaching and professional learning. Here are five steps schools can take to move in the right direction – more or less in order of priority.

  • 1. Ditch the judgement culture
  • 2. Establish a shared framework for thinking about teaching and learning
  • 3. Map and embed CPD cycles and structures
  • 4. Grow and develop a coaching team
  • 5. Transfer ownership to teachers

1. Ditch the judgement culture

Obviously, stop grading lessons if you’re still doing it. Until that changes, none of the rest makes any sense. You have to be profoundly ‘head-in-sand’ to still grade lessons and justify doing it.

Then, change the focus of observations and any scrutiny processes from judging to supporting. Instead of trying to evaluate ‘how good’ something is – as if there are meaningful definable scales of quality – just focus on identifying how things could improve. Change the language; remove the need for judgement-based comments – just think of specific strategies that might secure deeper learning for more students.

Clarify the use of learning walks by leaders: their purpose is to inform leaders about what is going on, including the challenges students experience and teachers experience. It’s to observe; to listen and learn – but not to judge. A series of short drop-ins is not a sound basis for giving feedback to teacher – even if they ask for it – especially if that means dropping people an email without talking to them.

Don’t judge. Just help.

Evidence of our deep ‘judge and rate’ culture can be seen and heard everywhere. Nearly everyone does it – it’s in us! Great teacher; great lesson.…

2. Establish a shared framework for thinking about teaching and learning

It’s so powerful to have a common language for talking about teaching. Once established, this can weave its way into every level of CPD, every teacher-coach interaction, every team meeting, creating coherence, alignment and shared understanding of problems and solutions. Obviously here I have skin in the game via Walkthrus.. but there are lots of ways of doing this. What matters is that schools have some reference point that all teachers know, understand and share as they debate and discuss the best ways of doing things:

3. Map and embed CPD cycles and structures

Before getting into the details of how a coaching system might work, establishing the idea that CPD is an ongoing process is vital – each element with a rhythm and flow; with focus and intensity, timetabled into the fabric of a school year. If you don’t give priority time to staff development, you hold back school improvement on many fronts.

4. Grow and develop a coaching team

Start small and build from there. Alongside a strong CPD programme for all staff, start to train a team of coaches – people with the knowledge and confidence to observe lessons and engage in developmental coaching conversations with teachers. This can be mix of middle and senior leaders and experienced or expert teachers; leaders who typically have gained experience mentoring ECTs and NQTs or line managed teachers within a team. Model the process, create some coach-teacher pairs and get the core pioneer team going, learning by doing alongside some key training inputs drawing on the literature.

Allow people to gain knowledge of curriculum issues by working consistently over time with specific subjects or year groups so they can deepen their experience and understanding of the details that the teachers they support wrestle with in practice.

5. Transfer ownership to teachers

Shift the emphasis away from leaders and observers writing up extensive reports and determining what teachers should do, moving towards a process where teachers are supported to drive their own improvement process. Instead of placing accountability pressure around a couple of high stakes lessons in a year, focus on teachers’ engagement in the long-run process of professional learning and incremental improvement.

Develop protocols where teachers record their own action steps instead of observers doing it. Give ownership of the improvement cycles to teachers themselves, with observers supporting them to maintain their commitment, providing expert guidance and coaching input, but always giving priority to teachers thinking about what problems need solving and how to solve them – using the playbook of strategies derived from the shared framework for teaching and learning.


  1. Thanks Tom, I totally agree that a shared language about learning, how learning happens and the impact of instruction on learning – THIS is critical – great step forward if school leaders and teachers can start these conversations…

    However, think we may be some distance away from your ideas of “the coaching team” and “transferring ownership to teachers”? Don’t get me wrong – I do think that this can be achieved, and some schools may already be at this stage? I think you are hopeful of this happening widely – given we have had previous changes including “professional learning communities” and “instructional coaches” – these have had diverse impacts, and no long term impact in some schools.

    I think, like learning anything, in our global community of teachers (as learners), we have teachers at many different stages of learning about what learning is, how it happens, and how their instructional practices and lesson content can affect their students’ learning? Some teachers do understand these ideas, others are just starting to, and – unfortunately – some novice teachers don’t really have these ideas and preservice teachers are STILL not being given information about this?

    Though I really do like your idea of “develop protocols where teachers record their own action steps instead of observers” – this would definitely work for teachers who already have some knowledge, or their school leadership has knowledge of how this might work? This is a reasonable scaffold towards teachers becoming more independent in improving their own instructional practices…So, for me the questions are:
    1. How do school leaders (if they have knowledge about learning) start to use and develop this common language?
    My answer would be to use your suggestion about changing the way they observe and feedback! Definitely agree, just note the pre-requisite knowledge that’s needed, and may not be in all schools?
    2. How can this learning be scaffolded by school leaders over time, so that, with their teaching team, they can develop, use and maintain the protocols around their learning and student learning, and changing practices over time?
    My answer would be that effective teachers already do this, using evidence of learning from data on student performance (data-based decision making), reviewing work samples, questioning and feedback, along with their many interactions with their students around learning.
    I guess, my main point, is that we have a diverse group of learners across many different schools, all at different stages in these processes you describe – and it’s how to scaffold this more widely that’s the issue I’m raising?

    Thanks for making me think this through – it helps me to clarify the actions I need to take to be more effective in supporting schools!


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