Fieldnotes and FAQs: Coaching Conversations.

A large proportion of my work is now with schools and colleges that are using our Walkthrus toolkit in various ways, where I return on multiple occasions to support their ongoing development with CPD and instructional coaching. This is my favourite type of work by far because we get into the details of implementing ideas and I see how things progress over time. I find it endlessly fascinating how ideas take form in different contexts, spreading and evolving as time goes on. Here is a brief account of some of the issues that have come up in various discussions.

The focus area:

Which strategies? A common question is around which strategies are good contenders to work on within instructional coaching. I always suggest it should be driven by student needs, not perceived teacher deficits. eg if more students could be engaged in class discussion – then looking at pair-share and cold calling is a good bet. If student recall and fluency are weak – then retrieval practice activities are good bets. Starting with the students helps the whole process to be a supportive problem-solving exercise, not about personal critique.

Individual or Collective? Should we all do our own thing or agree on a common approach? I find it useful to blend this. At the start of a process, when people are just getting used to the whole notion of instructional coaching, it’s really helpful if there’s a shared approach – either in primary year teams/phases or secondary subjects or even whole-school. This creates momentum; a sense of a shared endeavour addressing a common issue – like student talk or retrieval. However, it can also be inevitable and useful for individuals to work on their own thing instead of or alongside a common area. People can generally handle a couple of things at once e.g a behaviour routine and a questioning routine – if that’s appropriate for them.

Who decides? Ideally the teacher decides or is part of the discussion where a team of people decide on a shared approach. This creates buy-in. In several schools and colleges, a tight menu of focus areas is agreed and then people choose from within that. eg at Oldham College the six key areas are: Cold Call, Check for Understanding, Establish Expectations, Scaffolding, Concepts in Small Steps and Weekly/Monthly Review. That covers a lot of bases and helps keep the CPD and coaching development more tightly focused on a some common concepts and shared language. One programme leader has found it helpful to ask his tutors: What are you focusing on? How are you going to implement that in practice? And, to clarify, Why do you think this will have an impact? I like the clarity of that.

ADAPT: Even though we might have a source of defined strategies and action steps, it’s so important to make them work in a context: specific classes of students; specific teaching resources; specific assessment modes. Developing a technique by adding more fine-grained steps or adapting more fundamentally – changing things around a bit – is essential. It has to feel like a teacher’s own strategy, not one they are implementing on someone else’s terms.

This walkthru is explained fully in this post.

Lesson observation

Getting the spirit right. Part of a coaching cycle involves seeing a teacher in action to generate feedback. This has to be explicitly set up as part of the developmental process – not the old-school top-down judgement-orientated feedback or an emailed list of ‘ebi’s. Once you know the person there is helpful to you, you welcome them in; you relax and teach normally. You can’t properly coach and make a formal judgement in the same process; that blurs the lines way too much. However it can take a couple of cycles to happen before teachers perceive an observation in this spirit – because of past associations. Give it time.

Typicality and performativity. It’s really helpful for coaches and team leaders and senior leaders who also coach – to engage in regular learning walks that are not related to individual coaching sequences. This gives them a regular update and overview of how things are going. It can be clunky, overbearing and time consuming if there’s a sense that each drop-in is going to generate feedback. It shouldn’t. However if you see a teacher regularly on drop-ins and then see them as part of a coaching process, the two sets of information do combine – you can filter out performative elements and focus more on what is typical. That’s fair and helpful. Just be clear when you’re observing as part of a coaching sequence – so that the specifics of your previous discussion are more to the fore.

Being there at the right time. An obvious problem to iron out is that a drop-in lesson observation may miss a particular moment in a lesson where a focus strategy is being deployed – eg a live modelling routine. So, to avoid that, make sure this is planned explicitly beforehand. That keeps it all time efficient for everyone.

The feedback session

The system set out in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s Leverage Leadership is brilliant for this and gets great feedback from people who’ve used it. We have it in our walthrus materials and it’s referenced widely in other systems too:

Precise Praise: Knowing you have to do this, really helps focus your thoughts during an observation: what’s working here – and why? What precise praise can I give this teacher? It’s then such a great, positive way to start a discussion. When you re-explained that example to Michael and Safia, it worked really well because they could see how it all linked together.

Probe. This is the subtle bit. Some people found this prompt very helpful. I have to probe!!! That means you can’t just pat your colleague on the back and smooth everything over – you need to explore. A really good way to do this is to use ‘I noticed…’ . eg I noticed that although Jessica really got it, James was still struggling’. What do you think might help him? It’s modelling an understanding that teaching is complex with tough nuts to crack – not that there are easy answers. Make this a shared exploration, not a critique.

Action Steps: Precision! The problem and action steps gives the process such clarity. What have we agreed is the issue we’re addressing in the next cycle? What’s the action step? Often it’s best to find these from the existing toolkit – in our case, the steps in the walkthrus. People have found this very useful. I find it useful myself… ‘Which of these steps is the area you’ll focus on next?’ – rather than inventing steps on the hoof.

The practice/modelling element: This is a complex bit. Not everyone in comfortable standing up and modelling a technique but it’s widely acknowledged that it helps a lot to clarify exactly what the action step will look like done well and not so well rather than just assuming this is understood. Group sessions can provide a great forum for practice, scripting, modelling.

Novices and experts: You definitely need to flex the approach according to each teacher’s experience and capacity for self-directed improvement. You get to know how a teacher responds to feedback over time in the process – it might not be immediately obvious. Part of the learning process for coaches is knowing when to let the teacher lead the whole discussion, probing in a sparing way – and when to be more direct, giving more firm guidance and stronger direction on what is likely to work. It takes time to find the right tone and groove with any individual.

System management.

I’m always keen to stress that after the first sessions which can be longer to get the ball rolling, thereafter it’s an ongoing series of short interactions, each flowing into the next, adding to your shared sense of purpose and mutual understanding.

Frequency. How often? I typically find it can vary from a week to six weeks. ECTs or critical behaviour management issues need more frequent iteractions. More experienced teachers or long-term issues like modelling and scaffolding writing can be supported in 4-5 week cycles. If a coach has a caseload of 4-6 coachees, it’s possible to adjust and adapt the rhythm of each coaching cycle to maximise the time available. If we’re getting beyond 6 weeks, it starts to feel like a series of one-off observations. But longer cycles can give time for other devices like unseen observation or video self-observation to happen.

Recording. You need to write down the agreed action steps and the date/time of the next meeting and observation. That can be done by the teacher/coachee. The more they own it the better. I’ve seen all kinds of workbooks, online records and platforms – but the principle is the same – that, when you meet again, all parties can see what was agreed before as a reference for subsequent observations and discussions. This helps keep the focus sharp and sets up the soft accountability of ‘I’ve done what I said I’d do’. You really don’t need to write all that much – as long as you capture the essence of what was agreed.

Link to appraisal: This is an important area to iron out. Ideally coaching sessions should sit outside formal appraisal – so that it invites open engagement. You need to feel free to admit your challenges and difficulties. However, I’m seeing a lot of very sensible thinking where appraisal includes positive engagement with CPD and a coaching process overall. That means the person doing an annual appraisal and the coach would be different people – which is easier to manage in some contexts. There should be some evidence of engaging with a process even if the details are kept private to the coach and coachee. Whatever the detail, it’s important for everyone to know what the status of observations and documents is. A coach-coachee relationship can form more readily if you remove the need to report everything up the scrutiny command chain the whole time.

More to come. Thanks to everyone involved in these discussions with me in recent weeks.

One comment

  1. Hi Tom,

    We are hoping to introduce an instructional coaching model at my school (11-18) in Havering, East London. I’m finding it difficult to have a conversation with someone who has been through the process (how to roll out and train staff; who to target and so on). I was wondering if you might have any advice on good case studies you have come across and whether it might be possible to speak to someone who has successfully rolled out the coaching model in their school(s). I would be very grateful for any advice.

    Many thanks

    Chris Butler


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