Coaching in Pairs and Triads: time-efficient, collaborative, rigorous, motivating.

Every week I talk to schools about their processes for supporting teachers to follow through on the action steps that emerge from CPD inputs, lesson observations and various formal and informal quality assurance initiatives. There’s a real mix of approaches, varying with schools of different types and sizes. There’s also significant variation across schools of similar types, with differences in the time allocated to CPD, their confidence with coaching, and their position along the spectrum from predominantly SLT-led quality assurance systems to more explicitly delegated team-driven approaches or where teachers act largely as individuals.

Amid all this variation, schools looking to adopt instructional coaching report a wide range of responses. A great deal of the literature and many of the models promoted by various programmes and platforms suggest coaching should be done on a one-to-one basis. One coach and their coachee-teacher. This is natural enough given that the emphasis is on an individual teacher’s professional learning process. Some schools have started to develop a nucleus of coaching expertise within a small team – usually comprised of middle and senior leaders or specially appointed coaches; some have gone for a wider approach whereby all teachers are learning to coach each other.

However, in practice, for a lot of schools, they don’t have (or don’t feel that they have) the capacity to deploy enough coaches with the time and knowledge needed to sustain a coaching process successfully, for everyone on the staff on a one-to-one basis, especially not a frequency that has any chance of having an impact. So – what do they do? In several such cases I’ve encountered schools adopting coached pairs or triads and it’s proven to be very successful.

Coached Pairs.

In this model, the coach meets with two teachers at a time. They might be, for example, both Year 5 teachers in a two-form entry primary school. They might be two maths teachers. The dynamics of this situation are fascinating – arguably adding elements that a one-to-one situation don’t have. Based on what I’ve learned from practice in various settings, these include the following:

  • During the coaching sessions, the coach has an audience for their interactions with each individual; this leads to a certain discipline; a need to be thorough in following through the process, probing and identifying action steps in a non-judgemental supportive manner. One leader said she much preferred it because she was more focused on the details of the agreed action steps; not distracted by other perhaps more personal factors that previously crept into her discussions with individuals.
  • The coach is essentially compelled to model the language of good probing coaching questioning – asking precise questions about what’s working and why; where the challenges lie and what the solutions might be. This provides a model for the type of conversations the two teachers can then have between them, between the coaching sessions. The coach gives the two teachers a context for asking each other much more probing questions than they might do otherwise.
  • The fact that the two teachers are in the same team allows for a seamless link between team discussions and coaching discussions. It’s all connected. There is continuity.
  • The set-up allows for a more varied set of lesson observation inputs. Each form can focus around the same agreed action steps and can yield useful feedback… but it’s less dependent on the coach having capacity to see each teacher between each coaching session.
    • The coach can observe one or both teachers
    • The teachers can observer each other
    • Each teacher can undertake the unseen observation process.
    • Each teacher can undertake video self-observation.
  • Very simply, it halves the number of coaches needed!
  • And, crucially, it creates a motivational collaborative dynamic between the two teachers to follow through on their action steps. They are explicitly not alone; they’re in it together and they can create and sustain momentum over time.

Coached Triads.

The way I’m describing this, it’s not just the same having an extra person in the paired coaching situation above (which can also be viable). Here, teachers form a triad – three teachers in team – that meet, plan, engage in observation of each other on a regular basis. The coach sits slightly outside the group but acts as a guide and external driver for their internal process. When they meet – the coach is process-focused, asking the teachers to report on their common focus, how they are evaluating their practice and what they see when observing each other or sharing student work.

This external coach brings a rigour and procedural discipline to the discussions that the three teachers have, both during the coaching sessions and in between them. This includes keeping the focus on solutions, sustaining a focus on key habit-forming practices – not flitting from one thing to another. It includes preventing any given triad from becoming merely a back-slapping mutual support forum – they have to be earnestly evaluative.

Ideally the coach of a triad will have had time to do some learning walk drop-ins to see each teacher in the classroom to supplement the more planned observations that the triad teachers are undertaking between themselves. But this doesn’t have to happen at the frequency a one-to-one coaching process usually involves. The approach works particularly well where there’s a mix of experience in the make-up of the triad – or where all three teachers have good capacity to drive their own improvement.

So.. give it some thought. It could be that coached pairs and triads could be a better fit for your school or college given the capacity you have. The key is to ensure that any process has the same key features that make coaching successful: it’s an iterative process of practice, evaluation and planning action steps that support more effective, more embedded teacher habits and improved learning over time, informed by feedback and supported by a model for learning. There are more ways than one to achieve this.

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