In my work with Walkthrus, I talk to lots of schools leaders about their plans and practices around CPD and coaching. Increasingly I’m finding that all kinds of complications arise building up a team of coaches and the associated structures needed to engage in and sustain the one-to-one instructional coaching envisaged in most programmes and guidance.
There are three key areas of challenge that I encounter regularly
The knowledge and confidence of the coaching team: If you don’t have enough people who can coach well, the people doing it have too much weight placed on them and, then as you develop a bigger team, there’s a period where it can feel a bit wobbly – everyone is feeling their way, getting to grips with the process, the platform, the time management – and that’s before you see any benefit. Of course, you get better at coaching like anything else – through practice, reflection, feedback.. etc. But that takes time and persistence. Which leads to the second common problem:
The time. There a lots of ways schools use time for coaching but it’s not always straightforward to find a sustainable time structure that allows coach and coachee to keep up the loops of plan-observe-review that coaching relies on, especially where you want every teacher to be involved, not just a select group. Coaching only really works over the long term, as relationships build and the fine grained nature of conversations moves into the habit-shifting phase. Some so-called coaching processes involve interactions so far apart that they’re not really a process at all – just a series of one-off feedback sessions.
Linking to Wider CPD: The final issue is that systems get confused and over-complicated. A teacher has a personal agenda, a team agenda and a school/college agenda to think about. They don’t always align. Teachers often report a frustration that different people – their coach, their team leader and various members of SLT – are suggesting different things to ‘focus’ on.. which gets messy! Coaching, in this context, can get in the way of other systems that are already in process.
An additional issue is that leaders can worry about quality assuring all of this. How do we know the coaching is going well? I understand the need for this but I do think it’s worth remembering that tracking tools don’t necessarily correlate to quality – people can be good at ticking all the right boxes, following the process to the letter – and yet still not be as effective in leveraging improvement compared to other pairings where the system is seen more as an administrative hassle than a useful tool. Really, you need to get closer to the action to see quality in coaching.
A possible solution: Team Meetings as Team Coaching.
A structure common to most settings is calendared team meetings. They might happen every one, two or three weeks -they have a rhythm; they have safeguarded time when everyone is free to meet. The meetings involve people within inherently common issues – a shared curriculum and shared context. There’s a strong mutual understanding of the challenges, blending curriculum specifics and pedagogical tools. There’s a natural collaborative spirit and energy that is there to be harnessed around a common set of goals.
My view is that a lot of schools and colleges would do well to try to harness these existing structures rather than going directly to a wider coaching system – at least until they have developed the coaching knowledge needed. The excellent research summary from the EEF, suggested that there are many ways to approach effective CPD, provided that these four mechanisms are present:
Develop teaching techniques
|-Managing cognitive load|
-Revisiting prior learning
|-Setting and agreeing on goals|
-Presenting information from a credible source
-Providing affirmation and reinforcement after progress
-Monitoring and feedback
|-Providing prompts and cues|
-Prompting action planning
-Prompting context specific repetition
There is nothing suggesting that one-to-one instructional coaching is the only or even necessarily the best way to do all this in a given context. I think that team coaching can deliver all four mechanisms if the cycle of team meetings is explicitly developed in this way.
The flow diagram shows the process:
An initial team meeting to discuss the agenda for improvement, building knowledge around concepts and solutions. This includes setting goals for action and feedback generating processes. The sense of common purpose creates motivation as does the imperative to engage in agreed activities between meetings in order to report back at the next one.
Between meetings, a range of options are possible: planned observations, peer observations, video self-observations and informal learning walk drop-ins. Each of these then informs the next meeting in the cycle.
The follow-up meeting allows leaders and teachers to contribute feedback, to reflect on the specific action steps they undertook and to plan the next iteration. The team meetings allow for a collective approach to developing teaching techniques. People can model things to each other; they can engage in various forms of rehearsal – scripting responses or tweaking resources. Everyone knows when the next meeting is; they have a time frame, a plan, a sense of purpose.
The process goes round and round again, helping to embed practice. Between each meeting the leader can do learning walk; they can see practice in action and report back at the meeting. It allows the team agenda and each teacher’s agenda to align.
Critical to the success of these meetings being coaching meetings is that they use a coaching framework. The Bambrick-Santoyo Leverage Leadership feedback in coaching flow – that underpins our Walkthrus approach – applies directly. In it’s original form, it applies to one-to-one coaching:
It’s very powerful. Precise praise, probe, problem and action step, practise, plan ahead. However, in practice, some of these elements can be quite tricky to enact one-to-one, especially at first. The practice element is not something coaches always feel comfortable with. Similarly the effectiveness of the praise-probe-problem section relies on the coach’s skills in tuning into the individual motivations and self-awareness of the coachee.
However, if we imagine this is a team context, it looks like this:
Everyone is doing it together. This means that the precise praise and probe can be informed by a leader’s learning walks plus each teacher’s individual self-review and peer observations. The problems are shared – collective and individual. Each person can set their own action steps within the frame of a collective agenda. The practice is collective – much easier to do than one-to-one. Then the planning ahead is a shared endeavour; all in it together. The timeline is clear: between now and our next schedule meeting, what will you do? Be ready to report back. This can be recorded on individual coaching journals of various kinds. People can agree a format for recording action steps.
In my Walkthrus world, all of this would be informed by the techniques defined in our resources. There’s a shared understanding fuelled by engaging with the codified techniques that feeds into the precise praise, probe, problem, action steps and the practice. We get good feedback about our materials but of course any well-articulated shared framework for teaching, any decent instructional coaching playbook can do this.
What the team approach does is to create a publicly shared understanding of the coaching system itself. Leaders can use the language explicitly.
- Ok, let’s look at precise praise; what is working really well and why?
- Right, now let’s probe. Where do we see challenges? Where could techniques be refined and improved? Which learners are not thriving as well as others?
- So let’s identify the core problems with some action steps…
Senior leaders needing to scratch the quality assurance itch, can get into these team sessions. They are not secret – they can be observed and supported. In fact, leaders who teach should be in the meetings anyway, part of the process, not aloof from it. They might even be invited to come along to share some general findings from a learning walk, using the precise praise and probe format.
Is this better than one-to-one coaching? Not necessarily. If you have a strong coaching team with time enough to sustain the regular sessions, that’ll be great. A great coach can get closer to an individual teacher’s needs for sure. But, in many contexts, that is a world away from the reality for all the reasons outlined at the start. Team Coaching has many inherent virtues and is certainly far better than weak, sporadic individual coaching. It could be seen as a precursor…. if teams operate in a team coaching spirit, then deepening through one-to-one coaching might be easier to achieve some time down the track.