Structures of coaching and CPD. The pros and cons of each.

In our work with schools and colleges – using Walkthrus resources as a toolkit for implementing a professional learning process – we’ve found that people have had success adopting a range of approaches, depending on their context. There seem to be five main variants on something of a continuum, either as the main vehicle or in combination:

  • Individual + coach
  • Pairs or triads + a coach
  • Team + a coach
  • Team + Team leader as coach
  • Whole staff + coaching process

Each structure has its pros and pitfalls. Here’s a run-down of what I think they are:

Individual + coach

Detailed engagement with an individual teacher’s process, progress, situation judgement, action steps – allows the most forensic engagement with an individual.

Flexible process tailored to individual experience, knowledge, openness/capacity to engage with feedback.

Nimble in terms of responding to circumstances in the teacher’s teaching flow.

Focus areas can be very specific and tailored and a strong coach-coachee relationship can form.
If the quality of coaching is variable or weak, then some people might not be getting a good experience and the process might be done quite differently by different coaches.

It’s demanding in terms of time if everyone has a coach, unless a common time structure is provided that everyone uses.

Each teacher’s progress and process can be isolated from the more natural collective/collaborative processes in teams, so it’s harder to gauge quality and progress and can feel fragmented. If system tracking is then introduced, the needs of the tracking tools can overshadow the organic coaching process itself.

The match of curriculum specialism or knowledge isn’t necessarily strong – so coaches can be less impactful.

Pairs or triads + a coach

Coaching multiple people at once is more time efficient. It’s only one meeting to organise and the coach can do multiple learning walks to see all the people in the pair/triad and then deal with the feedback all in one go.

At an institutional level, fewer coaches are needed to cover all staff so it’s easier to train and quality assure the process.

The coaching process has a public element – all the interactions between individuals are open to the other people there which necessitates a real discipline about following a process and using appropriate language.

The coach can model a probing, problem-solving process that can then be continued by the teachers beyond the coaching session between them. The ‘let’s probe’ element is seen to be common to all, not about judging individuals.

If the pairs/threes have common curriculum issues, they can share their perspective on, for example, using the same resources or teaching specific content.
The key risk is that, because of the public element, the process doesn’t go deep enough and the coach might avoid tackling more difficult issues and areas of performance – including where a teacher in the group hasn’t really applied themselves to the agreed action steps.

The coach has to keep to the process and be able to challenge and over critical insights, without it becoming a softer-edged mutual appreciation session. In other words, the coach must coach… and there’s a risk that they buckle under social pressure if they are close to the other participants.

(NB Uncoached triads – ie triads of peers with no nominated coach – can be very weak for this reason, so we haven’t even included it as a separate model)

Team + a coach

Team meetings nearly always already exist multiple times across the calendar so they can be harnessed as the vehicle for CPD and coaching rather than inventing or adding a new time structure.

This model extends the pros of Pair/Triad coaching in that the public element and the common curriculum are present. There’s a strong sense of being in it together and that can bring commitment, energy and purpose to the process including flushing out common challenges with techniques of curriculum content.

The coach can be anyone who has the skillset; they might work with multiple teams or just one each. They bring n objective rigour to the coaching process, including probing and setting action steps that are followed up on, where teams do not naturally do that well on their own.

In teams, coaches often find it easier to engage in modelling and practising techniques than they do in 1:1 situations where it can seem awkward. Plus they can invite members of the team to do the modelling.
The bigger the team, the less personal it becomes. It’s the fundamental compromise in this approach. It relies on teachers applying the shared discussion about problems and difficulties to their own practice.

There’s a need to introduce structure to the team discussions – such as pair talk – to ensure that every person is actively involved, not just the dominant members of the group. (Obviously, done well, these structures benefit everyone.. but they need to be there).

The role of the coach needs to dovetail with the role of the team leader and, unless this works well, there can be divergent messages given following learning walks and other observations .

Team + Team leader as coach

The great advantage of this approach is that the team is self-directing without the need for any external input. If the team leader can coach their own team effectively, there is strong overlap of purposes, priorities with efficient use of time within meetings. With a strong leader-coach, this is arguably the optimal situation.

The team time exists in the calendar for the formal process but this can be supplemented more organically in between meetings, boosting the energy in the shared pursuit of goals and, where, needed, attending to individuals as well without the need to involve anyone else.

There’s maximum integration of the curriculum agenda with pedagogical elements of the problem-solving.

It allows the most natural forum for processing the insights gained form learning walks by the leader.
If used across a whole school/college, there will be variation – not every team leader is naturally the best person to coach their team’s professional learning.

There’s a risk of the same issue with un-coached triads – that this becomes too soft and/or defensive or self-congratulatory. The leader must coach – they must drive the process, be directive and offer probing insights whenever needed.

Where an individual within a team is experiencing specific challenges that are personal to them, the leader will need an additional process to tackle that, especially where this is really a personal performance or commitment issue.

Whole staff + coaching process

This works where there is a strong common agenda to address and there is no pre-existing culture or knowledge of coaching. The ‘all in together’ approach creates strong shared understanding of both the structure of the process – a cycle of action planning and reflection – and of the ideas explored during the process – eg a specific teaching technique.

It can be led by a core team, providing coherent modelling of process and content prior to teams exploring further in more fine-tuned details.

Whole-school/college impact can be significant around the focus of the CPD.. because it is sustained with consistent reinforcement session after session.

Whole school/college learning walks have a forum for sharing examples of effective practice and common challenges.
It’s the furthest away from individual coaching so it relies on people improving on a wave of collective endeavour, supported by the feedback from general learning walks and personal reflection rather than from a team leader or individual coach. This works to a degree but has limits.

This really only works in sustained, embedding way, where the content is strongly generic -ie behaviour management and questioning techniques that apply to everyone. It does not work well where the curriculum context is key e.g. with modelling and scaffolding where what you are modelling and the resources you use to scaffold are entirely subject specific.

As discussed is this post on team coaching – the EEF mechanisms work in multiple forms; they just need to be present. Depending on your context, it is likely that a combination of two or more of the five structures covered here might be needed. I’ve seen them all working and it would be wrong to adopt an absolute position on which is best without knowing the context they apply to.

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