There’s been an awful lot said and written about the use of instructional coaching (IC) in schools recently (in fact there’s been quite a lot said about the fact that there’s been a lot said!). The evidence we have so far seems to indicate that IC may be one of our best bets for improving teaching (eg Kraft et al, 2018), and, like many others, this is an area I’ve been keenly exploring. Much has been written about what IC involves, and what the key ‘ingredients’ are to make it successful. For a start I cannot recommend this series of posts from Josh Goodrich (@Josh_CPD) highly enough. Similarly, many have written about how they have implemented coaching programmes in their schools, and the cultural and structural challenges they have faced in doing so. So many to choose from, but these two posts from Isaac Moore (@learningandleading) and Mason Davies (@TheGeogTeacher) are great examples to read.
What I want to do in this post is hopefully a little different. As outlined in more detail below, we’ve started using instructional coaching in my school this year, with a view to making this a much more formal and comprehensive part of our staff development programme. This year has been my first go at actually doing some coaching and I want to reflect on that experience; the challenges I’ve faced and what I’ve learned. For me, as for so many fellow bloggers, writing is as much an exercise in personal reflection as anything else, but I hope too that my experiences and (admittedly limited) insights will resonate with the many others who seem to be in a similar position at the beginning of their coaching career. That those further down the road than me will offer their experience and wisdom to give feedback on what I outline here, and help my onward journey progress successfully. And that those who are yet to start on this path, or are just starting to dip their toes in the water, will benefit from considering some of the challenges I’ve faced so far.
Starting small and growing slowly
Context is important here. The plan at my school, as part of a bigger, bolder vision for CPD and school improvement, was to implement coaching from September 2020. The intention had been for all teaching staff to have regular drop-ins from two coaches (myself and a colleague) with feedback given, primarily via email given the logistical challenges of arranging face-to-face meetings under Covid restrictions, including a strength and an action step. The constraints of time and timetabling meant that every teacher would have been seen at least once per half-term, possibly three times per term. Going from a system where staff have just one formal observation per year, this felt like a massive shift, and many colleagues were enthusiastic (equally, some were more reserved, some skeptical and a few outright hostile!). Looking back though, it’s clear that this was, firstly, massively over-ambitious, and second, unlikely to have resulted in any significant improvement for anyone. Although I think there would have been some wider gains in terms of shifting cultural norms – a clear sense that coaching is ‘what we do here’, the research suggests that frequent, regular feedback (ideally weekly) leads to the greatest improvement (eg Swain, 2021) and that feedback should involve time for discussion, modelling and deliberate practice which we clearly could not have offered to all.
However, the impacts of teaching in the shadow of a pandemic meant that the coaching programme was put on hold and offered only on a voluntary basis, which really was a blessing in disguise. I was happy to see that a handful of people did volunteer, and especially happy that this included a few members of the senior management team as I felt this would certainly help in providing models to all staff and sending a clear message that this was something which could benefit everyone. Unfortunately the strains of Covid teaching, and then going back into lockdown in January meant that those senior leaders had more pressing priorities, and as of this term I am working with just two teachers. I don’t mind, though, because this has given me opportunity to really think carefully about what I’m doing, and to practice applying what I’ve learned on a much smaller scale. The plan is now to relaunch in September but with a much smaller cohort receiving fortnightly coaching; timetabling constraints prevent us from being able to go for weekly sessions, but I think we’ve made a massive step in the right direction.
Learning how to be a coach is hard
Learning to be a coach takes time and training. I don’t think I doubted this from the start, but was perhaps a little naive in presuming I would pick it up pretty quickly and easily. My ‘training’ has largely involved working with a colleague who has been coaching (albeit in a slightly different guise) for many years, reading as much as I can about the process elsewhere, and essentially getting stuck in. In the term before we launched I trialled some coaching with a couple of colleagues in my team, getting feedback both from the coachee and another colleague on the way in which I gave feedback. This was hugely valuable as it really helped me reflect on the fact that how I gave feedback had become shaped by now outmoded models of lesson observation and feedback and I needed to be much more specific, and much more concise.
Further, the process of modelling, scripting and using deliberate practice were difficult to get used to. Many will, I’m sure, have experienced those cringe-worthy INSET days or CPD sessions in the past which required role-play which appeared to be borne out of a desire to make the session more ‘interactive’ and ‘fun’ despite doing little to really help teachers improve. And yet here I am now, essentially asking my coachees to do the same thing and it certainly felt very awkward to begin with. A recent conversation with a coachee really highlighted this; I asked them to script and then practice delivering a set of instructions for the class. Clearly flustered, they stumbled their way through a first couple of attempts and then said how they felt embarrassed at not being able to do this because they’d never been asked to do it before, and silly that something so apparently simple was proving so difficult. After reassuring them that it was perfectly normal to find this uncomfortable, that very few teachers experienced this kind of training (at least, not until recently) and giving some further guidance and encouragement, they had another go. Then another, and again until it clicked. I could see them growing in confidence each time, manifesting itself in clearer articulation and stronger posture. Getting over that awkwardness, and building enough rapport with colleagues to allow them to engage with this process meaningfully has taken time and courage on both sides, but I feel now I’m starting to really see the benefits.
Building trust with colleagues is crucial to the whole process; coachees need to know that their coach, me, is fulfilling an entirely supportive role and this means there is no judgement. Of course, humans make judgements all the time and it would be naive to pretend that we can just switch this off, but I have learned to ignore my ‘gut’ judgements where possible, and acknowledge that I might not know or understand the full context of what I’m seeing. This means the discussion with the coachee is key, and I’ve learned to frame my questions in a way that hopefully invites my coachees to consider something for themselves, rather than interrogating them on something in their lesson. Saying “I noticed that when you did X, Y happened, what do you think about that?” rather than “Why did you do X, shouldn’t you have done Y?” makes a big difference, and invites the coachee to consider the impact of their choices but in a less threatening way.
Further, the importance of building trust has meant I’ve had to pick my feedback more carefully in our initial coaching sessions, avoiding something which I may have felt was a significant issue, but which I feel they are not perhaps ready to address, or for fear of undermining their confidence completely. For example, I observed someone teaching a lesson which entailed an activity at the beginning of the lesson which, as far as I could tell, contributed virtually nothing to their learning, possibly reinforced some misconceptions and errors, involved fiddly and time-consuming preparation of resources, and took up at least 10 minutes of time that could have been spent far better on something else. But I chose to ignore it in this instance and found something smaller within the activity to focus on instead. This was the first time I’d observed this teacher, and I felt that going in with “the first ten minutes of your lesson were (probably) a waste of time”, no matter how diplomatically put, would be unlikely to help me build the relationship of mutual trust, and would almost certainly have made this teacher more anxious about my next visit.
Going granular is key
I’ll be honest, before 2019 I’d probably never heard the word granular being used in an education context; now it’s everywhere. Watching Adam Boxer’s video here, and reading first Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion and then Bambrick-Santoyo’s Get Better Faster were significant in really explaining what this means and how to implement it. I’ve learned to focus on just one very specific area of practice that I’ve seen in a lesson, and then really hone in on the mechanics of that practice to be able to give meaningful feedback. I’ve watched someone I’m coaching struggling to give clear instructions for tasks and so having to deal with lots of “what are we meant to be doing?” type questions as soon as they start. In the past I might have said something vague and unhelpful like “you need to be more clear with your instructions” which was well-intentioned but not useful. Now I can break that down more clearly, and model how this can be achieved. For example I might say “Front load your instructions so they’re listening to how you want them to complete the task before thinking about the content of the task itself. Make clear the means of participation so they know how long they will have, whether they are working alone in silence or with a partner, what you are expecting them to produce. Model what you want to see from them at the end by showing an example. Ask a student to repeat instructions back to you to ensure everyone understands what to do.”
It’s interesting to me that this approach means my feedback and guidance is now much more detailed even though I’m dealing with one small element of teaching, something I’m doing more with my classes too. Adopting this strategy has also highlighted the power of having a shared language so that coachees start to build their own schema for these routines, such that they won’t need explaining in the future thus freeing up mental space to think about other features of their practice. The examples above draw heavily on the techniques described in Teach Like a Champion, which has also contributed a huge amount to my development as a coach.
Choosing action steps can be tricky
When you’re just giving one thing to work on, choosing (or even knowing) what action step to give is key. Initially I would find myself picking simply the things I could give the most concrete feedback on, or those things which I felt were more in line with how I might do something myself. I don’t think I gave poor guidance here, but just wasn’t necessarily picking the most important or helpful action step to work on. Over time I’ve come to understand the concept of the ‘waterfall’ – choosing the moment from which everything else flows. For example, I’ve watched someone begin their lesson with a question on the board and get the class to respond on their whiteboards, before sharing some responses and probing with further questions. In this instance, we discussed the way in which the students responded (less well than hoped), and how the teacher used questioning to deal with this. With hindsight, though, the bigger (and earlier) problem was actually to do with the writing of the question itself. If I had that conversation again I’d instead focus on thinking more carefully about the wording of the question, identifying likely misconceptions that the students might have and scripting clearly the follow-up questions or responses for incorrect or inadequate responses.
Committing to the process
Committing to help someone improve via coaching means really committing to the integrity of the feedback process too. Focusing on just one thing at a time can be difficult as I might see a number of things that I think could be developed, and it’s tempting to throw these extras in. My coachees are often keen to get more (I hope because they think the other advice is useful!) asking “was there anything else?” Learning to respond to this has taken time and practice; I don’t want to say “Yes actually there were lots of other things to work on too” nor do I want to give the impression that the thing I’ve chosen to work on is the only thing that needs work. I’m not sure I’ve completely nailed this yet. To this end, learning to leave a lesson at the appropriate moment has also been important. Previously I’d have stayed for a set amount of time regardless, possibly until the end of the lesson, and written down lots of thoughts along the way. This made choosing my feedback and action step harder, as there was too much to process. Now I just wait until I’ve seen the first key moment which requires action, and leave soon after that. It’s helpful to stick around for a few minutes to see how things pan out, of course, but I want my feedback to be focused and having so much else to think about gets in the way. It means those conversations are more focused because we can only discuss the bits I was there for, and this avoids getting drawn into discussions about multiple other elements – these can wait for next time. A further feature is not moving until something has been actioned, and not being afraid to return to it if later observations reveal it has not become habitualised as part of the teacher’s routine.
I’ve much more to learn, and so I’m particularly excited about starting the new programme delivered by the Reach Foundation this term. Having spent most of the last two years organising and delivering training for others, my own development has been primarily self-directed. Reading, engaging in discussions on Twitter and, of course, writing this blog have all been useful but the opportunity to receive some formal training from those with real expertise is something I’m really looking forward to.
Lemov, D. (2014). Teach Like A Champion 2.0. Jossey-Bass.
Kraft, M.A., Blazar, D., Hogan, D. (2018). The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 88(4), 547-588.
Santoyo, P.B. (2016). Get Better Faster. John Wiley & Sons
Swain, M. (2021) Tweet