10 Lessons learned about instructional coaching within a CPD programme

My work with schools and colleges – across the UK and in a range of international schools – has helped me develop my understanding of how coaching can work as a part of a professional development programme. It feels like a continual field study, matching concepts and principles to implementation realities. Here’s a run-down of 10 lessons learned.

1. Coaching as a process; the need for structure and time

Coaching needs a series of interactions sustained over time if it’s going to lead to a teacher teaching more effectively. A lack of structure and/or time can kill all good intentions stone dead. Where coaching is working, coaches have time, there’s a reasonable frequency to the interactions and people think of it as a process, not an event. You can have one-off coaching sessions but they are unlikely to make much difference unless the teacher is engaged in a wider cycle of iterative reflection and feedback. If you want coaching to be part of your school improvement process, give it the time it needs and create a structure for it that withstands the random forces that knock things around in day to day school life. There are lots of ways to lock in the time if you give it enough status in your priority list.

2. The power of the collective

From what I’ve seen, coaching is a process that can happen successfully with a range of group sizes: it does not have to be individual, a 1 to 1. To some extent I feel that in most schools, well-established team processes can translate into coaching processes reasonably easily and given the typical capacity for this kind of work, is more likely to succeed than going straight into an individualised coaching process. A team or small group process helps to weave in curriculum thinking but mainly it harnesses the power of collective endeavour. A good team process has a strong motivational aspect – that sense of all being in it together with shared problems and a pool of ideas to draw from.

In my work with Walkthrus, I talk to lots of schools leaders about their plans and practices around CPD and coaching. Increasingly…

Where 1:1 coaching is happening and is a key driver, the power of the collective comes from the spirit of whole-school training or team meetings where ideas are workshopped in the first instance prior to teachers going solo, supported by their coaches. It’s important for teachers not to feel they are working in isolation and it seems to me that a good coach will reference a teacher’s wide team context in their 1:1 work to strengthen that connection,

3. The power of a shared language for techniques

I can’t overstate this. Where teachers have a shared language for talking about teaching techniques with some granularity that leads into specific action steps, everything is better. You have a reference frame for celebrating success, exploring challenges, identifying solutions – without every coaching pair or group having to reinvent things all the time. You get coherence, depth of thinking and momentum because the focus is on how well things are done rather than on defining what things are. Now I have our Walkthrus toolkit everywhere I go, I honestly can’t think how I’d do without it – or something similar. Some schools use The Great Teaching Toolkit or Steplab or an in-house framework, but you need something reasonably extensive and stable so that each conversation is reinforced by the shared understanding. Certainly this is true if you want to support multiple people to develop their coaching capacity. When Oliver and I wrote walkthrus, I honestly didn’t realise how useful I’d find it myself.. (you might think, ‘well you would say that..’ but that’s the truth of it.)

One of the interesting discussions that often comes up in the coaching arena is around the role of pre-defined techniques and the extent to which they help or hinder a…

4. The power of a shared language for processes

Similarly, it’s massively useful for all the elements of the overall coaching process to be defined and named so that everyone involved in the coaching can talk about things through a shared understanding. For example ideally everyone should know what is meant by cycle, action step, feedback session, learning walk, drop-in, observation, unseen observation, training session, goal-setting, technique, mentor, coach.. . or any other terms that are the currency in the school. Protocols for coaching are best understood as a scaffold to support people understand and follow-through with the process, not a rigid set of procedures. In general I find that people want more support and scaffolding, not less.

5. Precise Praise; Probe.. The power of the 5Ps process

Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s “Five Ps” feedback in coaching process is genius. Other systems are available but for me, this is the best: clear, easy to apply and implement school-wide, highly impactful and brilliantly flexible, allowing coaches to work with teachers across the whole spectrum of expertise and capacity for self-direction. The main learning for me is how the approach devised for 1:1 coaching works superbly well for pairs, groups and whole teams. It’s a cornerstone of our Walkthrus work. Linking to number 4 above, when everyone knows what ‘Precise Praise’ and ‘Probe’ mean, it informs everything: lesson observations, feedback, team sessions. action steps.. all of it.

The fifth step – planning ahead – reinforces item 1 above, the need for precision in the structure. You make a definite time-specific plan, you don’t just hope things will happen into the vaguely defined future. Typically in busy schools, things that are not planned don’t happen.

6. Developing Situation Assessment is possibly the key

This is an idea I have picked up from Josh Goodrich and I find it hugely useful. Situation assessment is a skill teachers develop – you learn to read the room, to identify where things are or are not working well so that you make real-time adjustments. I”ve learned that, beyond any specific technique or learning challenge that you are coaching on in the moment, the wider goal is to develop a teacher’s capacity for situation assessment in general. This has more impact that getting them to perfect any one technique. Crucially, with this objective in mind, it leads to questions and probing that get the teacher to volunteer more of the diagnosis before you offer your insights or feedback. You need to see how the teacher has read the situation before you can couch your input in a way that will be useful to them.

7. Being directive has a place.. but the teacher always has to make the choices

I have encountered situations where some coaches or leaders are too direct – basically telling teachers what to do without engaging them in a dialogue. However I’ve also encountered a lot of situations where the coaching and CPD activity is shackled by a fear of any direct coaching input at all – it’s so softly softly that things don’t really change. I had a good discussion with Jim Knight about this in our recent MindtheGap postcast . He’s right in saying the coaches can be direct but that it has to be way down the list of options. If we start off by telling teachers where they went wrong and what to do,, we undermine the process of building situation assessment.

However, if our professional judgement tells us that our input will help them to make better decisions, we must be confident in sharing our insights. The trick to set our ideas up as options for the teacher to choose from, not rules they must follow. Jim explains this really well. You can make suggestions; the teacher makes the choice. (Bambrick-Santoyo’s four-step model of increasing direction is also excellent here.).

Ultimately you can’t force a teacher to take on ideas they don’t accept even if you want to- so you have to bring people on a journey or, to put it better, follow them on theirs. You have to flex the approach to match the person or team you’re coaching – it’s not an ideological position you adopt one way or the other.

8. Tight systems can become organic.. and it’s usually better that way around

I find that different people approach coaching from different perspectives. You can start with a loose organic system, that always starts with teachers’ needs as individuals and an open agenda. Over time, similar patterns might emerge but that’s not where you start. But you can start with a system, some protocols, scripts and rubrics that teachers and coaches then use as a platform to deviate from according to their context. My experience is that the organic approach normally runs out of road when you try to set up a system that goes beyond relying on the specific skills of a few key individuals. The system-first approach gets people going and then always – literally always – evolves into something more subtle and organic once people get the hang of it. Where people project fear or scepticism around systems for coaching I think they’re really not helping. They worry about rigidity – but more often I find people want more structure and more scaffolding, not less.

9. Coaches need coaching

This is a vital element in a good CPD system – there’s a stream of CPD for the coaches about coaching, Something I’ve found myself is that I learn a lot about my own coaching over time and, just as the people I’m coaching are working on their practice, so am I. For example, when I play back the videos of me having one-off coaching sessions as in these examples made with Chiltern Learning, I am evaluating my own input and wondering what I might have done differently. It’s incredibly valuable. I would advocate the use of video for this purpose in a training programme. The key is to reassure coaches that it takes time to get right, to find a style, to build a relationship with someone that yields positive change. We have to try things out to find out when to be more direct and when to listen more.

Last summer I was invited to take part in a project with Chiltern Learning Trust by Deputy Director of School Improvement, Nadine Cotton and Director of Teaching School, Sufian…

I can’t recommend Jim Knight’s Definitive Guide enough for exploring this issue. Essential reading for any coaching development programme.

10. Reality Check processes can be varied.

Finally I’ve learned about the value of weaving in multiple forms of reality check to inform a coaching process. I personally favour learning walks where I drop into lessons, sit at the back, take the position of a student in the class and see how the lesson activities work for them. I find that I can offer a good alternative perspective to the teacher’s from this vantage point. I’ve written about that here:

Recently, Oliver Caviglioli asked me to describe my thought process when I’m observing lessons. It’s hard to generalise because you are responding to each scenario as it presents itself but…

Observation can be done by peers or the coach or a senior leader – and each has its value. However, Jim Knight places a lot more emphasis on the use of video. Video provides the opportunity to build a clear shared understanding because teacher and coach see the exact same footage and what happened is beyond question. A teacher can learn a lot by just watching themselves – without much coach input. I’m minded to try more of this in my work. The key learning point for me is that no one approach is the ultimate- and it is probably useful to use a range of approaches over time. At the same time I’m certain that there must be a reality check process of some kind – teachers self-reporting to each other about how they feel things are going isn’t remotely strong enough a model to push things forward.

I’ve got more to add to this list.. but that’ll do for now! It’s a constant learning curve -teacher development is an endlessly fascinating process to me. It’s great to be involved with so many schools exploring this territory and moving away from the delusional judgement culture that scarred us so deeply in the past.

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