Coaching teachers to success

Only in education! Only in education would anyone still believe that the best way to improve professional performance is to perform an observation, make little box-ticking notes on what is observed and then feed back afterwards. The observer walks away, unaware whether their pithy comments will be digested and put to good use for the remainder of that teacher’s career or just discarded, whilst in fact the observed teacher tries to pick up some scrap of self esteem from the decimating catalogue of ‘points for improvement’ that serve only to reinforce the power gradient that exists between observer and observed in current performance management practice.

Surely there is a better way? There is: we only have to look to any manner of sport, the corporate world’s development programmes or the rehearsal rooms of the Royal Opera House to find our answer. Even more ironically, we only have to look to the volumes of research conducted on children’s learning to find an answer. Learning is maximised if tutors and experts intervene at the point of learning.

We don’t expect to see a teacher allow a child to pursue an avenue of learning that could be improved upon and yet wait until after the lesson to suggest an adjustment to the path of  their learning journey (or do we? Have you not read Dylan Wiliam’s ‘Inside the Black Box’ yet? You’re not STILL marking late at night are you…?). We expect teachers to intervene in their students’ learning at the point of learning.

The key notion here is supported by the terminology that we employ in this process. Habitually in education we talk about ‘performance management‘. If we were in the sporting arena and we referred to sports management, we would be clear that this person would not be a coach, they would instead be the kind of person that might help guide and shape a career, negotiating contracts with clubs and sponsors, maximising the athlete’s earning potential. In this context, the coach is in charge of performance development. The coach’s job is quite different from the manager’s job: he or she intervenes as the athlete performs: lower your hip, raise your chin, keep your eye on the ball. So it seems to me that in order to address that most important of issues, school effectiveness, our first and most fundamental step is to understand the impact of the terminology that we employ upon the way we carry out our mission: we are supporting the development of performance, not simply managing performance.

With this conceptual shift secured, we may return to our sporting analogy. The athlete responds immediately to the coach’s interventions and ‘feels’ the improvement. The responsibility for improvement is the athlete’s, rather than the coach’s, yet the relationship between the two is united: the improvement in the athlete’s performance (or otherwise) is simultaneously a reflection of the coach’s skills in securing those outcomes. As such, in order to overcome problems, a high quality relationship and agility of mind is a prerequisite as together coach and athlete overcome the challenges and hurdles to success. Many sports coaching guides echo the sentiment that ‘When both the coach and the athlete are open to change, improved interactions can usually be designed. Working with both, setting up some ground rules for interactions can make a big difference. By making the interactions feel safe and supportive for the athlete, the athlete becomes more open to the content of the coaching, and can improve more and feel better about training. The coach also benefits from reduced frustration and a happier, better performing athlete.’

Let’s contrast that with teachers’ perceptions of lesson observations and performance management. Often we find teachers are concerned about the lesson observation process, it seems high stakes and often forms the basis of senior managers’ judgement on teaching ability for a whole year. It is also often the only in-depth point of contact within a year, the only peer-based, contextualised learning opportunity for that professional in the whole academic year and is only analysed after the event. Little wonder that, using this system, so many schools take so long to improve performance.

Coaching on the other hand is ‘by request’. The teacher asks to be coached (when were you last asked to ‘come and manage my performance through a lesson observation’?). Coach and coachee look at the lesson to be taught, together. If it goes ‘pear-shaped’, the responsibility for this lies with the teacher and the coach. Imagine how empowering that one simple change is for the teacher: the fear factor is almost entirely removed by that one step.

As the lesson is then taught, the coach intervenes during the flow of the lesson, as they perceive that changes could usefully be made in response to what is happening. This requires great skill as neither coach nor teacher want to interrupt the flow of the lesson, and indeed, sometimes it is good to give the teacher some room to develop a direction, before intervening. However, as we all know, there are frequent points in a lesson where unobtrusive intervention can take place and it is these moments that the coach and teacher use to review development. The in-class dialogue enables the teacher to explore new directions, moderate their practice in response to the spontaneous context of the lesson and children’s interactions and to experience the wonderful ‘Aaaah!’ moment of seeing a pedagogical problem solved in front of their eyes and crucially by their own efforts.

Some colleagues have asked whether the children notice this process going on. Of course they do! They notice that adults are in a constant state of learning, what a brilliant incidental benefit that children see lifelong learning modelled in their daily lives.

For me, the notion of performance development, effectively mediated through coaching has been a keystone of our practice in all areas of school life and a formative part of our school development. I recommend that you give it a try!

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6 thoughts on “Coaching teachers to success

  1. Excellent blog post – ‘all that is need to move people’s thinking on is one great question’. I have been filming the Fishbowl experiments at Oxfordshire seems things are going this way – how refreshing:

  2. Very interesting & relevant blog post, Neil. Having observed lessons & completed a colleagues NQT termly assessment this week the whole process would have been so much more beneficial to all learners (Yr10s, NQT & myself) if we had embraced this coaching style of formative development :o)

    • Thanks! We use this a lot with NQTs – it is a great way of accelerating their adjustment to the many demands of professional life given scant attention during ITT.

  3. Thanks Neil
    This is a really interesting and thought provoking article. As school leaders we need to spend more time thinking about the how and not just the what of managing change and improving learning. Your blogs provide me with a oportunity to reflect on my own leadership.

  4. Neil, I think this is really interesting stuff 🙂 I remember you discussing this with me at Robin Hood and from my experiences of coaching so far I can see this being the beginning of something very exciting in teacher training and skills growth. Do you think coaches can coach other coaches?

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