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The term coaching has, in the past, been mostly associated with sports professions. Coaching has been central to elite sporting performance for generations, having been used in a sporting sense since the 1860s.
The business world has always looked for ways of improving human performance and started recognising the potential of the coaching process over 40 years ago, where it was concluded that coaching is essential to support and assist managers so that they can attain their performance requirements. It has since become an essential component of management development.
Coaching is a recognised learning methodology with a general definition of “Coaching concentrates on directing, instructing and training either an individual or a group of people with the only aim to attain certain goals and objectives” (Mike D Morrison). Sir John Whitmore, creator of the GROW coaching model, defined coaching as: “Unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them”.
In recent years, the world of coaching has adapted several models where the disciplines of coaching can be employed in a variety of sectors, including education. Today coaching is everywhere – it is the hot topic of management, leadership and people development. Over the past few years the education sector has begun to investigate the concept of coaching as part of teachers’ continuing professional development (CPD) to explore how it could/can be used to drive school performance.
All UK teachers are required to undergo 30 hours of professional development per year.
A 2021 report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) looked into the CPD of teachers, and their findings showed that:
- Most schools are found to be spending just under 3% of their school budget on CPD, which is higher than previous estimates.
- Schools typically spend an average of around £3,000 a year per teacher on CPD.
- Secondary school teachers in England spend fewer hours (43) a year on CPD compared to the average of other OECD nations (62), while it is also likely that the majority of CPD currently being provided in England does not meet the criteria for high-quality CPD.
- In the short term, a policy of CPD entitlement could significantly improve retention, leading to up to an estimated 12,000 extra teachers remaining in the profession a year.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) section of the UK National Education Union states that CPD for teachers can incorporate:
- Training courses and workshops.
- Studying for a qualification or accreditation.
- Online courses / webinars / podcasts.
- Observation and shadowing.
- Peer group exchanges.
- Attending exhibitions and conferences.
- International exchanges.
- Self-reflection, personal reading or research.
Curiously, there is no mention in their suggestions for CPD initiatives specifically regarding coaching.
This is all the more surprising when results of a survey of just over 250 teachers in primary and secondary schools across the country about their experiences of CPD, carried out by IRS Connect, states that:
- The majority of teachers (82%) believed that CPD is embedded in the culture of their school.
- Most (85%) were clear about their personal development targets.
- More than three-quarters of respondents (78%) asserted that lesson observations as part of CPD are part of the culture in their school.
- A massive 85% of those surveyed believe that there is a value in teachers sharing best practice.
- More than four times as many teachers would opt for in-situ, classroom-based training over external courses and they would actually prefer to learn in their own classroom.
These findings clearly highlight that lesson observations and the inclusion of instructional coaching are an important part of CPD, which would be welcomed by many teachers. Thomas R. Guskey’s evaluation of professional development identified that teachers prefer specific, concrete and practical ideas directly relating to their classroom’s day-to-day operation when participating in continuous professional development.
What is instructional coaching?
Instructional coaching involves an experienced teacher working with another often, but not always, less experienced teacher in an individualised, classroom-based, observation-feedback-practice cycle.
Instructional coaching is more like sports coaching than business coaching, where an expert teacher helps the classroom teacher to focus on one aspect of their technique that can be isolated and practised, in much the same way as a sports coach may focus on, for example, football penalty taking.
To help teachers improve teaching and learning and raise student outcomes, an instructional coach will work with the teacher to identify learning aims and objectives and areas of their practice requiring improvement.
Teachers and their coaches then identify teaching strategies to meet the aims and objectives, practise these and reflect upon progress, and then problem solve until the aims and objectives are met. Instructional educational coaching in the classroom aims to enhance teachers’ success by giving them new problem-solving strategies that are relevant to their practice.
The key to successful instructional coaching is that it is a collaborative endeavour between professionals who work together in a mutually supportive environment.
The main proponent of instructional coaching in the UK is Dr Sam Sims of University College London (UCL) Institute of Education who argued that “instructional coaching is currently the best-evidenced form of professional development we have. By ‘best evidenced’, I mean the quality and quantity of underpinning research”.
Instructional coaching should be viewed as a development tool to enhance teachers’ practice rather than being used to address concerns about weak teaching.
By utilising coaching as an opportunity for school development, teachers should be more willing to volunteer to participate in this constructive form of CPD, whereas if only used in performance management it will only serve to be regarded by teachers as an aggressive remedial action.
How to become an instructional coach
The role of an instructional coach is working with teachers on a one-on-one basis and in small groups to address issues they face in the classroom each day to help them improve their skills and better engage their students.
Coaching is a fantastic opportunity for experienced teachers to develop themselves further. Becoming an instructional coach can be a natural career move for experienced teachers who wish to share their knowledge and experience with others. If you are interested in becoming an instructional coach, begin by identifying content or instructional areas that you would enjoy coaching others in.
For example, you may have expertise in using technology, such as using SMART Board, Moodle, iPads, mobile technology in the classroom to improve learning outcomes, or you may have expertise in the application of teaching methods or in curriculum design and planning. Take a critical look at your teaching skills and identify those that connect across different instructional coaching opportunities.
Learn to coach. Coaching programmes of study are offered by numerous educational training providers, and nationally recognised coaching qualifications such as the ILM Level 3 Effective Coaching, provide a thorough grounding in the principles, practice and experience of conducting supervised sessions.
Some schools may employ instructional coaches in a stand-alone role as part of their quality assurance or professional development provision, whereas others may utilise existing teaching staff to help develop their colleagues. Instructional coaching is a challenging career path, but it comes with a wide range of opportunities for personal and professional growth.
What makes a good instructional coach?
Effective coaching requires active listening, deciphering needs, and then building capacity based on the strengths of teachers. Not everyone has the skills and abilities to be an instructional coach and it may not be a role that will suit everyone.
However, for those with:
- Strong interpersonal skills to be able to develop relationships of trust.
- Excellent oral and written communication skills.
- A wide experience and expertise of teaching and learning.
- A working knowledge of a variety of teaching methodologies and assessment tools and practices.
- A record of improving student achievement and working successfully with students.
- Credibility within the school environment.
- Patience, trustworthiness and a love of teaching and learning.
…instructional coaching may be a career transition that will benefit yourself, your teacher coachees and the wider school community.
A successful instructional coach cultivates good and trustful working relationships with teachers and can identify what kind of support a teacher needs without having to be told. Coaches work with both experienced teachers and newly qualified teachers, all of whom have different needs and challenges in the classroom.
As an instructional coach, you will be facilitating using evidence-based teaching methods in the classroom by providing direct coaching to the teacher. The instructional coach encourages teachers to be more reflective, as well as critical and analytical thinkers. The more credibility that you have in the school’s teaching community, the more effective you will be as an instructional coach in the classroom.
Types of instructional coaching
Some instructional coaching models include a rubric outlining the set of specific skills that a participant will be coached on. A rubric is a performance-based assessment tool. Coaches use rubrics to gather data about their coachees’ progress on a particular skill. Simple rubrics allow coachees to understand what is required of a coaching session, how it will be assessed, and how well they are progressing toward proficiency.
Other models are even more prescriptive, specifying a range of specific techniques for the teacher to master. There are also a range of protocols or frameworks available to structure the coaching interaction, with Bambrick-Santoyo’s Six Step Model being among the most popular.
In Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s model, coaches gather weekly evidence independent of the teacher and use that evidence to set clear, action-oriented bites of feedback for their teachers instead of setting a large goal. He views feedback as an opportunity for the coach to provide an outside perspective to the teacher’s work.
Alternatively, Jim Knight’s book Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction offers a different approach centred on establishing a level playing field between coach and teacher. For experienced teachers, having an equal voice in the coaching process can improve their capacity to identify areas for self-improvement.
There have been many different coaching methods and philosophies interconnected to the above and much will depend upon the coaching style of the coach and the learning style of the teacher coachee.
Coaching has the potential to support the needs of both individual teachers and of the school as a whole, but only if managed appropriately and sensitively; allowing participants to select their focus is one way of addressing this.
Instructional coaching strategies
The optimal model is where a teacher works with someone with the required level of expertise to support an instructional coaching process. Here, the assumption from the beginning is that the coach will engage with the teacher on a sustained basis over time – weeks, months, terms – Seeing them teach regularly and meeting to discuss their progress regularly, each time helping them to identify problems and associated action steps. This helps them to sustain practice on specific aspects of their teaching. In this model of instructional coaching, the coaching can be carried out by internal teaching staff or by an external expert education coach.
- Peer coaching – This is when teachers of similar or equal status support each other through mutual problem-solving, observations, collaborative teaching, and planning. The aim being to improve on skills through reflection and collaboration without evaluation. In addition to helping teachers transfer new skills into their own classrooms, peer coaching also facilitates the development of a culture of learning, experimentation and collegiality.
- Video coaching – Traditional in-person observation involves a great deal of planning, time and resource management. Video recording allows teachers to reflect on their own performance, to get feedback from others, and to objectively measure their progress. As coaching can be logistically challenging, with conflicting schedules that can prevent teachers and coaches from meeting, the use of video is a great way to support peer and instructional coaching.
There are a few legal considerations with videoing, however. Teachers making use of video footage of lessons should recognise that it is classified as “personal data” under the Data Protection Act 1998. Any video of teaching should be seen as in the “ownership” of the teacher, without their consent; it should not be used for any purposes other than to support the coaching process. There are also implications of the use of video in relation to safeguarding requirements in schools.
There may be some students for whom the school does not have permission to make video recordings. Most schools have clear policies in place in relation to the use of video recording during lessons and watching it after lessons. Before embarking on using videos for coaching you should check your school’s policies.
- Online teacher coaching – The flexibility of remote, online coaching is also a huge time and money saver. Teachers can record their classroom-based and online lessons and share the video with their coach to receive valuable contextualised feedback through time-stamped comments. With coaches not needing to be in the same room as their teacher coachees, schools can provide effective coaching even if a coach is based at a different location or where a teacher might be delivering online lessons from home.
- Real-time, in-ear coaching – This is the use of video systems that can enable live, remote, in-ear coaching. The teacher wears an earpiece and is being coached by someone who is not in the classroom and who may even be in a remote location. The coach, with permission from the teacher, can observe the classroom via a live video link and make suggestions to the teacher in real time.
The students cannot hear the suggestions although they will have been told this process is taking place. Both video and audio can be recorded and annotated with written comments for later discussion. Real-time, in-ear coaching is a high impact, accelerated professional development process.
All the above should follow the same coaching cycle:
- A coaching partnership should be established within the framework adopted by the school, as appropriate according to the desired focus.
- Pre-lesson coaching meeting – A brief meeting between coach and coachee takes place to agree the schedule for the coaching cycle. If the coaching focus is teaching and learning it will often be productive for the coach to arrange to observe a lesson either in person or via video. Arrangements for the coaching meetings and focus lesson should be time protected as necessary. The role of the coach is to explore with the coachee the decisions that the coachee is making in relation to teaching and learning, and where appropriate, the specific lesson under review. The coach should help the coachee to explore some of the influences on these decisions and provide support and advice for planning.
- Lesson taught and evidence of practice collected – The lesson is taught by the coachee. This provides an opportunity for evidence of practice to the collected. Often this will be through the coach conducting a lesson observation under agreed criteria. The use of video to record the lesson can be an advantage as well as other evidence arising from the lesson such as the coachee’s own reflections and/or students’ work.
- Post-lesson coaching meeting – The coach and coachee meet to discuss the nature of the lesson and the teaching and learning experiences and outcomes. This is an opportunity for reflection related to the coachee’s teaching practices. It may be supported through the examination of objective evidence such as that provided by video. The coach prompts reflection and supports the coachee in problem-solving and identifying new actions. This is a two-way discussion between the coach and coachee. During this meeting it may be useful to plan to undertake a further coaching cycle as part of a plan, do, review cycle.
Why is instructional coaching beneficial?
Traditional inset CPD tends to involve a broad, one-size-fits-all training session delivered to a diverse group of teachers. Whilst these initiatives have their own merit in meeting the development needs of staff, they do not always address the very specific development needs and wants of teachers for improving and developing their teaching skills.
Instructional coaching focuses on:
- Professional dialogue designed to aid the coachee in developing specific professional skills to enhance their teaching repertoire.
- Supporting experimentation with new classroom strategies.
- Enhancing teaching and learning that is not normally explicitly linked to a career transition.
- Coaching that is usually selected by the coachee and the process provides opportunities for reflection and problem-solving for both the coach and the coachee.
The features of instructional coaching, that it is:
- Encourages self-reflection.
According to research, promising outcomes for the improvement of teaching practice, and subsequent academic gains for students. This suggests that it is worth the investment of time and effort.
A live coach acts as a second pair of eyes in the classroom, to easily notice when students aren’t engaged. This can have the benefit of alerting the teacher sooner rather than later so that they can put strategies in place to improve student engagement.
There is a very real benefit that instructional coaching contributes by retaining and sharing with the whole school all the knowledge and skills that experienced teachers have gained over their careers, ensuring that improvement efforts are school-wide thereby changing school culture. Teachers’ learning and development underpins school improvement and provides a vehicle for raising achievement and attainment.
When teachers’ learning is based on their own practice and they receive opportunities for reflection, feedback, support and instruction in a collaborative partnership fashion from trained coaches with no line management relationship, they can start to make adaptations to their practice which can lead to real differences in outcomes.
Instructional coaching for teacher development in schools is well worth the effort. It can create new opportunities for the sharing of ideas and the enhanced understanding of the role of professional knowledge in teachers’ practice. Good coaching encourages teachers to become more reflective, articulate and exploratory in relation to their work and its impact on learners.
Teachers become more self-aware and conscious of their capabilities as teachers, more knowledgeable about the activity of teaching and the processes of learning, and more confident to explore and utilise a wide range of teaching and learning techniques in their role.