Updated: Feb 24, 2022
I originally posted this blog post over at my old blog That Boy Can Teach back in January 2017 when I was an assistant head at a Dixons academy where we had begun to use Instructional Coaching as a tool for teacher development and consequently school improvement.
A recent discussion on Twitter centred around the regularity with which senior leaders in schools "scrutinised" teachers' lessons, books and planning. Many expressed shock and surprise at the apparent regularity of these activities in some schools. Some commentators linked high frequency of "scrutiny" to mistrust. The word "scrutiny" will always carry negative connotations, especially for teachers. Its definition is critical observation or examination or surveillance; close and continuous watching - neither of which do anything to make it sound like something teachers would want done to them. The word has negative connotations for clear reasons - it's like teachers are being spied on. And spies don't trust anyone or anything. So yeah; mistrust. Remove the word "scrutiny" from the scenario though and the act leaders of looking at lessons, books and planning (I use "looking" deliberately as a word devoid of much nuanced meaning) is a necessary thing in schools; leaders must know what is going on at the chalkface, they'd be poor leaders if they didn't. As a result, I would go so far as to argue that the frequent "looking" is absolutely crucial. But it all depends what the "looking" is for. It depends on how and why the "looking" is done. Leadership guru Andy Buck commented that it 'all depends on the climate within which these things are done'. It's an absolute cliche, and one which causes teachers to curl, at the very least, their toes, but if all this "looking" is truly done for development's sake then the "looking" will be seen by teachers as a positive thing. And it will be welcomed. If areas of development are identified as true areas of development, rather than just things that are being done badly, and if a leader then takes steps to work on those areas of development with a teacher, then teachers will look more favourably on all the "looking". I have heard of schools who continually collect such data but then never do anything about it. It is absolutely imperative that if leaders collect data on 'teacher performance' (for want of a better and less punitive-sounding phrase) regularly they should be doing something about their findings. In my school, and in increasing numbers of others, that something is coaching. Our model of coaching is adapted from the one outlined in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's 'Leverage Leadership'. The main difference, and pertinent to this discussion, is that instead of weekly drop-ins and coaching sessions, we conduct a drop-in (15 minutes in a lesson, teachers know which week but not which lesson - this has encouraged teachers to 'just do what they normally do') one week and a coaching session (30 minutes) the next week. For clarity's sake it is school leaders who conduct both the drop-in and the coaching session - I have heard of some models of coaching centred more around peer coaching. Leaders usually drop in on and coach members of their own team.
A sports analogy by way of rationale for the regularity of what we call the coaching cycle: "Teachers are like tennis players: they develop most quickly when they receive frequent feedback and opportunities to practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) A tennis coach is regularly present during practice, as well as matches. If they only turned up at the match and commented on how they played that game, and then didn’t show up until the next tournament, then the tennis player is not receiving effective coaching and will struggle to improve. To explain more, here are some of the core ideas behind Bambrick-Santoyo's model of coaching:
"By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in 20." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) Coaching has to be done consistently and regularly.
"Observation and feedback are only fully effective when leaders systematically track which teachers have been observed, what feedback have received, and whether that feedback has improved their practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p62) Coaching outcomes have to be tracked so that they leaders are aware of what to be looking for in future observations, and so that improvements can be celebrated.
"The primary purpose of observation should not be to judge the quality of teachers, but to find the most effective ways to coach them to improve student learning." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p63) Observations are not summative, they are formative, therefore the whole process is designed to be supportive. In our experience, teachers have received coaching positively and understand that it is for their benefit, and the benefit of the children.
Feedback should be given face-to-face and should provide specific and manageable action steps for improvement. A coaching session is a discussion where the coach questions the coachee to enable them to analyse their own practice, leading to them identifying their own point for developing – this enables them to internalise the feedback. Face-to-face meetings are more useful than lengthy written evaluations.
Once a lesson drop-in has been conducted, the coaching session will usually follow a similar pattern:
Precise praise: "The most effective praise is directly linked to the teacher’s previous action step: you validate the teacher’s effort at implementing feedback." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p80) Coaching sessions allow coaches and coaches to highlight and celebrate the progress and improvements.
Probe: "When giving feedback start with a probing question that narrows the focus of the teacher to a particular part of the lesson." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p81)
Identify problem and concrete action step: "We learn best when we can focus on one piece of feedback at a time. Giving less feedback, more often, maximises teacher development." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p70) "Action steps need to be bite-sized: changes teachers can make in one week." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p75) Rather than observing once a term and giving a long list of areas for development, coaching provides regular, manageable next steps.
Practice: "Great teaching is not learnt through discussion. It’s learned by doing – or more specifically, by practicing doing things well. Supervised practice is the fastest way to make sure all teachers are doing the right things." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p86)
Plan ahead: "Practicing and planning ahead go hand in hand: practice the skill and then adjust the coming lessons." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p87)
Personally, I don't like the use of the word 'problem' as it isn't aspirational but it has clearly been chosen so that it begins with P like the rest, and it does the job well enough. To finish, as you reflect on the process outlined above and begin to form your own opinions of it, a couple of quotes from two teachers in my team who are coachees in the coaching process: “Coaching has really helped me fine tune my teaching in different areas of the curriculum and is continuing to help me become a better teacher every day. It supports my pedagogy as we are in a fast-paced environment and keeping up to date with new ideas and policies can be tricky alone! The 1-2-1 support is really effective and is making a big difference 😊 Thank you!” "The coaching has been informal, supportive and best of all, useful! Achievable, realistic and logical targets are set which have had a real impact on my teaching and, as a result, the learning going on in my class. Thanks." The frequency becomes a non-issue when the processes involved are truly developmental and supportive. The model taken from 'Leverage Leadership' is just one way of making this happen, there are probably many other ways of doing it - this article is supposed to outline one way of doing it with the purpose of showing that regular interaction between leaders and teachers can be a positive thing for all involved, and a thing that gets results for the children. Please feel free to ask any questions about our approach and do try to read the whole section (Chapter 2: Observation and Feedback) in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's book 'Leverage Leadership' as it expands on the ideas laid out above.
If you would like Aidan to work with you on developing leadership and coaching at your school, please visit his website at https://www.aidansevers.com/services and get in touch via the contact details that can be found there.