It is encouraging and exciting to see many FE colleges and schools investing in the teaching and learning coach/advanced practitioner role, as it can play a positive part in developing staff and driving up TLA quality. In my work as a freelance trainer, coach and consultant, I am supporting many institutions with shaping the role and looking at its fit within the wider structures and processes. I am beginning to notice a pattern of common pitfalls and identify some ways to avoid them.
Pitfall one: A lack of practical thinking in shaping the role
It is easy to see you want to form a team to focus on developing TLA; it can be more complex to identify how they will use their time on a daily basis and what is actually achievable. In some places, they are given just two hours remission per week but with a huge remit related to both 1:1 coaching support and CPD delivery into teams. In other places one coach may be recruited with substantial remitted hours and yet the college may operate on several sites with a large number of staff, so it would have been more practical to have two or three bodies to spread the load.
It is helpful to consider:
- Where will coaches be working and how will their time be used?
- How can you prioritise tasks so that the coaches’ hours are used to best effect but that their caseload/workload is achievable?
- How many people do you actually need? Is a bigger team with fewer hours the best place to start or should you focus resources and skill building on a smaller, more expert group?
Pitfall two: Lack of clarity over priorities for the role
It helps to be clear on whether you see the role as a 1:1 coaching resource for staff to access or whether they also have a CPD or curriculum development role, aligned to a given team. Without clear direction and priorities, there is a risk they will not engage staff to the full due to uncertainty over their identity and “place” in college life. Teachers and managers will also be unclear about how to use their services and who to approach about which issues.
This clarity over how they will be deployed is also important for identifying relevant training needs for them, as developing the skills of a 1:1 coach is different from building the skills of a CPD trainer.
When shaping the role it helps to decide:
- Is the first incarnation of this role going to be focused on 1:1 interventions with staff or targeted at CPD delivery or a combination of both areas, for instance?
- Are they going to work in their own curriculum area or outside it or operate in both spheres?
- How much of their time will be dedicated to reading up on relevant research and sharing it with teachers?
- How will their role help foster innovation and experimental practice?
My experience is that cross college work may help build a bigger toolkit of TLA strategies through working outside their specialism. They can also challenge assumptions and bring a fresh pair of eyes to development work as the “outsider.” However, working within their own specialist area can mean they bring highly relevant, contextually appropriate insights to the work and have a different credibility with staff, which can sometimes foster deeper working relationships. The contextual placement of this role requires thought and care.
Pitfall three: Reporting to curriculum managers
In terms of the line management of the coaching/improvement practitioner role, I have come to the conclusion that in their development role they need to report to someone outside their curriculum line management relationship. It works well when they report to the head of T&L or the head of professional development/learning and are allocated tasks and priorities by them. When the curriculum manager directs them and defines their workload there can be a series of pitfalls:
- Lack of focus on key bigger picture priorities in TLA and a tendency to focus on local issues to the neglect of other themes.
- Coach becoming almost an operational second in command for the manager, getting tied up with everyday departmental tasks that don’t focus on development. Some coaches/IPs/APs have mentioned to me that their remitted time is getting eaten up with learner tracking, data collection and report writing instead of development work and they find it difficult to challenge this as it is their line manager who allocates these tasks. Curriculum managers are often overloaded in their roles, as I have described in other blog posts, so it is easy to see how this can happen, but it defeats the purpose, vision and benefit of the TLA coach/IP role. It is more beneficial all round if someone with a wider overview and a more strategic view of TLA in the organisation steers this role, allocates tasks and tracks performance within it, even when these tasks may be executed within the coaches’ own curriculum area and tailored to it.
It is useful to think about:
- Who should the coaches/improvement practitioners report to in their role, to maximise its developmental focus?
- How can you ensure that the line management of this group fosters a focus on organisational priorities for TLA development?
- How will this group report up to the senior team and others about emerging issues and needs in TLA? The communication channels for this process need to be identified early, to support reflection and evidence-informed planning. This may mean a regular agenda item at SLT for the improvement team to report back, for example.
This role has a huge amount to bring to college/school life so with these approaches in mind, you can avoid key pitfalls and maximise the impact of coaches and improvement practitioners in developmental work.