Recently I had the pleasure of working with a group of experienced teacher educators to deliver some training on coaching skills and the conversations we had prompted this blog. I was a teacher educator on initial teacher training programmes for some years and now spend most of my time working freelance on CPD planning, training and coaching. For me, coaching skills are an integral part of my practice in many settings and it was fascinating to meet other teacher educators and explore their experiences and responses to these approaches. As we explored different skills and models, it struck me how much coaching approaches could bring to so many aspects of initial teacher educator programmes.
In my experience, these approaches can play a valuable role in the practice of teacher educators, incorporated into tutorial/review conversations, group plenary slots after teaching practice and the delivery of theory/input sessions. They can have the biggest potential benefit when threaded through the programme as opposed to being restricted to the obvious tutorial setting. The embedded coaching approach means the trainees will experience reflective professional dialogue throughout their course; it sets the tone and establishes the ethos for professional learning. It says to the trainees, “On this course and in your professional life, high quality reflection and independent planning skills are important. We will not spoon-feed you here. We will ask you to think hard and we will support you to do that.”
In my view, coaching approaches can have the following benefits for the trainees:
- They encourage deep reflection on your teaching practices and the impact on the learners, building your own skills of professional analysis and evaluation
- They foster independent, creative thinking and problem solving skills, helping you to plan lessons and respond to learners in a thoughtful and responsive way
- They help you to identify your own strengths and harness them to improve your practice further, owning your professional development
- They foster confidence as you learn to identify small changes and signs of progress in your professional development over time
So how can coaching approaches and skills translate into practice on teacher education programmes?
Teacher educators with a strong set of coaching skills tend to use a lot of questions with trainees in theory sessions, observation feedback and in 1:1 conversation. They don’t assume that trainee teachers need to be told everything, as if they are empty vessels. They use questions to draw on trainees’ experiences of learning, their observations of how learners respond in class, their understanding of how theory translates into their practice. These educators might pose several questions to think about in the lesson planning stage of teaching practice. They will provide prompt questions for paired and group discussion after the teaching practice, to encourage deeper reflection. In observed lessons, they may structure the professional dialogue around a set of questions, to see how much the trainee can come up with before they give feedback comments. The action planning stage of this dialogue will be a collaborative conversation with the teacher educator helping the trainee to identify useful next steps, tighten them up and sequence them well. Tutorial/review meetings will be prefaced with a set of questions for reflection, so that the meeting starts from the trainee’s perception of their professional evolution and the trainer can add their comments to that, bring some feedback or challenging questions to explore the areas the trainee might not have noted.
For these educators using coaching skills, their role is to help the trainees to function more effectively on their own in a professional setting. It is not to breed dependence and reliance on the trainer as the font of knowledge, the person who tells you what to think,”the expert.” This does not mean that the teacher educator who uses a coaching approach will never tell their trainees anything, as this would patently be ridiculous. On initial teacher training programmes, part of our role is to share theories, models, pedagogy in different ways and this can involve lectures, presentations, prescribed reading. The educator who coaches realises that they need to think about when it is most beneficial/appropriate to give information and when it will be fruitful for trainees to think something through on their own through questions. The powerful thing is to keep making the choice of how you approach communication with the trainees as opposed to having your default setting as “They are new to teaching, so I just think it is best to tell them.” I have found that it is often surprising how far people think on their own if you provide space and focus through questioning and attentive listening. If you don’t ask and then listen, you will never know what they might have thought and said. They will not know what they are capable of noticing, if you close down that thinking process with your suggestion or piece of expert knowledge. So for me, choosing when and if to give/share ideas is an important skill in a teacher educator.
On the training day with the teacher educator group, we had plenty of discussion about when it would be beneficial to use coaching approaches and when they wouldn’t fit well. This summary gives you a flavour of that discussion:
- It could be positive to promote this approach very explicitly in the course guidance and initial selection process, so that trainees are clear on how and why coaching approaches will be used in the programme. This would help address the risk of trainees expecting the course to be entirely instructional in tone.
- Some educators thought they would like to phase in coaching approaches across the programme, moving from a more instructional style to a more coaching style as the trainees extend their knowledge and skills in the classroom. The perceived benefit here was that the trainees would have more to draw on from their toolkit and knowledge bank as they gain practical professional experience, so that they would be better equipped to answer probing coaching questions.
- Some educators felt inclined to incorporate some coaching approaches and activities into specific aspects of their programmes, such as planning and reflection on teaching practice and observed lessons. In these aspects of the course, the trainees would have experiences to draw on, whereas in the theory/input sessions, there may be less to extract through questioning. In this way, the educators could look at the impact of that specific use of coaching approaches in one part of their courses, and take learning points forward into a wider embedding process later on.
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For further reading on the listening skills involved in coaching, please click on the link below: