Coaching for sustainable development or just working on the observation profile: What are we really doing in the FE sector?

Current challenges

In the FE sector, are we coaching teachers with real development in mind or just to move them from one observation grade box to another on our spreadsheets? This may sound harsh but conversations with coaches in a range of colleges have highlighted this concern and made me feel somewhat troubled at the direction of travel. With increasing pressure within the sector to accelerate improvement, it is easy for coaches to feel that it is imperative they help their coachees to secure that magic grade two, which is taken as a sign of “coaching success”, of the teacher “having improved”. This can lead to an almost exclusive focus on fixing the “faults” seen in the lesson that was graded as a three or four, to the exclusion of deeper, more reflective work on developing the teacher’s practice.

To me, this seems to be a misguided use of coaching, with all its power to develop thinking and change habits. It feels like a sticking plaster approach to developing people. It also seems like a naive approach to the grading, assessment-crazed world which we currently inhabit in the FE sector. Some coachees definitely engage with coaching and take it as an opportunity to alter and refine their practice to their own benefit and that of their learners. Others do not engage, do not agree with the judgments on their practice but are capable of hoop jumping through a second observation, taking ideas from a coach who is under pressure to show they can develop teachers even if it means micro mentoring them. I can see that this is a real danger, despite the best intentions of the coaches involved to support and develop their coachees – there are just so many external pressures impinging on this coaching relationship that can skew its focus.

Some coaches have mentioned to me that they feel immense pressure to get people to that grade two and how this can create great conflict in their coaching sessions; they end up giving ideas, passing on resources, reducing the reflection time for the coachee and limiting the potential for change inherent within a real coaching conversation. They know that this is a short term fix but don’t feel free and empowered to take a wider, broader and deeper look at the teacher’s practice.

Another issue relates to the quality of the observation feedback that triggered the coaching intervention. In many cases, observers have identified points for development that do reflect the teacher’s wider practice. However, in some cases, due to nature of our snap shot observation model or the weakness of the observer’s skills, what was observed is not typical of that teacher or a really valid, useful area for development. Yet coaches are finding themselves focused on that report as the main baseline for whether that teacher has improved by the second observation. I have to say that I fear that in many cases, coaches could well be wasting valuable time and effort on issues that are not central to the teacher’s development.

Even if we take the observer’s report as a valid summary of areas for useful development, can we really say that a second one-off observation really shows that the area has been developed and is no longer a challenge for that teacher? What evidence do we have that the altered practices are embedded or even really embraced by the teacher? To me, these approaches seem unlikely to deliver real, sustainable development for staff and I think we need to re-think the use of valuable coaching resources in our colleges and how we follow up with individuals, to maximise the chances for authentic development.

A more sustainable approach

Coaches could be encouraged and supported to take a broader, more sophisticated look at the teacher’s practice. This might involve an informal, diagnostic peer observation or several short learning walks or review of a few videoed activities from their classes. It might involve talking to some of their learners and looking at course files plus reviewing Plans for Learning.

From these activities the coach will have a fuller, more valid picture of that teacher and be able to help them look at areas for development within that wider context, that more representative review of their professional practice. This approach would encourage coach and teacher to look at larger underpinning notions of teaching and learning and not just tweak the little things the last observer didn’t rate.

To take this approach, coaches need empowerment from their network leader and an awareness at senior levels that real development isn’t a quick fix and that we can’t be naive about this process, if we want teaching and learning to improve for our learners and our staff. This approach has implications for the time dedicated to coaching support. Colleges giving only one or two hours of remission per week to coaches need to take a serious look at what is viable in that time and focus activity accordingly. Too many coaches I meet are being asked to take on an unrealistic caseload that exacerbates the problem of sketchy coaching intervention, which leads to little impact on practice.

The follow up

Most of the problems I see colleges encountering with their improvement work centre around lack of follow up. So, when we re-observe teachers and they get a grade two, what do we do? Usually, leave them well alone with a big sigh of relief. One less on the risk list!

If we want to commit to development and ensure people keep on reflecting and refining their practice, we need to put attention and focus there. I don’t see colleges focusing much attention or resource on sustaining improvement or inspiring people to progress further. Most colleges dedicate their coaching resource to deficit model coaching, to developing staff who were graded three and four, perceived to be performing below the required standard. I think some resource and process should be dedicated to sustaining improved practices and inspiring people to develop further, even when they have achieved a magic “grade two” lesson observation.

Tips for sustaining improvement and inspiring further development

How about a think tank model, offered as a follow up option after coaching support and made available to others as well?  At these sessions, hot topics in teaching and learning could be discussed and ideas shared, acting as food for thought, new avenues to explore. Teachers would be able to network with colleagues in other areas and build links this way too.

An alternative could be a programme of bite sized CPD sessions to show teachers approaches or resources linked to different aspects of classroom practice. This could provide valuable input for teachers who need more pedagogic content, broader knowledge to help them develop further. We cannot assume that coaching alone will enhance people’s practice – there is a place for training as well,

Buddy systems could be fruitful, with teachers linking up with colleagues to share areas of strength and explore approaches in a different discipline or learning context.

Peer observation can be stimulating and thought provoking, yet seems to be rarely suggested to staff as a developmental activity. Watching a colleague from a different area or level can be a really engaging process, especially if time for professional dialogue is added to the process.

After coaching interventions, coaches could offer a series of short learning walk drop ins or a longer peer observation, followed by a coaching chat, to look at how new approaches are being embedded or to identify new areas for exploration.

Visiting another college can also be a very stimulating experience or making a link with another institution via video conference or SKYPE, to identify interesting practice to explore.

So, some of these approaches could be incorporated into the post coaching support and development offered to teachers. They would help the coach maintain relationships with staff and be available for future professional dialogue, not in a crisis management way (“Let’s work together to get you though that re-observation!“) but in a more relaxed and thoughtful manner (“What else are you keen to explore?”) It would also allow coaches to work in a different way and develop their skill set for helping people enhance their practice, explore other avenues and experiment more creatively in class, without the pressure of a deadline or a bar to leap over. This would be a liberating experience for both coachee and coach, I think.

I would be very interested to hear about how you create sustainable development in your institution and follow up coaching in different ways, so please get in touch.https://joannemilesconsulting.wordpress.com/contact-me/

For more ideas on developing high performing staff, see the blog posting below:

“Grade one and two teachers”: Why are we neglecting their development? 

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This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, FE, Grade 3 and 4 observations, Graded lesson observations, Lesson observations, Peer observation, Performance management and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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