In the Further Education sector there is an ever-growing focus on ‘managing performance’ and in many colleges, the teaching and learning coaching team find themselves in an uncomfortable position within this process. I have been a T&L coach, I have coordinated a network of coaches and I now work across the sector supporting and developing these groups in terms of skills and approaches. What I am hearing in these training sessions is concerning for our work in this area, I feel.
Once a teacher has been identified as requiring support, either as part of the operational management process or the formal lesson observation cycle, a coach is often allocated and certain challenges are immediately apparent.
- The caseload culture
Coaches are given a ‘caseload’ of coachees (interesting choice of wording!) and the coachees often have little choice in the matter of who that coach might be or whether coaching is necessarily the most suitable approach. This can reduce the likelihood of the teacher really taking ownership of the developmental process; it encourages a resigned, compliance-focused feel to the coaching interactions. Coaches talk to me about how difficult it is for both parties when coachees are ‘sent’ to them and are not willing participants in that relationship.
- The focus for development: The teacher or the observation feedback form?
Coaches are frequently in a dilemma about where to place their attention during developmental dialogues with teachers. As part of the performance management process, they are aware of the pressure of being seen to convert areas for development into areas of strength as a sign of ‘improvement’ on the subsequent lesson observation. All coaching teams that I meet are well aware that this is a simplistic, reductive and rather unsound way of looking at a teacher’s real development, but they find themselves in a culture where such measures are valued. They want to support the teacher, but they also want to have the space, time and scope to encourage reflection and rich, authentic development. This may not fit with the priorities outlined on that observation feedback form so choices have to be made about where to focus attention. This can be an uneasy compromise, driven by practical constraints and external pressures as opposed to the real needs of the teacher.
- Time constraints and follow-up failure
Many coaches comment that they feel that they can only scratch the surface with coachees in the time allocated to this support. Many colleges have a fixed entitlement to coaching support, of several hours or three sessions, for example. How long does it take to develop thinking and practical skills in order to improve an aspect of someone’s teaching in a sustainable way? No easy answers there but a strong feeling that it is often longer than the time allocated! Coaches talk about the frustration of building the relationship, starting work and then experiencing the rupture of it all ending once the teacher has been re-observed and ‘signed off.’ They feel uneasy about the depth of change and the solidity of new practices….how much of that work will really stick, without further reflection and support?
Some responses to these challenges
- Encourage a richer, more sophisticated discussion at the outset about what the best form of support or development might be for each teacher. A discussion between teacher, manager, observer and staff development leader can be fruitful. It may be that peer observation with structured reflection is a better option than coaching; it could be that the coaching needs to focus on underpinning approaches to planning, so that joint planning and review will help; the manager may be the best placed person to work on the development points in some cases.
- Wherever possible, invite the teacher to choose a coach, based on their skills and background. An element of ownership can really help in starting this process off on the right foot. It helps to have a profile/ biography of the coaches so that their curriculum specialism and experience are readily available for review. If personalities don’t work well together, create a space for raising the issue and look at finding a new coach for that person.
- Early in the coaching relationship, see if the coachee is happy for you to watch them teach and review some of their plans for learning. From this and from conversation, the coach can get their own feel for that teacher and start to discuss with them which areas to work on. Some coaches I know operate on a ‘one for them, one for you’ basis when setting targets for development – they take the key priority from the observation form but also add a target that has emerged from their diagnostic work with the teacher. This can ensure that other aspects of learning not highlighted in the snapshot observed lesson get a look in and also helps the teacher engage with the process more actively. Other coaches have told me that they start off with the area the teacher wants to develop and then move onto the lesson observation points later in the coaching process, once a relationship and some trust has been built.
- Look at who/what else can support the teacher outside the coaching sessions. Sometimes there is a well-placed colleague who can provide additional mentoring or share resources; sometimes peer observation triangles or squares add extra richness; sometimes there is in house CPD available that complements the coaching; staff intranet areas and Twitter provide a wealth of food for thought and experimentation too.
- As a coaching team, look at support across time and what your college can offer:
Once a teacher has finished their initial coaching sessions, what follow-up activities are offered?
Are they invited into a Teacher Talk or Teach Meet session to continue that reflective process?
Do action learning sets and communities of practice exist to encourage further development?
How do you look at their progress after coaching, across time?
How can you offer a rich range of CPD opportunities so that coaching isn’t reduced to a quick fix?
I would be very interested to hear from coaches who are grappling with these challenges and to find out which approaches you are using to tackle them.
On the benefits of coaching:
On preparing for a coaching conversation: