Many schools and colleges use models such as Supported Experiments to encourage teachers to develop their practice and own their professional learning. I note that the institutions where these initiatives take hold and come to life often have a team of teaching and learning coaches facilitating the process with positive, active support from managers. The collaboration between the managers and the coaches is a key part of this dynamic so what does it look like?
Firstly, the senior managers in the institution need to actively foster the model and enable staff to engage with it. They need the vision to see where this initiative fits into wider improvement work and a passion to see it through so it becomes sustainable. Persistence and resilience really help make it happen in amongst all the other conflicting demands on time. It means allocating time for coaching meetings, money for some T&L resources (an innovation fund often works well) and skills training for the coaches and the managers. Project planning/implementation skills and coaching skills for reflection and action planning will have a great impact on how effectively teachers work through the cycle and develop their practice. So senior leaders need to make a conscious commitment to make this happen. Luke-warm leadership or a loss of focus (the ‘butterfly mind’ problem of having too many strategies in play) can impact this work very badly indeed.
Secondly, the middle managers and programme leaders need to play a supportive, engaged but not dominating role within teams, to foster active experimentation and reflection amongst their teachers. It is a delicate balancing act as too heavy a hand (“I know you are going to choose your own experiments but embedding English is SUCH a hot topic right now so maybe…”) can take ownership away from teachers and prevent them from going on their own professional learning journey. Conversely, a manager who shows no interest in the experimental practice and just leaves it to the coach, loses a chance to build momentum in the team for trying new approaches, engaging with research findings and sharing reflections. Some managers that I meet recognise the experimental practice cycle as a growth and development opportunity for the team – productive relationships can be built as people buddy up to try out new approaches; the project gives the team time and space to tackle barriers to achievement in a deeper and more thoughtful way across time.
Finally, how can the teaching and learning coaches or advanced practitioners support this process and collaborate well with leaders and managers? The coaches usually support the teachers with reflection and action planning to shape their experimental practice and to unpick glitches as they arise. These conversations happen in team meetings, CPD slots and 1:1s. For me, effective collaboration looks like this:
- Middle managers have regular “catch-up and plan forward” conversations with the coach outside the team meeting setting, to look at who can do what to support the process. They can then decide who communicates what to the team, e.g. Coaches can offer support, share resources, provide prompt questions; Managers should retain their line management responsibilities and address non-attendance at meetings etc. It is not appropriate or desirable for coaches to act as police with their colleagues.
- Managers and coaches show interest in experiments, ask questions about them informally outside the parameters of the meetings, and look for fruitful buddying up opportunities to enhance the work. Teachers working on related themes can be linked up IF coaches and managers are informed enough to broker those connections.
- Managers can often support the coaches with room bookings, securing equipment, resources or catering, as they generally hold the budgets for these things. It helps when the manager looks out for practical opportunities to support in this way and asks about what is needed.
- Managers can share in-depth team knowledge with coaches on any quality improvement priorities or key curriculum issues that will impinge on with experiments; they can share knowledge of team members and experiences of working with them, so the coach can optimise their own sessions.
- Regular updates at middle and senior management level forums really help keep the development work high on the agenda and visible. Coaches can summarise what is working well and where they are facing challenges in the project, and this can be discussed at middle management meetings to identify ways to support the process. Middle management groups can share progress with experiments in their teams at a termly meeting and discuss how they are learning to lead the development work. Coaches and managers can meet as a large group to identify next steps together, if the opportunity is created through scheduling agenda items to focus on this. Regular updates and trouble shooting help all parties to learn to deliver a large-scale development cycle such as Supported Experiments in amongst all the other pressing priorities of working life.
This collaboration is about focusing on communication and working together to foster great work by teachers with and for learners. It is about being connected and aligned to a developmental goal and not working in silos defined by job title or hierarchy. With this mindset and approach, teachers’ developmental practice can be nurtured and enabled.
If you need some support with developing coaching skills in your setting or project planning for a Supported Experiments cycle, you can contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org