A better journey by coach

A new take on teacher partnership is a welcome change from more traditional mentoring, writes Stephanie Northen

Stand still in a school these days and the chances are someone will try to coach you. Sit down and you'll be offered a mentor. The staffroom joke points to a "big wave" behind the belief that collaborative work is the key to professional development.

Teachers teaching teachers will be endemic in five years' time, says Philippa Cordingley of Curee, an organisation bridging the gap between researchers and schools which has released a framework for coaching and mentoring while other national agencies are also piling in. Inter-school and inter-staff collaboration is booming too, with heads being urged to raise standards through federations, partnerships and networks.

None of this is new, of course. Advanced skills teachers and heads of the now-abolished beacon schools had a mission to share expertise. But neither group was told how to do it. So how can heads help teachers and schools to learn from each other? Try time, money and trust. Give teachers a role in planning the process and nurturing a staff learning culture. Also, recognise that this is not a process in which a "learner" picks up the pearls of wisdom scattered by an "expert".

So says Michael Fielding of Sussex university, who reported recently on "joint practice development" between schools. He prefers that phrase to "transfer of good practice" because it acknowledges the mutuality of the process.

Successful collaboration "is worthwhile, but also complex and challenging".

Teachers know the jargon and can parrot the contents of a course, but deep learning requires more. Heads must realise that once a teacher starts working with another it could take years to adapt their practice, says Professor Fielding, whose work was funded by the Government and carried out with the Demos think-tank. It is particularly true if they are trying out a strategy that requires them to relate to students in a different way, or challenges their assumptions about teaching and learning.

"We are talking about building up trust and understanding, and gradually being able to be open and to share. That isn't going to happen because a teacher is instructed to do it, nor is it going to happen instantly," he says.

There are examples of a head announcing that a member of staff is below par and hiring a superteacher to sort them out.

"This ignores the importance of listening to both parties, a presumption on the part of a manager that they know what the problem is and can just wheel someone in. The stuff we saw that seemed to resonate, to produce good work, was where a teacher came to identify her own needs."

But teachers have long been isolated in classrooms, rarely seeing anyone else do the job. "You don't necessarily know what you are good at, and you need professional companionship and another set of eyes to help you understand what you do," he says.

Such companionship is blooming at one Bristol school, nurtured by Yvonne Roberts, the head. All 16 teachers at Blaise primary are in coaching partnerships. The pairs identify their aims, then spend half a day, six times a year, in each other's classroom with time later to reflect on what they saw. It improves communication and practice and helps to overcome isolation.

"Staff are often in little boxes, and you need to try to open up the boxes for them to widen their perspective," says Mrs Roberts.

Unlike other monitoring, this is "non-confrontational, based on equality, trust and honesty, and of mutual benefit". Heads should give as many teachers as possible the chance to coach, says Ms Cordingley, otherwise the excellent staff just carry on getting more excellent.

"Being required to coach someone else makes you think about something quite profoundly because you need to understand it to communicate it. Teachers who coach tend to coach a lot of people, so they are getting multiple perspectives on the same thing and learning all the time."

The same happens at school level. A successful primary working with another school is constantly forced to re-examine and explain its own practice.

"You can't learn how to do it on your own - you need each other," says Professor Fielding. Yet "badging" effective schools can be a hindrance, he says. It seems sensible to advertise a school's strengths, but there is a downside. These schools win more money and status, and more time for staff to reflect on their practice.

"You're pumping up that institution but the ones they are supposed to work with are feeling rather deflated. You are starting with a deficit model."

ASTs, with their "superteacher" badge, risk working with "rather deflated"

people. "Often we are called in because there is a problem and people see us as a threat," says Frances Holloway, a languages AST at Bishops Park college in Clacton, Essex.

"It is vital to work together to overcome that."

Mrs Holloway and three AST colleagues did break down the barriers in a project organised by the county's curriculum adviser. The team worked in the languages department of another secondary, with each member going in for one day a week for half a term.

"It would have been a bit intimidating if we had descended en masse like the four horsemen of the apocalypse," she says.

The project was a success - partly because the curriculum adviser had gone in first, built up trust and clarified the aims and potential benefits for everyone.

"We gave them lots of ideas and input, then left them to adopt or reject as they saw fit," says Mrs Holloway. "It's not about making someone into a carbon copy of you. It's about giving them a repertoire to choose from."

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