Coaching is to professional development as the word "the" is to English speakers. A familiar and vital tool, but about as hard to define as the ghost of a snowman in thick fog.
In some schools, it’s a euphemism for "the unpleasant process before you get your P45", in others, it’s "having a nice chat with the assistant head who read a book about coaching and thinks he’s an expert".
But coaching, done well, does have a real role to play in schools and is featured in many a good practice case study. Coaching, like religion, inspires a thousand different definitions and each sect believes that their approach is the One True Way. It’s therefore with no little trepidation that we offer this definition:
Coaching is the facilitation of a reflective conversation to stimulate learning and growth.
Outraged experts may now start throwing rotten tomatoes. For the rest of you, here’s four key ways to make it work in your school.
- Be aware of culture
Culture makes or breaks coaching. Coach and coachee have to trust each other if it’s going to work. The ultimate coaching sin is to only use it for staff deemed to be "failing" – a guaranteed way to make the term as toxic as a Black Widow spider. Make sure that everyone has an entitlement to engage at some point and that a mix of staff, including leaders, engage in it.
- Get some genuine expertise
Lots of us have experienced being observed and judged by someone who has no understanding of what or who we’re teaching. Coaching is a real skill and coaches should have significant expertise if the aim is to improve teaching practice. There’s a spectrum of coaching from content-agnostic to content-expert – the former focuses on stimulating reflection in the coachee, while the latter can carefully offer external, expert reflections.
- Consider the source
Interestingly, a 2015 meta-analysis by Jones, Woods and Guillaume suggested that the most effective coaches are not only trained but are from within your organisation rather than from expensive external agencies. We imagine that the researchers’ inboxes can’t have looked pretty after publishing this. It’s best when the coach isn’t your line manager to reduce the tension between accountability and development, however, this shouldn’t stop line managers from using coaching techniques within regular discussions and appraisal conversations.
- Coaching is more than collaboration
Talking is good! Collaboration is great. But you can’t turn these into coaching by just sticking a "coaching" label on them. Lots of forms of conversation and collaboration might use techniques similar to coaching (reflection, observing practice, observing student learning, etc) but are not actually the same process. A pig with lipstick is still just a pig. A chat labelled as coaching is still just a chat. Ultimately, research shows coaching can effectively improve performance and development. It’s worth doing it right.
Bridget Clay (@bridget89ec) and David Weston (@informed_edu) are, respectively, the director and CEO of the Teacher Development Trust. Find out more at TDTrust.org and look out for their forthcoming book, Unleashing Great Teaching