How incremental coaching could improve professional development at your school

The executive principal of a primary academy describes how a new approach to professional development has improved outcomes and explains how other schools can replicate the process

Damian McBeath

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Incremental coaching is all about developing great teachers. The process is led by an instructional lead teacher, who is themselves an outstanding practitioner.

Typically, in incremental coaching models, the instructional lead observes a lesson and then identifies one specific area, such as a technique, habit or skill, for further development. They then discuss this with the teacher during a short coaching conversation on the same day. Frequent, focused meetings are hallmarks of incremental coaching.

The instructional lead must focus their coaching on just that one key step, which then becomes a development target for the teacher. They need to identify what will make the biggest difference.

The following week, the instructional lead will observe whether the teacher has improved their practice, before moving on to the next step. These elements become habits, freeing up focus for teachers to think about further improvements.

Small changes

The steps can seem like minor things. For instance, it might be that the instructional lead notices the teacher can’t see the whole class from where she is standing. In their coaching discussion, they can talk about where they stand and how they hold themselves. These conversations take place in the classroom, so that they can walk the space together and practise positioning.

It might be that the teacher needs to work on their voice and how they project across the room. Or even something as simple as when it’s best to use open-ended questions versus non-open-ended questions. The emphasis on small, gradual improvements and the opportunity to rehearse delivery is what makes this process more effective than traditional coaching methods.

Incremental coaching is now very much a part of the culture at our school. Our staff meetings have completely changed — we now call them “masterclasses”, and teachers bring videos from their lessons to show what has worked well and what needs improvement.  

Focus on pedagogy

Teachers find it less intrusive and judgemental than the old system, in which a senior leader would observe them once every half-term and then follow up with a series of steps for improvement. Incremental coaching feels less critical, because it focuses on pedagogy, not personality and tackles issues one step at a time.  

However, implementing the process has not been a completely bump-free ride. When we first decided to replace our existing models, and told everyone that the instructional leads would be using video in the classrooms to capture observations, some parents and teachers had concerns. They wondered how exactly the video would be used. But once everybody saw it in action they could actually see how beneficial the new method was. As you are focussing on just one thing at a time, each small change or improvement became perfectly clear on those tapes.

This method of coaching has allowed us to have a significant push on teaching and learning without resorting to the pressure of increased monitoring visits. I don’t believe there is any irony in the fact that Ark Conway has seen incremental, but unmistakable, improvements in student outcomes since we started doing incremental coaching sessions with our teaching staff.

A report into incremental coaching has been commissioned by Ambition School Leadership and can be read here. Damian McBeath is the executive principal of Ark Conway Primary Academy and regional director for Ark Schools Primary in London.

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Damian McBeath

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