Peers and partners
What can a modern languages teacher learn from a history teacher or an art teacher, and vice versa? Quite a lot, according to Gill Wheeler, head of languages at Horbury School, West Yorkshire.
Since 2003 she has been involved in a peer coaching scheme, and Gill Wheeler is enthusiastic about its potential for improving teaching. She was trained in the peer coaching model and last year conducted a pilot with an advanced skills teacher, her colleague Alicia Slimon from the history department. Gill chose to focus on a lower set Year 9 French group with some challenging students, and the pair decided to develop their roles as group-work facilitators.
After signing a confidentiality agreement they opted for a "deep end" approach and each videoed the other's lesson. No special preparations were made, the idea being that this was an honest and realistic assessment, where positive aspects could be praised and flaws highlighted. After discussion, the colleagues planned a series of lessons for both their Year 9 classes together.
Gill liked Alicia's idea of using speaking frames to prompt discussions and has now integrated these into her teaching. For example, when pupils are describing their town they have cards with starting points, such as "A Wakefield il y a" and "Ce que j'aime le plus c'est". Pupils use these to formulate speaking answers in pairs and then present them to their group.
Pupils give one another feedback talking about it using their own level descriptors, which takes away the pressure of speaking in front of the whole class.
Gill also used an idea from her history colleague to show examples of poor, mid and excellent versions of a similar booklet. When planning a tourist brochure the poor example was presented on one page of A4 in black and white with very little thought for presentation and little content suited to tourists. The mid brochure had better content, but was over-done with too much information taken from the internet and just thrown together. The best one was well presented, concise and useful. The pupils could immediately see what was expected of them. The discussion that followed was thought-provoking and Gill feels that low-ability pupils benefit greatly from this kind of support.
Over five lessons the Year 9 set wrote a booklet together and took part in co-operative group work for the first time; having agreed their own ground rules helped immensely. The project is now part of the scheme of work for Year 9 and Gill has spread the benefits of her experience to her languages colleagues.
Gill feels very positive about this form of training: "It's great to have a fresh pair of eyes to see what's going on within the school and to use the vast resource of untapped talent in other colleagues."
Gill also appreciated the opportunity to see a colleague in another department and to be praised and observed. She has now extended this scheme to the whole staff. Last term she is worked with Sam Gibbs, an art teacher, and this time they concentrated on behaviour management with their Year 8 classes.
Sam says: "I like the honesty involved. It's not a senior member of staff in my classroom, but someone I've chosen to be there, so I feel more relaxed." Sam now uses starter and more varied activities to break up her lessons, having learned from the languages model.
For peer coaching to work, you need a supportive senior management and a trusted colleague, not necessarily a friend. Trust and honesty are seen as the foundations of this most effective method of professional development.
Could this replace traditional in-service courses in the future?
According to Mike Hughes in Tweak to Transform: "Of all the changes that are taking place in education, the shift in emphasis from Inset to peer coaching is potentially the most exciting and significant."
It doesn't involve a day off school and a nice lunch, but it could seriously improve your teaching.
Wendy Adeniji teaches at Leeds University School of Education