The wizardry of Oz

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Peer coaching by teachers in Australia has radically changed some of their classroom practices. Nic Barnard reports

To teachers it may look like a staffroom, but to Julie Kerr in Melbourne, it's a debriefing session. Ms Kerr, co-ordinator for a network of 10 primary and secondary schools in and around the Australian city's Malvern suburb, is commenting on the success of an initiative which is attempting to turn teacher training into sustained change.

The programme involves teachers in "peer coaching", pairing up to work in a structured way to address issues in their classroom practice. Ms Kerr says it has helped create a new culture in schools where teachers talk more openly about problems they face and share ideas and tips. "You see teachers sitting and chatting," she says of staffrooms in the cluster's schools.

"They're coaching without realising it."

The network, called Merging Minds, is part of a state-wide initiative by the Victorian government to tackle a familiar problem - the tendency for pupils to slip back in the early years of secondary. Under the AU$84 million (pound;36m) Innovation and Excellence programme, Merging Minds was given $300,000 (Pounds 130,000) over three years.

After long discussion, network leaders settled on a peer coaching parallel programme of action research, where staff develop and evaluate their own pilot schemes. It follows research in Australia and the United States that suggested traditional professional development programmes often improved teacher knowledge, but failed to deliver changes in classroom practice.

When teachers were also coached and supported, new ideas were much more likely to be put into effect.

Across the network, 90 teachers have now been trained in peer coaching techniques, which include listening and communication skills. Unlike traditional mentoring programmes, it's confidential and works to an agenda set by the teacher being coached. It is also divorced from any formal assessment programmes. The network funds release time for coaches to observe lessons. They may even be junior to the "coachee".

"They're not experts," says Ms Kerr. "They're there to help people ask the right questions so they can clarify what they want to do and then be supported through it."

Some teachers may want to tweak an aspect of their classroom technique and need only a couple of sessions; others want radically to change their teaching and spend a year.

At Lloyd Street primary, Marcus van Denham turned to Janet Williams when he took over his first infants' class. In his second year of teaching, he was worried about the way he switched between activities in Victoria's equivalent of the literacy hour. "It almost became team teaching," he says.

"Rather than just sitting there, Janet would take a group and I'd stretch my ear and get ideas."

The peer relationship lent an informality that both found helpful. "I never felt Janet was coming in to scrutinise me," Mr van Denham says. "I wanted feedback but it was never a case of hoping she wouldn't bring something up."

Ms Williams says she's mentored staff, but coaching was a new experience.

In her role overseeing a new curriculum, she says it's helped staff introduce ideas "without fear of being judged" and created a spirit of collaboration.

At nearby Malvern central school, principal Judi Gurvich wants all her staff to participate and has built release time into her budget to allow the scheme to continue after funding ends. She expects her teachers to keep a coaching journal: "That journal is private, but I'd like feedback about what they've got out of the process and how their teaching has changed."

Ms Kerr says the network has changed dramatically the way schools spend money on professional development. "In the past, they've got expensive speakers in or sent people off to expensive conferences. We still need that, but money is being spent at the classroom level far more than before."

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