The Next Coach to Development City

A big part of my non-teaching job now involves supporting and developing teachers as a trainer and as an Advanced Teaching & Learning Coach. And this support can be one of the most challenging parts of my job, either as mentor or as a coach. There’s an interesting post about the distinction between mentoring and coaching here ( which did get me thinking about the difference between mentoring and coaching, and I think Cathy talks about it better than I could, especially about the power implications of some of those process.

Rather than distinguishing between coaching and mentoring, I think another way of looking at would be to think about breadth and depth.

By breadth I mean that we can have lots of little effects on people. Like a hose spraying water across a garden, every plant improves a little bit. I like this work. It’s activity like cascading or disseminating ideas developed or gathered from elsewhere, training sessions and the majority of teacher training.

The “depth” approach is what would probably come under most people’s definitions of coaching: intensive one to one work with individuals following a “plan >; action >; reflection” sort of approach: a monitored and controlled cycle of experiential learning. There are a number of models, but for the most part they seem to me to be variations on a theme, often with funky diagrams or interesting acronyms. This usually happens as a response to, or in preparation for graded lesson observation.

In these contexts, it is very often a case of “teaching to the test.” You look at the “pass/merit/distinction” criteria, or in this case “needs improvement/good/outstanding” You identify the gaps between those criteria and where the individual is. You work to address those gaps, and in theory, the exam passes / observation grades improve. This then raises the same question about learning as it does when we discuss teaching to the test: to what extent is real development/learning happening? After, say, two months coaching following a grade 4 lesson observation, which of the changes put in place are anything other than one off performances? I ask the question because I have doubts about the impact of a graded observation on teacher development, and it is this “test” which raises my question, not the quality or impact of “depth” coaching.

This, however, is really focussing on the graded lesson observation, and that, in many cases, is the only time this kind of one to one work ever happens. Wouldn’t it be good if one to one support happened all the time?

In many of the health professions there is a process known as “clinical supervision.” Here, the focus is on reflection and development, and involves a regular, non-judgmental meeting to discuss practice and share ideas and thoughts, develop and grow professionally. It’s a more considerate, non-punitive type of support whether with a peer or a superior, and not based directly on performance management measures (which is dealt with separately). It is often very much part of the culture of those professions, built into the training and attitudes at all levels.

There is a third way.

Institutions spend big chunks of their staff development budget on external events or on training sessions (sometimes from external trainers), information from which rarely, if ever, gets cascaded. Instead, I wonder how much improvement they would be able to show if they spent their entire budget on opportunities for peer support and joint practice development? It needs structure, for sure: give teachers a bunch of time to spend as they will and, with the best will in the world, that time will get used up in a hundred ways which aren’t development. But structure is possible, for example the Teaching Squares idea, and there is a growing body of research which suggests that developing communities of practice and joint practice development lead to much greater improvement than cascade/disseminate models. We can even tick a box: “set up small communities of practice” could be used as a departmental or even college level development goal.

The benefit of this kind of peer support/joint practice development is that it has qualities of both the “breadth” and the “depth” approaches: it helps develop the culture of sharing and community learning, but also has the clear shorter term impact of identifying what might work for you (rather than the somewhat naive perception that good practice is something which can be pulled off the shelf) and then putting it into practice. Try this, try that, reflect and discuss. It sets in patterns of behaviours where discussions and sharing of practice/ideas become part of the way in which teachers work, rather than working in isolated silos.


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