Coaching about Teaching Practice: Findings from Emerging Research

Alex Guedes is Head of Learning at Thomas Carr College in Melbourne. He is completing doctoral studies on the effect of coaching on building teacher capacity at the University of Melbourne where his research is being supervised by Professor John Hattie. Following a recent conversation GCI invited Alex to respond to some questions about his research…

What got you started researching coaching in education?

My interest in researching educational coaching has grown over time, I can remember during my Masters studies developing a passion for professional development and teacher learning, what I have always enjoyed most about working with teachers is discussing pedagogy and it is this professional dialogue which I have come to find the most fascinating aspect of my role in my school.

When we were introduced to the GROWTH coaching model within our school the aim was to promote an open and ongoing conversation around learning and teaching, as teachers our work can often be very isolated and coaching can “open the doors” to our classrooms, allowing teachers to share their practice and discuss strategies with peers in a solution focused way. The ability of the coaching model to support implementation of strategies was by far its greatest drawcard, I had always found that as a teacher learning a strategy was nowhere near as difficult as implementing it and coaching has allowed our teachers to apply strategies and receive feedback which continues to spur them on to refine their practice.

Coaching in our school setting has helped to facilitate honest and individualised opportunities for teachers to take the time and really delve into professional conversations further, I have had many positive experiences seeing teachers come to those “light-bulb” moments, and it was these moments which have fascinated me and sparked my interest to know more, culminating in the creation of my doctoral study. I have been very fortunate to have a supportive school which has welcomed my research and although the culture of the school is now distinctly different from when coaching was first introduced I wouldn’t say that the school has achieved all that we aimed for so far with our coaching program but we are definitely on the journey towards those goals.

What is your central research question?

My research question is: What effect does the coaching model of professional development have on the building of teacher capacity?

My question and focus emerged from my interest in the coaching outcomes for teachers, I wanted to draw special attention towards the effect coaching was having on the teacher’s capacity, if the research highlights that coaching can be a catalyst for individual change how does it tackle the building of the teacher’s capacity to address all the challenges teachers face every day. Capacity is a complex blend of skills that allows a teacher to make hundreds of decisions daily in their role. Through the coaching conversations, the coaches help to conceptualise teaching practice, the coaching model helps teachers reflect on their work and the role of the coach helps them to gain feedback on their implementation of strategies in the classroom which further drive their professional practice to set new goals and strive for new highs.

Arriving at my research question was quite a journey, I revised the question numerous times as words I thought were quite innocuous often brought their own unexpected challenges and took me in directions which I did not wish to pursue. Each word in the question has required careful attention, the meanings of the different words in the question has had consequences for the literature that the project has drawn from and refocusing these to settle on a question which covers the central aspects of why I am undertaking the study has been tricky.

What did you actually do to investigate all this?

When setting out to design the study and which tools to use I was greatly influenced by Thomas Guskey’s model of “The Five Critical Levels of Professional Development.” Evaluating the effected of professional development programs is problematic, due to the plethora of strategies that may be in play within a school context at any one given time. In order to address this challenge I have approached the study by implementing three key data collection tools which aim to triangulate the data of the study, a questionnaire, an interview and two classroom observations.

The questionnaire features both Likert scale and open ended questions, questions for the Likert scale focus on the coaching program’s design and delivery and they seek to find out more about the effect that the program has had on teachers in their day to day interactions. The open ended questions seek the narrative around these and look to anonymously understand the often sensitive information regarding the substance of the coaching conversations in and around practice. The interview questions, delve deeper into the experiences of coaches and coachees by seeking to understand the relationships they have and the forms of support teachers were afforded from the feedback of their coach on the implementation of classroom strategies. Finally the observations will allow me to gather data around the implementation into the classroom of the practice and how the support of a coach has helped the teacher embed the strategy.

The study involves approximately 30 participants and includes both coaches and coachees but as I have begun to collect the data other staff have expressed their interest in also taking part so the final number may be higher than this.

What findings are emerging?

The data so far is showing staff are in general seeing the benefits that coaching has had especially around a greater refocusing of conversations on learning and teaching in the school and the teacher’s impact in the classroom. The data also shows a number of comments that highlight a distinct change in the conversation with a visible focus on learning and teaching. The supportive nature of having a coach observe and provide feedback on strategies has meant teachers who are implementing ‘new things’ and those refining their practice, can discuss their successes and challenges in an ongoing and structured way.

Comments have also emerged around how coaching has helped improve the conversation around teaching practice, teachers are showing a willingness and desire to discuss practice and be involved in discussions about their teaching, a very encouraging sign where improvement is concerned. The data is showing that teachers are thinking more around evidence of their impact with a large majority stating they are thinking more about their impact in the classroom and what evidence they collect to show how they have engaged and improved the outcomes for their students, teachers are not only considering ‘how well did I teach’ but also ‘how well did students learn’.

The data has also surfaced some of the challenges the program faces, a common concern about the lack of time and incompatibility of timetables to schedule coaching sessions is coming through the data, participants would welcome more time for coaching conversations with their coaches however the realities of a busy school environment means the “pressing immediacy” of the teacher’s role does continue to affect their ability to take the time to reflect with their coach.

The question of who is a coach has also raised a challenge, having a coach who is confident in their role and through their experience facilitates a relationship conducive to discussion is key, the “way of being” of each coach and the relationships they have with their staff has implications which are showing to be a significant difference in how teachers and coaches have responded to the program and how teachers within the school have perceived the program as a whole. This has raised a number of responses around who are the coaches and a desire to choose their coach rather than assigning of a coach based on experience, knowledge or training.

Have there been any ‘aha’ moments about coaching that have emerged along the way?

It has been a pleasant surprise to see positive responses around the question of coaching effect on student outcomes, though these are not a central focus in my research question, positive comments are peppered throughout the responses I have received so far, with some teachers noticing higher student engagement and testing results as a result of the implementation of various learning and teaching strategies through their supportive coach. In implementing a change in practice in their classroom and refining these strategies with the help of a coach, teachers are able to take a risk and try something they may not have previously, which is translating into positive feedback from their students.

GCI is grateful to Alex for taking the time to share these insights from his doctoral research. You can follow Alex on Twitter or contact him via email.

Alex, along with other doctoral students studying coaching in education, will be presenting his research findings at the upcoming Coaching in Education Research Seminar in Sydney on November 19th 2015. Click here to learn more about this event. There are still a few places available but numbers are limited and interested participants will need to make an application to attend. This is a complimentary workshop hosted by GCI.

Coaching Resource Library