Teacher peer coaching: a story of trust, agency and enablers

By Professor Rachel Lofthouse, Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University, UK.
Founder of @CollectivED1 the hub for mentoring and coaching.

This is a good news story in terms of teacher collaboration from The Hermitage Academy, a North-East Teaching School in the United Kingdom. The Academy has deliberately and steadily built a culture of teacher collaboration. It is not perfect, but it is tangible. Here we focus on the contribution of teacher coaching to the collaborative culture. At Hermitage teacher peer-coaching is in its third year with a coaching development programme running to support each cohort of new coaches and coachees. All participants are volunteers and each coaching partnership involves teachers working across subjects. Our roles (the authors, a university-based educational researcher and a senior leader in the school) are to design and facilitate the coaching development programme, to ensure coaching becomes operational in the school and to create meaningful opportunities for formative evaluation and coaching development. Most recently this has been achieved through an interim review to which all current participants contributed. It is this evidence that we draw upon to suggest some of the reasons for the successes so far.

Coaching at Hermitage seems to be a ‘feel good’ activity, and this is not to be sniffed at. Coaching has been established in such a way that it builds on and further enhances the trust that exists between colleagues. This was highlighted by the teachers as a note-worthy characteristic. Megan Tschannen-Moran1 makes a strong case for trust as critical for building healthy relationships and positive school climates, and suggests that between teachers this can evolve from a stance of ‘empathy and inquiry’. Coaching conversations at Hermitage have been framed around this stance – participants are asked to engage in non-judgemental professional dialogue and appreciate that this may be different from many other episodes of observation and feedback. In their review the teachers stated that they were “not frightened to make mistakes” are willingly “more experimental” and work in a “problem-solving mode, with a focus on teaching and learning and trying to do what is best for the students”.

In busy school environments it is easy to find reasons not to engage in something new or voluntary, so how coaching feels matters - as without enjoyment resistance would develop. In their review teachers reported enjoying building relationships through coaching, getting to know people in other departments and knowing more about their work. Coaches stated that they felt good about having learned more about teaching and learning by acting as a coach and were taking this learning into their own practice. The coaching relationships produced a growing collective sense of where expertise and areas of interest resided in the staff. This is reported as having spin-off benefits, with new and productive collaborations in teaching and learning emerging organically.

At even this basic level it could be said that coaching is contributing to teachers’ agency. Mark Priestley2 has written about this in his BERA blog post, reminding us that a focus on the individual capacity of teachers might overlook the significance of the ‘social context for teachers’ professional work’. The teachers were keen to extend this further, by actively bringing coaching participants together more often as a group to share what was being learned and developed in practice. In 2015 The Sutton Trust produced a report called ‘Developing Teachers; Improving professional development for teachers’3 . One of their conclusions was the significance of collaboration at two levels – between schools in a school-led self-improving system, and also between individual teachers engaging in professional learning activities. Our recent research into teachers’ experiences of collaboration4 reveals why collaboration might be so valuable. Collaboration for the development of their teaching practices allowed teachers and student teachers to engage in informed decision-making and to construct a shared understanding of the nature of desired learning outcomes for students and how these might be achieved in their own contexts.

As evidenced in an earlier BERA blog5 (p4) coaching does not always live up to its promise, but so far Hermitage seem be to resolving tensions that can exist in managerial systems. In our review we considered the extent to which the practice was supported by enablers for effective professional conversations as described by Helen Timperley6. She described the importance of resources, processes, knowledge, relationships and culture in enabling teachers to ‘examine the effectiveness of their practice and be committed to appropriate changes for improvement’. This might best be summed up by a group in our review who stated that the vision for coaching at the school was to create a “collaborative problem-solving culture to enable all teachers and pupils to be successful”.

This think piece was first published by BERA

Over to you. Think back – think forward.
One way to look at the resources of a school is to consider the different forms of ‘capital’ that it holds. Alongside buildings and finance there is social and intellectual capital, but these can either be high or low. Successful coaching could be considered to create greater social and intellectual capital. In your school, how would you judge this? If you consider these forms of capital to be growing through coaching how are you using and mobilising it to maximise its beneficial impacts? In other words, what is the organisational feedforward from individual coaching?