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By Tom Sherrington

Intro Text:

The concept of Instructional Coaching appears to be gaining currency as a tool for supporting and driving professional development in schools. Tom Sherrington explains just why this is exciting and offers his thoughts on how to get started.

As with many other ideas in education, instructional coaching has been around for a long time but, for multiple reasons, it has recently found new prominence in the discourse around CPD in the UK, with lots of people writing blogs about it, running training events and generally promoting the idea.

In my view this is excellent news because it means that, as a system, we’re thinking harder about how to improve the quality of teaching without relying on heavy-handed observation protocols, checklists and non-negotiables; it means we’re finally breaking free from the legacy of graded inspection lessons which still casts a shadow across the whole profession; and it means more people recognise that their showpiece CPD events are not remotely sufficient for driving improvement: something significant needs to happen in between. 

Across the system, there are several different definitions of instructional coaching in use,  some more precise and prescriptive than others. I favour a fairly loose, flexible definition. Essentially it is a process whereby a knowledgeable, experienced practitioner establishes an ongoing coaching relationship with a teacher colleague, engaging in a series of iterative discussion and observation cycles over several months, supporting them and guiding them as needed, so that they secure gains in student learning through embedding more successful strategies and habits into their practice. It’s a very different concept from the standard diet of a few ‘formal’ lesson observations with their detailed feedback sheets – often written by different people several months apart or the ‘feedback in your inbox’ approach where leaders give feedback to people without even talking to them first. 

Instructional coaching is about supporting continual incremental improvement. It’s not a soft or light approach but depends on forming a professional relationship and dialogue over multiple interactions to drive it forward. There’s a balance of guidance and support which allows schools to talk about the processes in a universal whole-staff manner rather than seeing it as something only for the least proficient teachers or, conversely, the most advanced and experienced.  

In my definition which borrows largely from Jim Knight, a leading practitioner in the US, instructional coaching is highly adaptable. It can be facilitative, where a teacher has the capacity to self-reflect and diagnose fruitful areas for improving their practice alongside good bets for the action steps they will take to address them. Here the coach can be a sounding board, keeping things on track but essentially putting the teacher firmly in the driving seat. However, it can also be quite directive where a teacher isn’t yet able to

accurately identify where problems or solutions lie. Here the coach needs to support the teacher to see where things can improve and to suggest specific techniques they might deploy in response. 

The skills that an instructional coach needs are largely around having both the knowledge of what effective teaching looks like, de-constructed and codified into actionable steps a teacher can take – along with the interpersonal communication skills needed to select the most productive point along the facilitative-directive continuum. 

In my work I always point people to two key texts to support their understanding of this process.  

The first is Practice with Purpose by Deans for Impact – subtitled The Emerging Science of Teacher Expertise.  They set out a five-point process that is necessary for securing teacher expertise and I think this underpins the value of the instructional coaching process. Here’s my commentary on it: 

Push ‘just’ beyond Teachers only improve if they make a conscious, intentional plan to walk into a classroom and teach differently to how they did before – otherwise they can’t and don’t improve. Good processes need to get under the skin of this, motivating teachers to try things; to make a change. 
Specific GoalsIt’s important to practise specific aspects of teaching. You improve in specific ways, not general ways. Essentially this is the entire basis for our walkthrus concept – defining the things teachers do. The trick is to identify techniques that have the greatest impact on students’ learning. 
FocusCPD needs to motivate teachers to sustain a focus on a few areas of practice so that they give themselves a chance to really improve. This means filtering out a lot of the possible things a teacher might do. 
High Quality FeedbackEven highly self-evaluative teachers can benefit from feedback but it needs to be trusted to be received. Teachers absolutely need to be involved in the generation of  feedback but expert observers can provide insights. 
Mental Model All along the way, teachers should be formulating and deepening a model for why things work or don’t work with a strong basis in a conceptual model for how learning happens.  We don’t do things because we’re told or because we always have – we do them because they secure learning. 

Instructional coaching allows a teacher and their coach to get stuck into all five of these areas – identifying what the ‘push beyond’ steps might be, keeping the focus on specific goals, generating high quality feedback in a trusted co-constructed manner, linking everything to model that gives the decisions a deep rationale rooted in a shared understanding of how learning happens

The second key text is Paul Bambrick-Santoyo’s work on teacher feedback, as described in his book Leverage Leadership.  He outlines six key features of effective feedback in a coaching scenario where the coach and teacher meet to exchange ideas and co-plan the next steps.  

Provide Precise PraiseThe idea is to avoid the language of judgement or to reinforce the nebulous idea that practice is general and non-specific. ‘The way you engaged Michael, getting him to respond well to your modelling of the writing task, worked well’.  It’s very specific. 
ProbeProbing questions focus a teacher’s attention on the key area of their practice. “How you think Jennifer was doing with those harder problems?” We avoid more open questions ( ‘How do you think the lesson went?’) because that widens out the scope for the evaluation when we’re trying to foster a more focused approach. 
Identify problem and concrete action stepThis is the central part of the process. In a directive or consultative style appropriate for the teacher, specific action steps must be identified linked to specific issues.  These are the agreed actions that will be followed up on. 
PractiseBambrick Santoyo suggests “Great teaching is not learned through discussion. It’s learned by doing… by practicing doing things well. The implication is that, as part of the instructional coaching/ feedback process the coach and teacher explore how the action step should be taken in detail, using modelling and practice activities. 
Plan aheadThe action steps need to be recorded for future reference. Did you do the things you said you were going to do? Ideally the teacher should own their own professional journey and the record of it – but their teacher coach should have access to it for reasons of communication and transparency. 
Set timelineThe final step in the feedback discussion is to agree a timescale. By next week? (In some cases). Four weeks? (More likely). Three months? (Too long.) Teachers and their coaches have lots of very light, lean, short interactions rather than a few heavy-duty interactions.

With these two frameworks in mind, schools then need to plan a process leading them towards implementing a full instructional coaching system over a sensible timeframe. It takes a school 2-3 years to get a good system fully up and running and even then you’ll be tweaking and refining it continually.  My five-step plan to establishing a coaching culture is as follows:

Ditch the judgement cultureWe need to think in terms of solving a teacher’s challenges – helping them to craft strategies, working alongside them.  Accountability driven judgement has to stop before coaching has a chance to take hold. 
Establish a framework for teaching and learningIt’s so important for teachers and coaches have a commonly understood reference point that lists and describes the available options when considering actions steps. Jim Knight calls this the ‘playbook’.  Our Walkthrus books are basically playbooks for coaching – and there are lots of other examples. 
Develop iterative CPD cycles and structuresIt’s important to have strong whole-school and team level CPD processes working where people meet at frequent intervals to plan and discuss common themes – for example around curriculum.  Coaching works best within a system where team-level CPD time is highly valued and has a similar iterative feeling, each meeting reflecting on progress since the previous one. 
Grow and develop a coaching teamThe team of coaches needs to be selected and developed over time.  Begin with a pioneer team who engage in training around coaching, developing their knowledge and communication skills, before a whole-school roll-out is considered.  An interim stage is a group coaching structure where several people are coached together. This is more time efficient and can be very productive in generating momentum. 
Transfer ownership to teachersUltimately, with a good coaching system under way, teachers should be trusted and empowered to drive it. They own the documentation; they make their own record of reflections and action steps and this feeds into their coaching discussions.  This is the opposite to when teachers are just on the receiving end of reports and feedback someone else writes. 

At first, it can seem like a big change with lots of structural demands and the need for a team of quite skilful coaches.  However, with small steps and a good long-term approach, a great many schools are moving in this direction with great success. There’s something liberating about the whole philosophy around instructional coaching that seems to motivate people whilst simultaneously delivering those incremental changes to teachers’ habits that have an impact on students week in week out. 

If you’re interested in finding more about it, grab hold of Jim Knight’s collection of books or take a look at  our walkthrus books and materials via www.walkthrus.co.uk  or the superb work done by Josh Goodridge and his colleages at https://powerfulactionsteps.education

Tom Sherrington