As we approach the end of the Academic year, it’s the inevitable time of looking back and reviewing the year whilst thinking of next steps. For myself, this involves intense reflection of our whole school Instructional coaching programme using Steplab which we launched in September 2022, pairing staff across school to complete a short lesson drop in and feedback session within fortnightly cycles. 9 months on, there is much to celebrate. Pairs of teachers regularly meeting to discuss teaching practice and give each other small incremental action steps which they then model and rehearse together is embedded as routine. Culture is changing and staff who would perhaps never have interacted before have built relationships where they are getting to the nitty gritty of how to make their teaching more effective. A staff survey earlier on in the year showed 90% of staff felt that Instructional Coaching was having a positive impact on their teaching, with myriads of examples of this in practice, something which has since been triangulated in book looks and lesson drop ins as well. Obviously though, there is still much work to be done. There have been lots of lessons learnt from our implementation of coaching what is needed to make it more successful next year as we build on the successes of this year. In this post I hope to share some of our decisions around implementation, what has worked well and changes we will make. If you’re contemplating, or in the process of this journey I hope this post will give you some pointers to think about and some potential pitfalls to avoid. This obviously comes with the caveat that all contexts are different and this is not a how-to guide! I’m also not going to go into detail here about why we have chosen to implement Instructional coaching or our decision making process – catch one of our Steplab hub days for more on this!
- Our planning and piloting has been invaluable. I do believe much of the ease with which we moved to whole-school coaching has been because of the careful long-term planning we undertook over the last couple of years. This included ensuring we had a shared language of good teaching and using small groups of volunteer pilot coaches who could then help lead training of others and spot potential problems with the roll out. Attention to detail was paramount here, and with inspiration from Harry Fletcher Wood’s quote “Everyone has a plan until they are put on cover”, as well as using the EEF Implementation plan I wrote a risk register, considering which parts of my plan might go wrong and what contingencies I could put in place to ensure the roll-out still happened smoothly. In addition, we also spent 18 months normalising a culture of visiting each other’s lessons through positive drop ins, a key feature of Steplab which I wrote about previously here. We also spent time talking to staff frequently about the evidence around what works in professional development, using the EEF guide for example. I ensured by launch day, staff knew the “why” of coaching, the evidence which sat behind it and why we felt it was right for our school context. It was important to articulate to staff that this was a strategy with a long term thought process behind it, not an attempt to grab the latest shiny fad from Twitter.
- The pairing of coach/coachee has been a real learning curve. We told staff from the outset that they would never be in a coaching pair with their line manager. This was a deliberate move away from any judgement-based lesson drop-in which staff may have experienced previously. We also felt this would help reinforce buy-in with staff as they built relationships with someone they may not have worked with before; teaching staff with no other motivation than to help each other become better teachers. The knock on effect of this has been that some coaching pairs are in different subjects, although I tried to ensure practical subjects were paired together for example. This has meant that some staff have felt the coaching has sometimes been hampered by lack of subject and curriculum knowledge. Meanwhile, other staff were really positive about the way they get to see other subjects in action, resulting in some real benefits. There is no doubt that some aspects of teaching transcend subjects but I acknowledge that this is not always appropriate. Therefore, an attempt will be made to try and reverse the decisions made for next year, with staff coached out of subject this year coached within subject next year. Another important factor here has been timetables, and as we work on a fortnightly cycle (drop-in one week, feedback the next), where staff have been paired with only one potential slot to visit lessons, this has sometimes meant cycles have been missed. Illness, strike days and bank holidays have all had an impact and whilst I have offered to cover parts of lessons myself to make visits work, this has not always been possible. For September, I want staff to spend more time in their initial meeting considering whether their pairing works practically. If timetables don’t support effective coaching it’s best to discover and swap pairs at this point rather than half-way through the year.
- The training of coaches is crucial. Our pilot coaches were trained on a weekly programme for half a term, with repetition of modelling, practising coaching conversations in front of each other and lots of discussion. This was not possible with a teaching staff of over 80 and precious little directed time. Hence our coaching in September was led through loom recorded sessions by myself, with opportunities to pause the video and reflect and answer questions, and directed time given in lieu of completing this. To ensure accountability I produced a google form knowledge check and held some drop-in sessions for staff who wanted more individual support. New staff who started after September could also still access this training so consequently induction has been fairly smooth. This amount of training however is far from ideal and whilst all staff did complete this, I do think much more ongoing training is still needed. Aspects of the coaching cycle such as deliberate practice are really tricky at first and I perhaps underestimated what a huge shift this would be for some staff used to more traditional CPD. We complemented training with Breakfast Bite sessions on good coaching conversations with videos of good practice, and made an effort to build our whole school CPD around deliberate practice whenever possible and this will continue next year. Moving forward, Steplab’s new Coaching Skills Builder will support ongoing training in this area. One important area of focus will be around the responsiveness of the coach to the discussion in the pairs and being adaptive to the needs of the coachee. At times the conversation may need to be quite directive, in others the conversation can be much more open and facilitative and this is something I’d like to explore in more detail with staff.
- Contracting and time to meet initially before starting the coaching cycles was incredibly helpful. I owe the brilliant Sam Gibbs a huge debt of gratitude here as the first person to make me really think about a contract. Staff met in our next directed time slot in September to agree some goals and start to build their relationship. The first section lays some ground rules and expectations around the purpose of coaching, confidentiality and the non-judgemental aims of coaching. There is a reminder that there is no “secret spreadsheet” of judgements and that the process of coaching will feel new but coaches should both agree to commit 100% to the process. The second section covers preparations, with both sides agreeing where they will meet, how they will let each other know if they are not in school and other practical arrangements. Lastly, there is a section on the contract for staff to agree their big teaching goals. We felt it was important for staff to have a say about the areas they themselves felt they wanted support to improve in and that coaching was not something done to them, but guided by their improvement goals. Both members of staff are asked to sign this contract to show that these conversations have taken place, setting the scene for an effective coaching relationship.
- Part of the planning involved really careful thought about how the coaching would be monitored, the use of directed time and the practical implementation of making coaching work with a busy timetable. Directed time for coaching feedback has been calendared for the whole academic year, always on a Thursday after school, with coaching drop-ins happening in staff PPA time. Briefings remind staff whether this is the drop-in or feedback week in the cycle and I am religious about accountability and ensuring the coaching is happening. Steplab has an excellent page for Leads to monitor coaching and enables “nudges” and “praise” messages to be sent to coaches. Obviously staff will inevitably be unable to complete cycles during the year for various reasons, but this feature enables me to have detailed oversight and make sure that there is continued momentum for staff staying up to date with coaching. Our Appraisal targets have been amended so that one target is focused solely around “engagement with Instructional coaching” as well as a commitment to CPD as a whole. Staff will articulate in the review process the impact coaching has had on their teaching, and line management leads will be able to view the engagement over the year.
- Gathering feedback from staff has been crucial. Our first review point was after the first term and we asked staff to give us detailed feedback on the practical arrangements, impact on their teaching, whether it was having more of a positive impact than previous CPD/QA systems and other practical questions for example around when pairs would be swapped. This was incredibly helpful to know whether we were on the right track and some of the responses were actually really moving! Staff articulated the habits they had broken through coaching; everything from having more thought out scaffolding, improving their use of cold-call to ensuring they scanned the room whilst being on the door as students enter the room. When we asked staff about the best things about Instructional Coaching they responded: “the constant support and time to practise improvements”, having ongoing development CPD with a colleague I didn’t know before and have learnt lots from” and comments like “having a coaching partner talking with me rather than a line-manager telling me what to do.” One member of staff responded “This year’s CPD has been the best I have ever received as a teacher.” Improvements related to the subject specific aspect of coaching from some staff, as well as the inevitable time to complete the lesson drop-ins, something I don’t know how to improve! What we have committed to as an SLT is a real concerted effort to remove things from a teacher’s to-do list to make coaching a priority and it’s clear our staff recognise this.
Moving forward with our plans for next year, it’s clear that there has been much which has worked really well this year and can be built on as we restart in September. We’ve learnt important lessons from some early errors this year, and will be tweaking certain aspects of the implementation moving forward. We also look forward to increasing our use of Steplab’s video feature to improve coaching feedback conversations and building more training into our CPD calendar. We will continue to encourage Middle leaders to use the data available on Steplab to plan responsive CPD based on the action steps given to their staff, something which we have begun recently. We will also need to ensure smooth induction continues of new staff, as well as those staff finishing their ECT programmes as they transition to beginning to coach another member of staff. Pairings need to be really carefully thought through so if you see eating copious amounts of haribo, looking frazzled in July, this is why! Our coaching implementation has been far from perfect, but overall I believe it’s been the right move for our context, built upon the secure foundations of a long and careful planning process. As I have often repeated in my ResearchEd sessions, it is certainly no silver bullet but for us this is no new shiny fad either. It’s a deeply thought-through commitment to the best possible professional development for the staff who work here.
If you’re interested in finding out more, please get in touch with Steplab to come and visit us on one of our hub days.