Effective Peer Coaching

To use the word ‘coach’ to describe an educational coach almost seems like a misnomer. The term ‘coach’ implies one person has skills and insight that the other does not. Terms like ‘supporter’ or ‘collaborator’ seem much more fitting. Modern coaches and their peers “are learning with and from each other, as they co-plan learning activities, model, team-teach, observe, and reflect. This is a collaborative relationship that requires meaningful discussions about ways to improve teaching and learning [that] are likely to challenge current practices.” (Foltos, 2013) In other words, coaching is not a one-way street where one party is being spoon-fed tips and tricks!

The balance between coaching and collaborating is one that needs to be set early in the relationship. As part of collaborative norms for coaching, Foltos suggests using the concept of ‘joint accountability.’ Joint accountability can only occur after coaching pairs have both explicitly committed to norms for both their individual and collective responsibilities. The scope of this accountability may change depending on the task at hand. Is the coaching relationship a year-long one? Or is the focus narrow to a specific unit or new technology implementation? The scope and purpose of the collaboration should guide the norms being established.

Having norms in place can prevent the type of spoon-feeding or learned helplessness that can arise when teachers misunderstand the purpose of an educational coach. What this looks like on a practical level is the use of probing questions to guide the teacher through inquiry. The role of the coach in solving a problem is to help the teacher think critically and perhaps consider the issue through a new lens. Ultimately, “the collaborating teacher develops the answer that he or she brings back to the classroom to implement… [drawing] on what he or she learned with and from the coach.” (Foltos, 2013)

Another element critical to the success of a peer coaching relationship is the willingness and commitment of the participating teacher. A successful coaching relationship can only exist when the participating teacher is “open to collaboration and want[s] to improve teaching and learning. The willingness to collaborate and improve is essential.” (Foltos, 2013) Just as it is with young students, buy-in is critical. A teacher must be in a position of wanting to learn and willing to try new things. Likewise, the coach should not enter the relationship with preconceived notions and solutions. 

Giving teachers voice and choice in the coaching process is essential. While many districts assign coaches to teachers, this is not the best practice. Teachers should never feel they are “being punished and forced to change.” (Foltos, 2013). Instead, teachers can be given opportunities to partner with coaches who are interested in collaboration. This is where the term ‘coach’ can hinder the success of educational coaching. Shifting away from the model of having a handful of “expert coaches” working with a large population of teachers, peer coaching can be much more accessible and amenable to teachers. For example, an English teacher can coach a Social Studies teacher who is interested in implementing Close Reading in his/her classroom. Or a teacher who is passionate about assistive technology can work with the resource specialist in exploring new tools for students. 

Ultimately, a great deal of time and energy must be exhibited by both the coach and participating teacher in order to make the coaching relationship successful and beneficial for all parties. Though this can seem like a lot of work, the effort pays off when “…you can take risks and try out new ideas, instructional strategies, or different approaches to the curriculum and discuss the results with a trusted colleague.” (Robbins, 1991)

Sources:

Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching (1st ed.). Corwin.

Robbins, P. (1991). How to plan and implement a peer coaching program. Washington: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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