SSAT Vision 2040 - A Coaching Case Study

October 31, 2013
Alex Quigley

We are in the midst of a turbulent time in education. Stringent accountability measures, an apparently ceaseless curriculum change and the seeming erosion of our professionalism threaten to attack and set teaching standards in inexorable decline. School teachers, school leaders and organisations like SSAT, are tasked with ensuring that we fend off these attacks and instead raise the bar for teaching and establish a new professionalism for the sake of our young people.

The values of competition inherent in performance related pay, alongside the tacit devaluing of the profession signalled by the removal of the requirement for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), amongst other changes, may signal the move away from a school system founded on collaboration. We must fight this potential value shift and reassert our professionalism, our collegiality and establish our own school systems that foster collaboration and professional trust.

The Case for Better CPD and for a ‘Culture of Coaching’

Those who argue for improving schools often criticise teacher quality. Qualified Teacher Status is meaningless they tell us, because there are many failing teachers who are already qualified with QTS. I do not mean to say that teacher quality in Great Britain is the best in the world, or even the best it could be. It could be even better. To quote Dylan Wiliam, from the SSAT conference in Liverpool in December of 2012:

Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.

That being said, the profession will not improve if we debase the standards we set to qualify as a teacher. The very foundations of our professional development should be a high starting point from which we build. Rather than remove the qualifications that form the minimum standards of our professionalism, we should aim to improve the entire system of professional development. We should aim to raise the bar. Why do we accept moving in the opposite direction from successful school systems like Finland, who expect their trainees to undertake a Masters degree to qualify as a teacher?

One crucial aspect our renewed professionalism should be the expectation for world-class continuous professional development. The ‘Teacher Development Trust’ has undertaken research that showed that only 1% of teacher training is deemed ‘transformational’. Not only that, there is proven to be little systematic evaluation of the impact of such training in terms of student outcomes. We therefore need to evaluate our CPD model. We should question whether teacher coaching could become an important training model for a culture of transformational continuous professional development.

There is much evidence to identify what steps lead to expertise, in teaching and beyond. Researchers such as K. Anders Ericsson – see here - have defined that expert coaching is required so that professionals may undertake meaningful ‘deliberate practice’ – that is to say the process of repeated practice, but with timely feedback and increasing levels of difficulty and challenge. We must ask ourselves as teachers and school leaders, beyond our OFSTED style observations, how much feedback do we get that informs and transforms our pedagogy? I would argue the evidence would prove very little. Too little to genuinely transform teacher quality.

In extensive American research, Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain (2005) , give evidence that the vast majority of teachers plateau in performance after two or three years of teaching. This evidence should give us pause. The crucial question for me is: can our continuous professional development be truly continuous if most teachers plateau after three years of teaching? We must have the humility to re-evaluate our own training processes and honestly judge their impact.

Is teacher coaching a silver bullet that will solve all of our issues with continuous professional development? No.

Is it a model for a bottom-up approach to continuous professional development that can form part of a transformative continuous professional development? It may well be.

Coaching has the great benefit of encouraging authentic collegiality. In an uncertain time for teachers this is a boon. It also actively challenges traditional concepts of the school hierarchy – placing every teacher in the role of expert in their classroom, looking to find their own path to improvement. At a time when teacher autonomy is under attack, this is much needed. Coaching can provide the pull for teachers to improve that is the opposite of the punitive push at the hands of OFSTED etc.

Huntington Secondary School: CPD Model

At Huntington Secondary School, led by John Tomsett (see his blog here), the structure of the school day was adapted, fortnightly, to ensure teachers had time to undertake meaningful and genuinely continuous CPD. See John’s words here:

“It’s important to realise that three years ago we changed the school day on alternate Mondays so that we gained an extra hour of time to meet. That hour was combined with the weekly meeting hour to give us two hours of CPD every fortnight on a Monday – in addition to our statutory five training days – where we can collaborate on teaching and learning. These fortnightly CPD sessions are called Subject-based Outstanding Learning Communities (SOLCs), or when we meet as a whole staff they are called simply Outstanding Learning Communities (OLCs).”

As a school, there is a clear recognition that subject based pedagogy is crucial to developing great practice. Most training sessions are therefore SOLCs. Five training sessions this year; however, are allocated as Coaching OLCs. These coaching OLCs have been supported with whole school training defining what real coaching is and how to do it. Teachers haven’t just been left to sink or swim. The program has been constructed with attention to detail. For example, every trio has been selected with forethought; every question about the process has been answered comprehensively.

We have shared comedy coaching videos, with our staff even parodying the notion of a coaching conversation (it is important to laugh at ourselves!). We have defined our own protocols involving confidentiality and equality. We have shared model coaching questions (the GROW model has proved especially helpful – see here); and we have given staff time to develop their relationship as a trio. To continue the support we have adopted the IRIS video system to enable great coaching conversations based on practice. We have begun teaching and learning newsletters to support staff with their coaching development, as well as providing them with scaffolded support at each step.

It is important to support teachers through this process. Ironically, the relative autonomy of a coaching programme can actually feel quite alien to teachers who exist in a system of high stakes accountability. It will undoubtedly take time to develop the trust and the relationships required to make this continuous professional improvement model work. Richard Boyatzis, in his excellent work on sustaining change and leadership development (see here), makes an excellent case for how the coaching model can be the antidote for work stresses and can therefore prove a rare method for improving professional performance in a culture of trust and collaboration.

Coaching, in its truest sense (which is different to mentoring or counselling), is one of the few models of training that actually encourages professional autonomy, risk and innovation. As a school, we have had excellent feedback already on the process from teachers, but it is early days. We need to track the evidence all the way to student outcomes and to impact in the classroom. Our educated intuition as teachers is that if you invest professional capital, and, of course, financial capital, into time for teachers to develop their practice, as well as giving them professional choices - with supportive, expert feedback - then they will change and improve teacher quality and teaching and learning in a sustained way.

Coaching could prove to be an important tool in driving teacher improvement and attaining a sense of a new professionalism for teachers. It can be a timely trigger for the intrinsic passions that drive all teachers to be improve, not because we are not good enough, but because we can be even better.

Alex Quigley, AHT, Subject Leader of English and Teacher Coach at Huntington Secondary School, York