Can coaching transform teacher quality?

August 15, 2013
Glyn Barritt

Alex Quigley writes this think piece for Vision 2040:

Alex Quigley **My focus is exploring how we can improve continuous professional development in our schools, thereby improving teacher quality. My starting point is a quotation from Dylan Wiliam, made at SSAT’s National Conference 2013, which has made a deep and lasting impression upon me as a teacher and leader and which informs this entire article:**

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

There are different considerations to account for when addressing teacher improvement. Firstly, it is crucial to make the case for changing and improving upon our current CPD provision. Research by the Teacher Development Trust has proved that CPD informs practice but not yet, that it embeds practice .. and it patently does not transform practice. Perhaps the notion of transformative continuous professional development is too ambitious. We would hope that our new staff is already good enough to not require ‘transformation’ but instead require marginal improvements to have a strong positive impact upon student outcomes. Clearly however, we need to ensure that we at least ‘embed’ improvements in practice. This is paramount because we know that despite the complex array of factors that influence student attainment, teacher quality trumps everything else. We also know that teacher impact plateaus after a couple of years and that we must make professional development genuinely continuous and continuously effective.

Performance-related pay

Currently, DfE is presenting solutions to improving teacher quality, such as ‘performance related pay’. I am not wholly against all the reforms put forward by Gove but this proposal to use market forces to attempt to improve teachers is wrongheaded and will fail. There is no international evidence that PRP impacts positively upon teacher quality and the process fundamentally misunderstands the largely intrinsic nature of teacher motivation. The vast majority of our teachers couldn’t work harder if they tried (although I would argue many could work smarter – myself included) and no pay incentive system can further improve pedagogy in the classroom without a catalogue of damaging effects. The market force of pay differentiation will do nothing except drive down average pay and it will not see teachers improve in a sustained and systematic way that benefits our children.

Financial plight vs effective professional development

The current financial plight in schools means that as teacher improvement becomes paramount, the wherewithal to drive this improvement becomes still more difficult. High quality training costs time and money. The days of expensive external one day training being the sum total of ‘continuous development’ are clearly on the wane – if they have not died out already. Dylan Wiliam has shared research that proves the efficacy of ‘professional learning communities’ in schools and many models are currently being implemented with success. David Weston (Teacher Development Trust) has outlined the following ‘rules’ of truly effective professional development:

  • It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.
  • The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.
  • The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.
  • The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (ie more than 40); and it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.
  • External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.

Various successful models are being shared across families of schools, but more needs to be done to share what effective CPD looks like in schools in a systematic fashion. The impact of such provision needs to be evaluated and measured as closely as possible. The ‘coaching’ model fits the bill for schools in many ways. It meets the criteria outlined by David Weston and pragmatically, it is relatively cheap considering the budgetary pressures schools are currently under .. oh, and it

Embedding a culture of coaching

One leadership guru who commands universal respect is the Great Britain cycling and Team Sky coach, David Brailsford. He made a simple but prescient statement that best sums up the power of coaching:

“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.” David Brailsford

I wrote a blog about how the elements of the Brailsford model can translate to school improvement. The above quotation is rightly simple but its message is a perceptive answer to false idols such as PRP. What we must do is create an engine room of high quality teacher coaching within our schools to drive improvements in pedagogy and teacher quality.

Why invest in a team of teacher coaches? The psychology of change and actually changing the habits of adult professionals is very complex. What is widely known is that externally imposed change rarely sticks and changes the culture within schools, or indeed any organisation. Hierarchical top-down change also suffers from the same inadequacies and unsustainability. It can make for an imposed temporary change, but it doesn’t engineer sustained habit changes. Teachers must be emotionally invested in any development of their practice in the school community. Involvement and choice are powerful drivers of habit change. Local knowledge form within the school is powerful and develops a greater degree of trust in what is an emotional and often messy process! Teacher coaches have a better knowledge of the school community; they will invariably gain greater respect than any external figures and they will certainly benefit from higher levels of trust.

Teacher coaches are in a great position to shine a light on existing successes and spread that light across the school. School leaders can do this of course but staff are more open to their colleagues suggesting and driving improvement. The coaches can become roles models of the best kind - undertaking research, tweaking the school environment, providing evidence of successful pedagogy, supporting under-performing colleagues, embodying a growth mindset and being open to adapting their practice to improve – in effect, becoming leading lights to drive change. The investment can be relatively small – the impact significant. By selecting outstanding practitioners and finding them the precious commodity of time, they can be trained to lead CPD; to work with under-performing colleagues and to undertake the research which will give their methods credibility with colleagues.

So Teacher Coaches plus …

No matter how effective the team of teacher coaches are of course, they will not transform teacher quality alone. The ethos of coaching to improve, with the attendant ‘growth mindset’, needs to permeate the organisation – from students upward. What coaching promotes is a learning institution through every level. Senior leaders must lead the way. How many headteachers share their educational reading or talk about their teaching with colleagues throughout the organisation? There are few more powerful influential factors than this wholly free tone setting from the top. Subject Leaders are also a pivotal group if a coaching culture is to be established and thrive. Subject Leaders need to be coached to be coaches – the language and practice of coaching is nuanced and subtle, requiring deliberate practice. Every department can create their own tailored microcosm of the coaching model if they are steered intelligently and given time to do so (most often, Subject Leaders need to be guided to better utilise they time they already possess – for example, how many department meetings are wasted on administrative tasks, when time to improve pedagogy and share best practice is already tight?).

How can Vision 2040 help?

SSAT’s Vision 2040 can help unify models of best coaching practice. There are already many success stories, from the ‘coaching triads’ implemented during the ‘London Challenge’ program – see page 16 of this OFSTED Report. International models, such as the jugyou kenkyuu lesson study model in Japan have proved a sustained success and we should look outwardly to such working models. There is evidently a thirst for research and development to provide an evidence basis for change in education, and teachers and schools must ensure that they lead that area, or we shall be beholden to changes we feel do not represent our expertise and experience.

SSAT can also help to connect schools who are looking to enhance their CPD provision. Every school, as previously stated, should develop change from within and ideally, from the bottom up …but we must also connect more outwardly. Cooperation, and not competition, will see our education system improve. In my school we are initiating change to include a coaching model, supporting and constructed with staff – John Tomsett’s blog explains nicely. In the Vision 2040 group Stephen Tierney is initiating a development model that hones in on formative observations, research, reflection and ‘innovation fellows’ – all aspects of a whole school approach that ideally suits the coaching approach.

If we are to improve teachers we can do many things, but systematising and sharing models of coaching best practice can provide a great way to embed improvements in pedagogy.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Useful further reading:

National College: Improving Coaching: Evolution not Revolution Institute of Leadership and Management: [Creating a Coaching Culture]( National College: Creating a Culture of Coaching Teacher Development Trust (website and newsletters)


Alex Quigley Alex has taught a range of qualifications and now leads a highly successful English and Media Faculty at Huntington School, York.  His interest in innovative teaching and curriculum models is reflected in his personal blog and articles he writes for the educational press.