Professional Learning

Articulating a Coaching Model

Recent conversations with a range of people at different stages in their own coaching journeys have prompted me to reflect on how my thinking and articulation of coaching has moved over time. My school does not yet have a formal coaching policy as such but I have been in the habit of writing reports on the development of our model at key stages during the journey. This writing served the dual purpose of enabling me to report back to the senior leadership team of the school and, possibly more importantly, it allowed me to capture my thinking at that point in time and remind myself of the positive progress made. So, I’ve revisited some of the old documents (thankfully I dated the reports and iterations of the model) and thought it might be helpful to share some of it here.

I’ve written and presented about our journey before but in this post I want to reflect on the articulation of what we mean by coaching in our context.

It has now been three years since I began talking with my late colleague and friend Jan Creber about developing a coaching model at our school. I still don’t think we’ve quite reached our goal of a clearly articulated and widely understood “model” that is accessible to, or even an entitlement of, all teaching staff in the school but I think that Jan would be very proud of the journey traveled so far.

In our initial conversations about teacher professional learning we very quickly identified an interest in coaching as a way of tackling our shared frustrations about more traditional forms of professional development and their lack of impact on us as teachers. So we set about putting together a bid for school support and funding to develop a coaching model and our own skills as coaches. Here are some of the key extracts/quotes we used at that time:

The aim of this project is to establish a common, ongoing coaching approach for all staff F-12.

The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians states that:

“School principals and other school leaders play a critical role in supporting and fostering quality teaching through coaching and mentoring teachers to find the best ways to facilitate learning, and by promoting a culture of high expectations in schools.”

Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs, 2008

“There is a growing emphasis on and evidence base (Cornett & Knight,2009; van Nieuwerburgh, 2012) for feedback, observation, coaching and mentoring to drive quality teaching and leadership and in turn, better learning outcomes for all young people.”

3rd National Coaching Conference for Educators

We drew heavily from Jim Knight’s work on the impact of coaching and pulled the following quotes from his seminal work Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach to Dramatically Improving Instruction.

“All of the [above] components of Impact Schools will be useless without coaching to help teachers translate what is being talked about into everyday practice in the classroom. Too often, as Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton write in The Knowing-Doing Gap, “one of the main barriers to turning knowledge into action is the tendency to treat talking about something as equivalent to actually doing something about it”. Instructional coaches, by providing the intensive, focused support for professional learning, do “something” about change.” (Knight, 2011, p11)

“Coaches, to borrow Seth Godin’s (2010) phrase, are “linchpins” for successful change in school. Without coaches to provide precise instructions, to model in the classroom, to provide positive and motivating honest feedback, few new practices get implemented, and those that get implemented are usually implemented poorly (Cornett & Knight, 2009). (Knight, 2011, p12)

“Coaches help teachers take all the ideas and practices they are learning and bring them to life. Without coaching, too often, no significant change occurs (Cornett & Knight, 2009)” (Knight, 2011, p91)

Knight, J. (2011) Unmistakable Impact: A Partnership Approach to Dramatically Improving Instruction, California: Corwin

We also cited Helen Timperley’s Teacher Inquiry and Knowledge Building Cycle as a model for translating teacher professional learning into new actions and improved student outcomes. I adapted this slightly in this post.

Timperley Cycle

Our coaching project was approved and a process of research, school visits, conference attendance and discussion with a small development team ensued. At the same time a couple of us embarked on the Coaching Accreditation Program with Growth Coaching International (GCI).

From this work, a working definition of coaching at our school emerged:

Coaching is a partnership to support teachers in meeting agreed goals. At St Anonymous College the purpose of coaching is to improve the learning within classrooms; within teams; within leadership; and towards career progression; where each participant has the right to choice and are accountable.

 Coaching is one key element of the professional learning culture of St Anonymous College. Goals set by individuals through the coaching process will shape and direct the range and nature of professional learning activities undertaken. Individual goals are negotiated and agreed within the context of the College strategic improvement plan, college initiatives and through reflection against the AITSL National Teacher Standards.

A pilot project was introduced to staff through a Coaching FAQ document. This document and the definition above represented the first attempt at capturing in writing what coaching would mean in our context.

Alongside this came the “model” (below). This has become known as the big scary model! Although it captured my thinking and synthesized some of the reading for me, it proved too complex and intimidating to use for illustrative purposes with staff. I even made a fancy Prezi version of it complete with an “evidence funnel” but that just seemed to add motion sickness to the confusion! (I’ll send you the link if you really want it)

Note to self: don’t underestimate the amount of thinking you have done and the distance you have traveled when trying to bring others up to speed. 

Complete Model


Next came the lighter version:



Then the lighter still version:


The commentary to this version goes like this:

A coaching conversation can be seen as a three-way conversation between the coach, coachee and some form of evidence. This “evidence” may be used to examine the current reality and identify an appropriate goal area with the teacher or it may be used to illustrate a new reality following the implementation of a new strategy or approach. Those participating in the coaching pilot utilised a range of evidence including: student feedback survey data; student assessment data; classroom observation (by the coach); use of video and subsequent analysis alongside the coach; examples of teaching materials; student work samples; and anecdotal evidence from conversations with students and peers.

The evidence now includes reflection against the AITSL Teaching Standards. It should be noted that the use of video by the coachee was a particularly powerful analytical tool. Indeed, where video was used to examine the coachee’s teaching, it was considerably more effective (for them) than conventional classroom observation feedback via a clip-board and pen!

Having been immersed in the development of a coaching model, and of my own coaching skills and knowledge, I now prefer the definition below. I think that it better captures the essence of why we are doing this and what a coaching conversation is. This version borrows language from a range of coaching literature by Knight, Whitmore and GCI.

Coaching is a professional learning activity designed to enhance the professional practice of the coachee with a view to achieving their “personal best” for the benefit of the students they teach. A coaching conversation is a carefully managed conversation designed to raise awareness and encourage responsibility in the coachee. An effective coaching conversation should always result in actions, clarity and energy (ACE).

Well this has ended up being another long post. It was prompted, in part, by a question tweeted by Lissa Layman () about the creation of a coaching vision/mission statement. I’m not sure if I’ve answered that question but I think that the material here, along with some procedural documentation to support the process, goes some way towards articulating what we are about. What do you think? 

Feel free to scrutinise the visuals and language and let me know what you think.

Grow Your Own

This post is not a general “pop” at education consultants (or any past or present employer) but rather a word of caution on the perils of trying to take short-cuts to organisational change.

Lost in Translation

I have witnessed, and listened to many accounts of attempts to introduce new ways of working in schools where the original well-meaning intent of an intervention has been lost on the staff who are on the receiving end of it. Often at the root of these failures is a lack of understanding or consideration of the pervading school culture.

There are many reasons why the intent may be lost in translation. It could be as a result of the adoption of poorly-researched quick-fix approaches by those in leadership at school, district or governing authority level. It could be the result of top-down approaches in general and the imposition of new ways of working. This top-down approach might be a result of a perceived need for an urgent response to a particular issue or due to a lack of trust within the organisation. It may also be a symptom of a lack of opportunity for open collegiate dialogue at classroom teacher level. Do teachers have the opportunity to question and engage with the evidence? Are they given the opportunity to wrestle with the cognitive dissonance caused at the interface of their perception of the current reality and that being presented as the rationale for change?

In all of these cases, the most important missing ingredients are time and dialogue with those expected to adopt the new ways of working.

In many cases, research-informed interventions have been identified which have been shown to bring about organisational change and impact positively on student learning. There may have been a significant amount of reading, researching, discussing, consulting and, most importantly, learning at a leadership level resulting in a high level of commitment to change within that group.

The big question however, is how do we give wider staff the opportunity to be part of this learning process? How do we get them up to the same level of understanding as those leading the initiative? This is not to say that we would want to take all staff “behind the scenes” of a new proposal but we must find authentic ways of engaging them in dialogue about the proposed changes to their ways of working and make a compelling case for change if they are to even tentatively come on board.

Another response from some school leaders or those higher up is to bring in external consultants, often at great expense, to provide the organisational learning. The very best of these are careful to take account of the context into which they are stepping and to provide opportunities for the school to adapt the learning to suit their needs. The worst, and there are undoubtedly some, provide a “complete solution” ready-made to be plugged-in to any context. They could argue that it is up to the school to contextualise the new learning and adapt to suit their needs but there can be a perception from those paying for the consultancy or training that this will just happen, or worse, that everyone will miraculously change their long-held working habits now that they’ve been “PD’d”.

Push and Pull

Traditional transmission type PD and consultant visits can be used to challenge our thinking and push new ideas. The key is what happens next when we return to our respective schools or the consultant leaves.

Another way of looking at things is to pull the necessary professional learning to you in response to a particular need within your context. This approach, I would argue, has a much greater chance of resulting in sustained change over time.

A version of Timperley’s Inquiry and Knowledge-building Cycle provides another way of looking at how we initiate professional learning.

Adapted Leader Inquiry Cycle

Context is Key

I have given these issues careful consideration during the development of our coaching model. Those who know me, and my school’s journey, know that I willingly endorse particular PD providers and consultants with whom we have formed a successful learning partnership. I would judge the success of this partnership in terms of return on investment. This return can be seen in the work done when the learning of the participants is taken back into the school context and applied within the constraints and peculiarities of their organisation. And it doesn’t stop there. How is the learning applied? How does it impact on the working of the wider school? Implementation of new ways of working doesn’t just happen because a model is developed or a policy written. It requires engagement of wider staff in a cyclical and dialogic process as shown in Timperley’s model, whilst not losing touch with the original intent of the project. This takes time! This message also comes through loud and clear in the recent Teacher Development Trust report Developing Great Teaching:

TDT Slide

Buy-in, transplant, or grow your own?

The two slides below were originally part of a recent conference presentation but were cut out in order to focus on other messages. I think that they sum-up what I’m trying to say here. (Horticulturists may wish to correct the stages of my metaphor!)



External and internal forms of PD could be pulled in at the seeding stage; to encourage germination; to nurture and strengthen new growth; or even to tackle growth inhibiting pests. Careful consideration of the site, soil and growing conditions, as well as taking steps to optimise these, will save much heart-ache and wasted effort in the long-run.

I’d welcome your thoughts on this post.

Thanks to Jon Andrews and Corinne Campbell for adding some perspective and further links to this post.

Developing a Coaching Model: Choices & Considerations

In previous posts I’ve talked about “the why” of coaching and a bit about coaching systems, models and cultures. This post is about some of the choices and considerations that have had to be made as we have developed the beginnings of what might be described as a coaching model on our site. It’s one thing getting your head around a coaching system and being able to have productive coaching conversations on a one-to-one basis but quite a different prospect to think about scaling this up to a whole school level where, ideally, all staff have access to coaching. We haven’t got there yet but we have grappled with lots of the issues around how to get moving along that path. The slide below shows some of the issues on a continuum. The important point is that these are some of the considerations that will determine the kind of coaching model created.

choices & considerations V3

Let’s consider each of these in turn.

Voluntary v mandatory coaching

Taking account of the pre-existing ways of working in your school and how coaching might fit into a suite of professional learning options might dictate how you respond to this choice.

We have started with volunteers with the aim of building momentum and trust from a coalition of the willing. Some key questions to consider might be: Do you see coaching as a gift? …or an entitlement? …an investment in people? What if teachers don’t want the gift? Can everyone be coached? @debsnet wrote an interesting piece on this very question here. With mandated coaching, there is potentially the problem of passive resistance to the process with many teachers just going through the motions. This won’t necessarily be widespread depending on the pre-existing culture in your school and the level of engagement with staff prior to the mandate.

Jim Knight explains the enrolment phase of the instructional coaching model here. He proposes five methods of enrolling teachers with the very last one being “administrator referral”. Here he cautions against coaching being seen as punishment for under-performance rather than a support. Coaching can be much more palatable when offered as one (high impact) option among a range of professional learning choices.

Expertise v everyone

Having been immersed in a Coaching Accreditation Program alongside another colleague, I feel that in our context we really needed this to help develop the coaching model and to keep momentum going as we worked through a pilot project. Whether or not you acquire some coaching credentials perhaps doesn’t matter but I would suggest that you do need to have a strong base of in-house expertise to support the process and to develop others. Importantly, if the license to develop this expertise is given by school leadership, and coaching is publicly endorsed, then buy-in from staff is more likely. As I mentioned in my previous post, coaching is not just a protocol or system – it can’t be handed to people in a manual and expected to work. Use the phrase “we all coach” with caution. Can we all coach well?

Leaders as coaches

Having school leaders adopt coaching roles can work, but this needs to be done with great caution and clarity of intent. Trust and authenticity are cornerstones of effective coaching. Can we truly have that (and confidentiality) when you know that you are answerable to the person coaching you? Again, the answer to this question will depend on your conception of leadership and your perception of the culture in your school. A coaching style of leadership is entirely possible but is it “pure” coaching?

This is a point where it may be helpful to make the distinction between a coaching cycle – intentionally entered into by two people and undertaken as a defined professional learning activity over an agreed period of time, and a coaching style – where conversations across a range of contexts draw heavily on coaching skills and those involved interact in a way that makes the exchange more respectful and empowering. I’m still grappling with this one but what I do know is that becoming a coach is changing the way that I have conversations in every aspect of my life.

The image below is an attempt to show the overlap between the elements that contribute to an effective coaching cycle, in the conventional sense, and those elements that come to the fore when one adopts a coaching style of conversation in more general circumstances.

Coaching cycle v coaching style

School Culture

The pre-existing culture of collaboration in your school will dictate how you initiate coaching (or any other new way of working) and how fast you can go. Are your classroom doors open? Do teachers already observe each other? What opportunities are there for discussion and genuine collaboration? How do you know?

In this TER Podcast  Glenn McLachlan of Knox Grammar in Sydney describes his school’s model where every teacher has a coach. He talks about how they “sold” it to staff and, importantly, points to the groundwork that had already been done to create an existing culture of peer-collaboration through lesson observation and feedback. This model could be seen as the “luxury model” where there has been significant investment and restructuring to support the initiative. Nonetheless, there is much to be learned from the way coaching expertise has been developed at Knox and how this is now being supplemented by Instructional Rounds. (Note: the whole Podcast is great but Glenn’s bit starts at 36 mins)

Review Processes

We could describe this as “coaching as a supplement” versus “coaching as a treatment”. This point is about where coaching fits in your pre-existing systems of accountability (if at all). If you have a very loose system of annual review or appraisal, the development of a coaching model may well act as a catalyst for having a closer look at this process. On the other hand, there may already be a rigorous process in place for staff goal setting and review and coaching may just be another form of learning that teachers bring to this process.

In this excellent article Bob and Megan Tschannen-Moran discuss the tensions between evaluation and coaching.

In this short article John Campbell suggests an alternative (coaching-based) approach to performance conversations.

In this blog post Edna Sackson proposes a move away from traditional forms of teacher appraisal to what she calls a Growth Review based on coaching principles.


Coaching contexts and goals

What is the purpose of coaching in your context? How do you maintain a high degree of “freedom within form” if you opt for a narrower range of allowable coaching areas or advocate particular strategies? What’s your point of reference or evidence of the current reality used to identify the goal? Do you use the AITSL Standards or another framework such as Danielson’s? Do you have your own teaching and learning framework? What other data do you have that could be utilised by teachers to identify goal areas?

We have started broad in order to allow teachers to experience the process and to build trust. We will coach on any aspect of the teacher’s work. If it’s their burning issue and the rationale for addressing it is grounded in a desire to improve the student learning experience in some way, then let’s start there. Fundamentally, this is about respecting the professionalism of teachers as the contextual experts.

Tschannen-Moran 2

Developing a model

The last one is a biggie! There are lots of consultants out there ready to take your money. Be cautious! External consultants can certainly bring vital expertise and insight, and the best ones help schools to question current practice and uncover blind-spots. The ones I worry about are those who claim to have all of the answers and those schools that (with very good intention) buy-in ready-made solutions then impose them on their staff without doing the necessary “hearts and minds” work. Some questions to ask ourselves might be: How does the work that has been done in partnership (hopefully) with external consultants need to be adapted in our context? How do we share the thinking and learning of those closest to the “project” with wider staff? Do we allow sufficient time to answer the burning questions and address concerns?

So, what big question does this raise for you in your context?

What choices and considerations are missing?

A story of practice, theory & sense-making: researchEd Sydney 2015

researchED-logo Sydney

Well, my brain was fit to burst as I headed back to Melbourne after spending my Saturday in the company of a great bunch of passionate educators at the inaugural Australian fixture of researchED (#rEDSyd). I recognised this kind of brain-ache. It’s what the best professional learning does to you. Maybe it’s what learning feels like? The cogs were certainly turning all day as I moved from one presentation or workshop to another, not to mention the conversations caught in between! All of them were engaging and informative, and even entertaining.

This felt different from other conferences, researcher- or practitioner- led, that I’d attended before. Perhaps it was the slightly different theme for the day – teacher engagement with research and theory – that led to a different kind of conversation and reflection. I did attend presentations that were about new approaches or interventions, and I learned from these, but what I think was different for me this time was that I was looking through a different lens at this one. I was more interested in the approach and basis of the work, and then the ensuing conversations around questions like “is this research?” or “does this count as research-informed?”.

Making sense or sense-making?

We may appear to make sense or to present a sensible proposition or explanation for a problem of practice. Indeed, some are very good at selling things that appear to make sense. This is very different from sense-making. I pondered this difference during the day and I recalled the words of a very learned former colleague (Professor Lani Florian) presenting a lecture on educational theory to student teachers at the University of Aberdeen. She described learning theory as “frameworks for thinking about our practice” – simple as that – not rules or tools but a set of frameworks to help construct and examine our practice (and reconstruct it).

Tom Bennett (@tombennett71) talked passionately about the need for teachers to “engage profitably” with educational research. He suggested that one way-in was for schools to start with a question which they would like answered and then engage with the research literature before implementing a new practice. Tom alluded to the tension between our in-the-moment “craft” as teachers (something I think some teachers hide behind) and theoretical understandings of what is going on in any given classroom or school situation. There is no instruction manual for dealing with the myriad of complex social interactions that we encounter daily but there is a body of evidence-informed knowledge out there that can help us to better understand what is going on and how it might be different next time.

theory-practiceOver the course of the day I saw great examples of teachers “engaging profitably” with research.

We had Glenn McLachlan presenting the TALIS research data as a starting point for his school’s implementation of Instructional Coaching and Instructional Rounds as powerful forms of professional learning. Then, in the design and implementation of these interventions, we could see that the work was informed by relevant and credible educational literature. (Note – not all “educational literature” is credible – critical engagement is key!)

Similarly, Deborah Netolicky and Janelle McGann spoke very convincingly about their school’s research-based model of teacher growth. This model was built around widely recognized frameworks for teaching and teacher growth. The key term here is “built around” – not plugged-in – but tailored to their local context. It was very clear that this solid grounding in research informed literature (and their experiences of success so far) put the winds of confidence and courage in their sails as these leaders implemented new approaches with their teachers.

I heard Corinne Campbell tell her school’s story of how they had investigated and revamped their approach to the controversial subject of homework. This was a great example of starting with very local data – from parent and teacher surveys – to gain clarity around the full range of beliefs, views, misconceptions and practices that existed within their community. This very clear picture of reality was then placed alongside a wide range of research evidence on homework before decisions were made about the way forward. The big message here was: this is what works for our community, go and find out about yours.

I was intrigued by Pam Ryan’s presentation title – Putting Practice into Theory: sharing process, sharing thinking. Pam repeatedly stated that she did not “do research” and that this would not “count as research”. However, this did not make what she presented any less credible or relevant. Drawing on her 30 years of educational leadership experience, Pam described a process of deep reflection enabled by the deconstruction of her experiences. This analytical process had led to the development of conceptual frameworks and ways of understanding that could then be augmented with relevant theory. It’s that sense-making thing again. This process will be the subject of a forthcoming book. To my mind Pam’s work is surely a form of scholarly activity that sits somewhere in the research/evidence paradigm.

Finally, Cameron Paterson went for an active learning approach to engaging his audience in some of the key components of Reggio-inspired approaches to learning. As we participated in an activity (making paper aeroplanes!) I adopted one of the roles of documenter. The role of documenter was to capture the process of building knowledge during the group activity. I learned something about the theory behind the approach (through trying and then discussing it) and found myself considering how this kind of observing and documenting could be a powerful strategy for peer observation between teachers. Again, I was connecting the theory to my own practice, and other associated theories relating to design thinking and meta-cognition.

By the end of the day a pattern was emerging. There seemed to be a cycle of questions that those presenting had gone through with each one starting at different points in this cycle depending on their context or starting point. I tweeted these questions and a response came back that it was “the perfect storm of questions”. I would perhaps add “What will I do now?” between the stages and you might add other stages to the cycle. Here they are:

  • What do I think?
  • What do others think?
  • What does the research say?
  • What do I think now? 

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment if any of this has made you think.