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.

If Coaching is the answer, what is the question?

A colleague and I will be presenting the story of our school’s journey into coaching at the 4th National Coaching in Education Conference next week. Attempting to distil a 2 year (and continuing) journey into a 30 minute presentation has provided the impetus I’ve needed to write about our experiences to date. I hope that the series of posts that I have planned will be of use to others who are grappling with the implementation of similar initiatives in their context. .

We’ve been asked to start our case study with what sparked our interest in introducing a coaching intervention to our particular context. Before I answer that question from our perspective, I should say that other interventions are available! In fact, the term “intervention” can perhaps suggest the need for some form of treatment for a problem. We have approached the development of coaching in our context from a different philosophical standpoint. So:

If coaching is the answer, what is the question?

This is a very powerful question (thanks to Christian van Nieuwerburgh) to stimulate thinking about “the why” of coaching in your particular context. So here are some of our early answers to that question – our rationale for coaching if you like:

How can we facilitate more purposeful conversations about teaching practice? [in a safe space]

In any busy school the opportunities for purposeful and deliberate conversation about specific aspects of our practice are limited. Typical team meetings, regardless of how collegiate the culture may be, do not provide a suitable forum for this kind of conversation. Equally, passing one-to-one conversations in the staffroom or between classes provide neither the time nor an environment conducive to really getting to the heart of the matter. At best, these types of conversations tend to result in a mixture of sympathy, well-intentioned advice-giving and dealing with short-term administrative issues. Coaching conversations are managed conversations conducted within a mutually respectful relationship and an atmosphere of trust.

How can we encourage teacher reflection AND action?

I’m sure that we all work alongside many highly reflective teachers who think deeply about their practice. Some will write about it in a journal or blog, some will be happy to talk about it openly and to share ideas with colleagues. Coaching conversations provide the call to action to do something with this information.

How can we increase teachers’ sense of self-efficacy?

According to Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is “the belief in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations.” Coaching has the potential to empower teachers to take control of that which is within their sphere of influence – their classroom. Critically, within coaching, they build this sense of self-efficacy through their partnership with a coach who helps to raise their awareness, explore their own options and to take responsibility for following through on a cycle of action and reflection to address the issue at hand.

By now it should be clear that our main driver is the personal and professional growth of our staff. This is not about fixing a perceived deficit or overseeing people by stealth. Dylan Wiliam describes the moral imperative for all teachers to continue to strive to be better in his recent paper.

Moral Imperative

And Jim Knight also captures the essence of it here.

Copy of Social Media

Moving to less philosophical answers:

How can we get more impact from, and more discerning choices of, PD activity?

We know that traditional forms of Professional Development (ironically what we’ll be doing at the conference next week) is very inefficient in terms of the impact on the actual practice of participants on their return to school. We all have folders on our shelves (some of them never again opened) from inspiring and engaging PD that we’ve attended but that quickly become buried in the daily routine. How often do we at least debrief with someone else on what we have learned? How often do we place equal value on the time required to digest our PD experiences and plan specific actions to take this learning forward in our own context?

Case for Coaching

This is not to say that we should not allow teachers to attend external PD events. What coaching can do is provide the necessary support for implementation of new ways of working and, conversely, provide a catalyst for the deliberate pursuit of specific PD with a particular goal in mind.

So, thinking about your context, what would your answers be?

What do these say about the intent behind your desire to implement coaching?

What pre-existing contextual conditions, structures or systems influenced how you have answered?

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.