Beginning my second year of Grad School has me shifting from learning about digital education as a teacher and into the role of coaching supporting other educators. This year I’ll be exploring more of the ISTE coaching standards, beginning with Standard 1: Visionary Leadership. B. Contribute to the planning, development, communication, implementation, and evaluation of technology-infused strategic plans at the district and school levels. For my first post I’ll be exploring how coaches can successfully inspire and assist peers with planning, implementing, and evaluating technology integration.
What is a coach?
When I hear the word “coach”, I immediately envision my dad. My dad has played and coached sports since before I was born. Having limited coaching experience myself, my memories are as a spectator and what I’ve observed over the years. As I thought more deeply about the label “coach”, I realised there are a lot of parallels between what I saw in my dad and what I’ve seen in education.
Take basketball for example. My dad would spend hours watching teams play at various levels, always with a notebook in hand. He’d write down plays, ideas, and enjoyed talking to our family about what he looked forward to sharing with his team. He started each season hoping to help his players develop new skills and be better athletes both on and off the court by the end of the season. During practice he’d explain, model, select players to carry them out, and modify based on the outcome. Nothing was ever set in stone. He guided them, but never did things for them. A coach can’t run on the court to help a player when they get nervous and players learn to work together, communicate, and actively be in the moment if they want to win. No matter the outcome of each game, there was always discussion about what went well, what they can try to improve before the next game, and praise about what the players achieved, not praise of the coach.
I feel these strategies also apply to peer coaching in education. Gaining insight into coaching through Les Foltos’ book, Peer Coaching, I’m beginning to see coaching as an extension of working with students. We want to inspire others to challenge what they know and continuously explore new skills. We also want teachers to have a toolkit of resources that they can recommend to students so that students can explore which tools help them succeed. So what qualities are needed to establish a positive coaching relationship? After looking at sources from multiple countries, a few key principles keep re-surfacing.
- Personal Relationship
- Trust and Support vs Judgement
- Understanding of the Education System
- Reciprocal Communication
In peer coaching, both educators need to be willing participants. In addition, they need to feel supported by others (colleagues, administrators, district). Both educators also need to see the value in collaboration and establish a realistic goal that they are trying to achieve to increase student achievement. The teacher needs to be willing to take risks, explore, and understand that the partnership is fluid .
If the participants do not already know each other on a personal or professional level, then the next step is to take time and understand the needs of the teacher and the students. Les Foltos recommends that coaches spend the first meeting getting to know the teacher and allowing the teacher’s needs to guide the direction of their time together. What is also implied with establishing a relationship is that the coach’s role begins as a listener, not someone offering advice. As a listener, coach’s can paraphrase their understanding of the teacher’s needs and begin to understand the teacher’s perceptions and experiences with technology before discussing integration.
Trust and Support vs Judgement
Teachers need to feel they can trust their coach as a friend, not someone who’s coming into their classroom to judge them. Establishing trust takes time. For the partnership to be effective, the coach needs to enter without power, judgement, or evaluative mindset. The coach should appear knowledgeable but not assume the role as expert, creating a hierarchy in the relationship. Trust is also important for when challenges arise in order for the partnership to remain intact.
Understanding of the Education System
I’m sure most teachers can relate, but when I think of Professional Development trainings that were a waste of time, a few reasons immediately come to mind: 1. mandatory attendance, 2. the presenter has no idea what my student population is, 3. the presenter knows nothing about the resources available in our district, 4. this has nothing to do with my content area. The worst trainings combine all four!
For example, I teach ELL offering language support during reading and writing. A few years ago, our district adopted a new Math curriculum with mandatory trainings for all certificated staff. So I sat there for three days, frustrated at my use of time. I quickly learned all the teachers who teach Math were also frustrated and do not see how this curriculum would work in their classroom, it added fuel to the fire and a mob mentality. Our speaker promoted using the curriculum on computers and tablets during the lessons on a regular basis and talked about great tech features. The problem was we did not have a computer lab and averaged 1 device to 5 students. His lack of knowledge about our district led to a group of educators leaving the training frustrated rather than excited to try what he’d presented.
Point being, coaches need to do some research, and ask questions to better understand the building they’re serving and the teacher needs. Even within the same building, peer coaches need to look at the specific grade level and content area they wish to support. Coaches need to see the teacher’s classroom environment before offering any recommendations. In regards to technology, what already exists in the building or district, who else might be available to observe in action, and what options are available to help the teacher successfully integrate technology in the classroom? What concerns does the teacher have about technology integration?
Time is a big factor for teachers. It feels like there is never enough! In a peer coaching partnership, both participants need to establish a timeline for the long-term as well as protocols to follow with each meeting in order to respect each other’s time. In addition, realistic goals and timelines need to be discussed and adjusted as needed. This ties back to willing participants. If teachers feel pressured or that something will be lost versus something will be enhanced they will begin to resist, and coaches have to work much harder to bring them back on board. Meetings should typically have an agenda, protocol, allow time for the teacher to feel their time is validated and end with an action plan. This ties into communication.
With time being valuable, to respect all involved, communication preferences should also be discussed in the early stages of collaboration. Today there are so many ways for teachers to collaborate beyond the classroom. Once communication methods are in place, these can be used as reminders for upcoming collaboration. For example, if email is the chosen form of communication outside of scheduled in-person meetings, then the emails should serve as reminders for both participants responsibilities for how to come prepared. This may also require communication with other staff in the building, administration, or outside. Teachers need to feel they can reach their coach and receive feedback in a timely manner.
Connection to Technology Integration
Technology can be daunting for teachers. There are so many unknowns, and for teachers who are used to be in control, adding digital devices into the classroom can create anxiety. So how can peer coaches then use the above guiding principles to support their colleagues? Coaches need to do research after each meeting so explore what tools are available that could meet the teacher’s needs to enhance student achievement. With that, coaches need to share technology as an approach to help students meet grade level standards and develop 21st century skills. This needs to be done carefully to avoid teachers feeling pressured to add more to their day.
In conclusion, like sports, peer coaches need to recognise that teachers come in with a wide range of abilities and strengths. The coach needs to support teachers in recognising their long term goal and create opportunities for them to work towards successfully meeting that goal. The coach’s role should guide the teacher to independence and self-discovery for what works best for them and their students, while providing access, not direct instruction. Although this is simply the tip of the iceberg, I feel it’s a starting point for me as I look into peer coaching opportunities within my own building this year.
Cited by Queensland Government
Brown, L. (2014, February 28). The Importance of Trust. Retrieved October 14, 2017, from http://teachforall.org/en/network-learning/importance-trust
Cavanagh, M., Grant, A., & Kemp, T. (2015). Evidence-Based Coaching Volume 1 : Theory, Research and Practice from the Behavioural Sciences. Australian Academic Press.
Foltos, L. (2013). Peer coaching: Unlocking the power of collaboration. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
“Role of Coaching in an Educational Setting.” Queensland Government, Department of Education and Training, 29 Jan. 2015, from education.qld.gov.au/staff/development/performance/resources/readings/role-coaching-educational-settings.pdf