Wednesday, 11 January 2017

On Scrutinising Scrutiny and The Coaching Model

A recent discussion on Twitter centred around the regularity with which senior leaders in schools "scrutinised" teachers' lessons, books and planning. Many expressed shock and surprise at the apparent regularity of these activities in some schools. Some commentators linked high frequency of "scrutiny" to mistrust.

The word "scrutiny" will always carry negative connotations, especially for teachers. Its definition is critical observation or examination or surveillance; close and continuous watching - neither of which do anything to make it sound like something teachers would want done to them. The word has negative connotations for clear reasons - it's like teachers are being spied on. And spies don't trust anyone or anything. So yeah; mistrust.

Remove the word "scrutiny" from the scenario though and the act leaders of looking at lessons, books and planning (I use "looking" deliberately as a word devoid of much nuanced meaning) is a necessary thing in schools; leaders must know what is going on at the chalkface, they'd be poor leaders if they didn't. As a result, I would go so far as to argue that the frequent "looking" is absolutely crucial. But it all depends what the "looking" is for. It depends on how and why the "looking" is done. Leadership guru Andy Buck commented that it 'all depends on the climate within which these things are done'.

It's an absolute cliche, and one which causes teachers to curl, at the very least, their toes, but if all this "looking" is truly done for development's sake then the "looking" will be seen by teachers as a positive thing. And it will be welcomed. If areas of development are identified as true areas of development, rather than just things that are being done badly, and if a leader then takes steps to work on those areas of development with a teacher, then teachers will look more favourably on all the "looking". I have heard of schools who continually collect such data but then never do anything about it. It is absolutely imperative that if leaders collect data on 'teacher performance' (for want of a better and less punitive-sounding phrase) regularly they should be doing something about their findings. In my school, and in increasing numbers of others, that something is coaching.

Our model of coaching is adapted from the one outlined in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's 'Leverage Leadership'. The main difference, and pertinent to this discussion, is that instead of weekly drop-ins and coaching sessions, we conduct a drop-in (15 minutes in a lesson, teachers know which week but not which lesson - this has encouraged teachers to 'just do what they normally do') one week and a coaching session (30 minutes) the next week. For clarity's sake it is school leaders who conduct both the drop-in and the coaching session - I have heard of some models of coaching centred more around peer coaching. Leaders usually drop in on and coach members of their own team.

A sports analogy by way of rationale for the regularity of what we call the coaching cycle:

"Teachers are like tennis players: they develop most quickly when they receive frequent feedback and opportunities to practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) A tennis coach is regularly present during practice, as well as matches. If they only turned up at the match and commented on how they played that game, and then didn’t show up until the next tournament, then the tennis player is not receiving effective coaching and will struggle to improve.

To explain more, here are some of the core ideas behind Bambrick-Santoyo's model of coaching:
  1. "By receiving weekly observations and feedback, a teacher develops as much in one year as most teachers do in 20." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p65) Coaching has to be done consistently and regularly.
  2. "Observation and feedback are only fully effective when leaders systematically track which teachers have been observed, what feedback have received, and whether that feedback has improved their practice." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p62) Coaching outcomes have to be tracked so that they leaders are aware of what to be looking for in future observations, and so that improvements can be celebrated.
  3. "The primary purpose of observation should not be to judge the quality of teachers, but to find the most effective ways to coach them to improve student learning." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p63) Observations are not summative, they are formative, therefore the whole process is designed to be supportive. In our experience, teachers have received coaching positively and understand that it is for their benefit, and the benefit of the children.
  4. Feedback should be given face-to-face and should provide specific and manageable action steps for improvement. A coaching session is a discussion where the coach questions the coachee to enable them to analyse their own practice, leading to them identifying their own point for developing – this enables them to internalise the feedback. Face-to-face meetings are more useful than lengthy written evaluations. 
Once a lesson drop-in has been conducted, the coaching session will usually follow a similar pattern:
  • Precise praise: "The most effective praise is directly linked to the teacher’s previous action step: you validate the teacher’s effort at implementing feedback." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p80) Coaching sessions allow coaches and coaches to highlight and celebrate the progress and improvements.
  • Probe: "When giving feedback start with a probing question that narrows the focus of the teacher to a particular part of the lesson." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p81)
  • Identify problem and concrete action step: "We learn best when we can focus on one piece of feedback at a time. Giving less feedback, more often, maximises teacher development." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p70) "Action steps need to be bite-sized: changes teachers can make in one week." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p75) Rather than observing once a term and giving a long list of areas for development, coaching provides regular, manageable next steps.
  • Practice: "Great teaching is not learnt through discussion. It’s learned by doing – or more specifically, by practicing doing things well. Supervised practice is the fastest way to make sure all teachers are doing the right things." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p86)
  • Plan ahead: "Practicing and planning ahead go hand in hand: practice the skill and then adjust the coming lessons." (Bambrick-Santoyo, p87)
Personally, I don't like the use of the word 'problem' as it isn't aspirational but it has clearly been chosen so that it begins with P like the rest, and it does the job well enough.

To finish, as you reflect on the process outlined above and begin to form your own opinions of it, a couple of quotes from two teachers in my team who are coachees in the coaching process:

“Coaching has really helped me fine tune my teaching in different areas of the curriculum and is continuing to help me become a better teacher every day. It supports my pedagogy as we are in a fast-paced environment and keeping up to date with  new ideas and policies can be tricky alone! The 1-2-1 support is really effective and is making a big difference 😊 Thank you!”

"The coaching has been informal, supportive and best of all, useful! Achievable, realistic and logical targets are set which have had a real impact on my teaching and, as a result, the learning going on in my class. Thanks."

The frequency becomes a non-issue when the processes involved are truly developmental and supportive. The model taken from 'Leverage Leadership' is just one way of making this happen, there are probably many other ways of doing it - this article is supposed to outline one way of doing it with the purpose of showing that regular interaction between leaders and teachers can be a positive thing for all involved, and a thing that gets results for the children.

Please feel free to ask any questions about our approach and do try to read the whole section (Chapter 2: Observation and Feedback) in Paul Bambrick-Santoyo's book 'Leverage Leadership' as it expands on the ideas laid out above.


  1. If it's always leaders doing the observations, then how do you ensure that it is really about coaching, and not just leaders re-casting teachers in their own image? Who sets the direction for what is being worked on? How do you keep the separation between that and things like appraisal - or do you not?

    1. I suppose it's down to the leadership team as a whole and leaders as individuals having integrity. That and a common view that teachers don't all have to be the same. I'm not sure how this would be much different from peers doing it - surely everyone would have to fight the 'this is how I'd do it' tendency? All of the leaders who coach still have teaching commitments and work alongside the teachers to plan lessons etc so leaders are part-peers anyway. The fact that leaders still teach goes a long way to secure the trust and respect of non-leaders and it enables leaders to continue to have a grasp on what the pressures of being in the classroom are. I struggle to understand why some have a problem with leaders as coaches in all honesty and there would be aspects of the possible effectiveness of peer coaching that I'd question.

      Teachers set the direction for what is worked on in this model. Leaders have an idea but the idea of this coaching model is that teachers identify they're own areas for development and do much of the thinking in terms of how they may go about developing themselves.

      Appraisal does have links to the drop-ins as there are outcomes that are recorded throughout the year (we don't grade lessons though). But the fact that the drop-ins are so regular means that one drop-in forms only a tiny amount of the picture ie a teacher could teach a 'bad' lesson but in two weeks time they have the chance to show that that lesson was a one off. I found with termly observations that teachers live under the cloud of a 'bad' lesson for too long. Some of my teachers even request additional drop-ins if they feel a particular drop-in misrepresents them, their teaching and the children's learning.

    2. I'm afraid that your final sentence confirms for me that some teachers see it as scrutiny, rather than seeing that as a positive.
      I'm sure it works very well in your school; it wouldn't be for me.

    3. Given that part of the coaching process, as outlined in the post, is getting (hopefully) positive feedback on how much progress has been made on areas that have been a focus of the coaching session, it is clear why teachers sometimes want the coach/leader to come and see another lesson - if they feel that they have worked on something and it is going really well but it wasn't clear in one drop-in then they want another chance to showcase what they think is being successful.

      None of them particularly fear a 'bad' drop-in but are committed to the process of ongoing improvement enough to want to share their successes with the coach. - TBCT

  2. A great blog - thanks for sharing. I'm a great believer in the power of coaching & have used it for many years myself. I find that the key is building trust, as you say, & creating a 'coaching culture' based on positive & constructive developments with staff. I'm interested that in the model you describe, that the coaching session comes a week after the lesson - does this work well for you? I've always found the most impact & useful conversations/reflections to happen fairly soon after a lesson - instantly where possible.
    Also, do staff ever film themselves or do you use filming (obviously with prior discussion!!) as part of your coaching process? Again, I have found this to be very powerful, especially if it's a short clip of a precise part of a lesson.
    Finally, do children ever play in part in the process? An interesting one - I've had mixed success with this, but have found it really useful as children's feedback can be extremely powerful.
    I'd love to return to your blog to see how it all develops - looking forward to it ��

    1. Perhaps I should have clarified that the drop-in is always followed up with on-the-day feedback. The way I operate is almost to have a split coaching session where an area for development is identified in the feedback session, the coachee and coach both have a few days to think about next steps and practical ways to make improvements.

      I have never used filming - really uncomfortable with the idea if I'm honest!

      I've also never had children involved although gathering their unsaid feedback from how they are in the lesson is very important!

    2. It sounds like a great model. I'm developing various coaching models with a few different schools and they definitely need to be tweaked to fit different settings. I like the idea of a gap for reflection time - I will definitely suggest this & share your ideas with others (I hope that's ok?)
      I was never up for the filming thing either, but it has proved to be really effective - even if the teacher only looks at it themselves for self-reflection & then brings their own ideas to the next coaching session. Even more powerful to discuss it, but only between coach/coachee & definitely never as a 'scrutiny' or part of performance management/appraisal. I have only ever used it with staff who are 'up for it' & feel comfortable with the purpose.

      Re involving children - there are various models for this, but just a quick discussion with a few precise questions has worked well for me. I've usually used this approach within a 'lesson study' model, so involving the children is great!

      I hope your model has great success...I look forward to hearing more. Where are you based?