Coaching: More than just a queue of questions

Written by: Laura Mackay | Published:
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Investing more time in coaching approaches to professional development could pay dividends for your schools, says assistant principal Laura Mackay. She offers some tenets of good practice

In recent years, coaching as a tool to support professional development has formalised and intensified across the educational landscape – and for good reason. Teachers and leaders often employ constructive listening, and utilise the careful questioning skills, associated with coaching.

Investing more time in developing the range of skills connected to coaching theory and processes can benefit the CPD for all staff and contribute to the collaborative culture of a school. There are plenty of coaching models to explore, many of which have been used across other sectors.

There is a wealth of research that is emerging about how these models might be applicable to education settings, but embedding a coaching culture where value is placed on the time to really listen, think deeply and nurture the emotional intelligence of staff and pupils, must take priority over getting too bogged down in sticking to strict coaching models or question structures.

What’s the rush?

Primary schools are fast-paced environments where quick thinking is employed to solve issues that arise throughout the day and where tasks, meetings and paperwork can easily dominate. This busy school life, alongside a speedy, technology-fuelled world, can leave your staff in a state of constant action or besieged by the anxiety of in-action.

But what if we all slowed down from time to time? Emphasis on reflection is paramount during the training stages of the teaching profession, quite rightly, but this dedicated time to reflect can vanish into the ether as staff become more established. Coaching can offer a space for staff to reflect on their own learning and development; increasing self-awareness through supportive and challenging questions.

A coach that listens attentively and actively can encourage a depth in thinking that an individual may not have achieved on their own. Patient and attentive listening, as opposed to the coach “hijacking” a conversation with their own experiences and advice, not only gives the coachee time to think, but also enables them to feel that what they have to say is valued and respected.

Moreover, a coach’s silent interventions, punctuated with some powerful questions, can challenge a coachee to confront supressed realities and difficult truths. Uncomfortable as this might be, this discomfort can yield positive shifts in perspective.
Schools that dedicate slots for formal coaching are investing in thinking, which has far-reaching, long-term benefits. Self-exploration can be cathartic, thereby improving wellbeing and a sense of self-fulfilment through an increased belief in one’s own capabilities. Additionally, the coachee’s depth in thinking shifts an action-focused mindset to a strategic one, where undertakings become more meaningful and sustainable due to the intensive thought process they have undergone.

What’s the challenge?

Coaching. It’s tough. Coaching is hard work for both coach and coachee; with productive and stimulating conversation where both can learn and challenge their cerebral capacity. Powerful learning occurs at the “edge of chaos”, when people are willing to explore depths of emotional connection and perspective (Clutterbuck, 2014).

With this in mind, it is key to establish a firm culture of openness and trust as coaching conversations can unsettle, unearthing vulnerabilities and insecurities. Coaching sessions and programmes should be voluntary, open to all and not based around the hierarchy of roles and responsibilities within a school. At the Teacher Development Trust we have seen examples of instructional coaching programmes (coaching that focuses on improving teacher’s instructional practice within the classroom) where untrained coaches have been allocated coachees after a formal observation cycle, neither of whom had a choice whether or not to participate.

In some cases, time for coaching is compulsorily slotted into additional sessions before or after the teaching day, at lunchtime, or into PPA time without staff consultation – which tends to minimise buy-in to the programme. Leaving inexperienced coaches to work with staff, who may resent being placed on a coaching programme, can also lead to them feeling ineffective and disillusioned, and coachees feeling undervalued and unsupported.

Although coaching can be useful in line management settings to facilitate feedback, the most productive sessions are those where the coach has no agenda; where non-judgemental, formative discussion can take place. The trust that there is not an ulterior motive on the part of the coach increases the honesty in conversation, the ownership the coachee has over goals they set themselves, and the commitment to any actions they state. Ultimately, coaching must be confidential and should sit apart from any school accountability structure so that it functions whole-heartedly as a developmental tool and supports coachees to take control of their own learning.

The dreaded time factor is always a challenge in schools but, in this case, it really shouldn’t be. Time invested in training coaches across the organisation, and providing space for quality coaching sessions, is investing in people, their wellbeing and their learning. Helping staff to understand that setting aside 20 to 60 minutes every few weeks to completely focus on themselves is a worthwhile and ultimately rewarding feat for all.

A further challenge is establishing the notion that it is perfectly acceptable to refrain from giving advice as soon as an issue is divulged. As educators, we are endlessly ready and willing to help others to learn and it is tough to take a step back and rely on questioning techniques, and a good dose of silence, to enable coachees to develop. It is also tough on the coachees who, like our pupils, will readily want, accept or ask for answers from others.

Who develops?

High-quality coaching can provide the scope for all staff and pupils from across an institution to develop. The focus on listening during coaching sessions negates any urges to interrupt or hijack conversations, even if the intention is well meaning, and this calm and patient approach can lead to constructive conversations and, in turn, robust relationships across the school; both formal and informal.

Although formal instructional coaching may lead to improved teaching practice and elevated pupil achievement (Kraft et al, 2016), a school culture where coaching techniques are developed and become embedded in discourse can initiate a staff that instinctively use highly effective listening and questioning competencies in their everyday, informal interactions and conversations, both in and outside school.

Everyone across the school should be able to access coaching either as coach or coachee. According to the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE, 2009), coaches have “opportunities to develop their own learning and practice via observing others, reflecting on practice with them, engaging with multiple sources of knowledge and evidence”.

Staff as coaches become better communicators, collaborators and educators due to the listening, analytical and questioning skills they develop throughout the process; staff as coachees cultivate a self-directed approach to professional development as well as improving their self-confidence and wellbeing.

Children benefit in a number of ways, either as a direct result of having been coached themselves or because staff they work with have had positive experiences through coaching. They can also become deep thinkers, increase their resilience and improve their competence as independent learners, feeling able to tackle a number of issues. Like staff, children value someone listening attentively. As such coaching with pupils can develop positive, stronger relationships.

It is important to ensure flexibility in the approaches used. Some coaches will argue that trusting the structure of a coaching model will lead to successful outcomes for the coachee, but understanding the context of the discussion and a coach’s use of intuition should not be overlooked when seeking to establish a powerful and productive coaching relationship.

Not every interaction is a coaching opportunity, nor should coaching, as a tool for CPD, sit in isolation – mentoring, counselling and the imparting of information are all valuable. However, coaching can be an exciting tool to support a climate of strategic thinking, collaboration and improved wellbeing. 

Coaching: Top Tips

  • Trust is crucial: communicate the purpose of offering coaching opportunities clearly; ensure it is voluntary and democratic.
  • Slow and steady wins the race: reiterate the importance of taking the time to listen and reflect deeply in order to understand what is really important for personal and professional growth.
  • That thing called theory: consider different coaching models and investigate
  • Laura Mackay is assistant principal of Springwest Academy in Middlesex. Laura is currently working closely with the Teacher Development Trust (https://tdtrust.org), a national charity for effective CPD in schools, to develop and improve the resources available to teachers interested in using coaching.

Further information & reading

  • The Teacher Development Trust is hosting one-day conference Coaching in Schools: Dialogue to Drive Performance, on Thursday, November 15, in Manchester. Visit https://tdtcoachinginschools.eventbrite.co.uk
  • Powerful Questions for Coaches and Mentors: A practical guide for coaches and mentors, Clutterbuck, 2013, Wordscapes.
  • The Leader’s Guide To Being Coached, Clutterbuck, 2014, Wordscapes.
  • The effect of teaching coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal evidence, Kraft, Blazar & Hogan, 2016, Brown University Working Paper.
  • Leadership: Seven useful questions, David Weston, SecEd, July 2016: http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/best-practice/leadership-seven-useful-questions
  • Professional learning and the role of the coach in the new masters in teaching and learning, Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education (CUREE), 2009: http://bit.ly/2OT4ZQZ


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