Instructional coaching: Cycles, systems and processes

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Considered by many to be the most effective form of teacher CPD, instructional coaching is gaining popularity in schools. In part two of a two-part article, Robbie Burns looks at implementing instructional coaching across the primary school


In my first article (Burns, 2022), I outlined why instructional coaching, according to recent research into professional development, might be a useful tool to support colleagues to improve their classroom practice.

I described three instructional coaching principles: it should always be focused on improving teaching, it should be only one part of wider CPD, and it must be attuned to the needs of the coachee.

In this article, I hope to share the cycles, systems, processes and some of our implementation journey so far.


The instructional coaching impact cycle

After considering a range of instructional coaching cycles, such as Bambrick-Santoyo’s work in Get Better Faster (2016), the GROW and BASIC models (described in the last article), and some of the recent work on instructional coaching produced by Ambition Institute, we felt that the most flexible, adaptive approach for us was Jim Knight’s Impact Cycle (2017). I will describe the cycle and how it works in practice in our school.


Step 1: Identify

In this first step, coaches aim to gather clear, coherent snapshots of the realities of the classroom practice of the coachee. By beginning with the coach observing a small portion of classroom practice of the coachee’s choosing, in person or virtually through tools like VEO, the coach is able to gather evidence on the focus of the coaching cycle and where they ought to go next.

Evidence can be gathered not just via classroom observations, but by talking to students, looking at student work and even assessment data. As such, a rich picture of reality can be created.

Regardless of the method of gathering the evidence, the principle remains the same: teachers can’t move forward in their practice unless they and their coach have a clear picture of the current reality of a small aspect that they would like to develop.

For example, instructional coaches at our school have run cycles about learning behaviours, entry routines, classroom talk and questioning strategies that have been rooted in the development needs of colleagues but also link directly to the whole-school CPD being delivered.

Once this has been done, the next step is coming to a PEERS goal to frame up the rest of the work between coach and coachee. Jim Knight, throughout his work, noticed that SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-based) goals and other acronyms to support goal-setting weren’t quite as pertinent to the work of teachers as the acronym PEERS. This stands for:

  • Powerful
  • Easy
  • Emotionally compelling
  • Reachable
  • Student-focused

Notice the shift here from generic goals that might be set through SMART and the student-focused nature of a PEERS goal, linked with the desire for the goal to be emotionally compelling – it needs to matter to the teachers, otherwise it simply won’t be a priority.

After reality has been captured and a PEERS goal has been set, instructional coaches and coachees work together to consider practical strategies that can be implemented in the classroom to meet the PEERS goal. These might be brand new or they might be things that the teacher already does but needs to refine further.

At this point, it is a good idea to have a “playbook” of strategies for teachers to use. As a school, we use Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli’s Teaching WalkTHRUs (2020) as a tool to support this process.

Modelling these strategies is the final, crucial part of the identify step. Depending on the experience level of the coach and coachee, this might be as simple as the coach talking through how they would approach the strategy with them, or undertaking some deliberate practice.

If capacity allows and there are resources to support, it might also be worth showing the coachee some videos of other teachers trying out the strategies under discussion, so they can leave the first session with clarity about what success looks like.


Step 2: Learn

The next stage of the cycle is all about the personal practice of the teacher, in the classroom, focusing their attention and mental effort on improving their practice linked to the goal that they have set.

The coach, if they have a good playbook tool such as WalkThrus, provides their coachee with a clear checklist or step-by-step and then they are able to practice on their own in a way that suits them. In addition, it might also be that the coach provides blogs and resources to help the coachee develop their subject and pedagogical content knowledge over time.


Step 3: Improve

This final part of the cycle is about reviewing the progress that the coachee has made. This is the opportunity for the teacher to celebrate their development and review the impact it has had on student outcomes. If the PEERS goal and relevant strategies have been outlined clearly from the outset, this is relatively straightforward since the evidence gathering has already been agreed. It is important we celebrate the small, incremental wins of teacher development and this creates the space to do this.

At the end of the impact cycle, the coach and coachee can either continue with the PEERS goal, refine it further, or move on to a new cycle. Everything then begins again.


How does instructional coaching work in practice at our school?

The strength of a cycle like this is its flexibility and its focus in equal measure. It is loose enough to cater for a range of experience and expertise (of both coach and coachee) and also focused enough on student outcomes for it to be a viable use of precious leadership and teaching time. Many schools that have adopted this have made it work in practice in a range of ways.


Instructional coaching is only the personalised aspect of our CPD offer

As I have already mentioned, instructional coaching is not the only CPD activity we do but it plays a crucial part. All CPD at our school is seen through a whole-school, subject and individual lens. These three layers don’t always totally match up in their content and priorities but they are not three separate entities; they exist to support one another in a way that cuts across the needs of staff, school culture and wider development priorities.

This means instructional coaching can be tailored to the needs of the member of staff. If they need to work on their exit routines, questioning or classroom talk, then they are welcome to do this. Furthermore, colleagues who want to spend two impact cycles on the same content are able to if they think this is the best thing for their development and current practice needs. However, in our experience to date, often colleagues have wanted to take what is discussed in whole-school CPD and consider what it means for them.


All teaching staff have an entitlement to three Impact Cycles’ per year

We work on the basis of one impact cycle per term. Given the experience levels of most colleagues, this suits their current commitments beyond the classroom and also enables them to move towards small lasting changes over a sustained period of time. This allows for one coaching session and observation per half-term with lots of contact between coach and coachee in between. We encourage coaches to send resources and keep each other in the loop on their progress throughout the cycle, but this current commitment of time fits the wider CPD offer we provide.


The implementation process

We began by having all senior leaders take on instructional coaching responsibilities. That way, we were able to monitor the development of the cycle and adapt it accordingly in our weekly meetings.

As time went by, we felt that it was important we have less senior leaders as instructional coaches and more staff. Therefore, I trained another four colleagues to become instructional coaches and they took over some of the responsibility from senior leaders.

We paired colleagues largely as experienced and less experienced. This meant that there was not only a chance for the more experienced colleagues to learn how to do instructional coaching but there was also an opportunity for them to share their expertise with staff who were earlier on in their teaching journey.

Throughout, it has been important to have one-on-one conversations with coachees, provide lots of modelling, direct them to resources, and provide a detailed handbook to help them when they need to refresh their approach.

Since our instructional coaching is deeply intertwined with our whole-school, team and phase CPD, there is always opportunity for colleagues to be thinking about elements they can discuss with their coach. We refer to our playbook Teaching WalkThrus in every session and are slowly building a common language through its use in all areas of staff CPD.

Each half-term, instructional coaches are expected to fill out a coaching log of the conversations they have had with staff and I monitor this each term to check current staff needs and consider ways I can design CPD to support this. We aim to have annual training for instructional coaches and take on more coaches as the years go by.


The tools

Video Enhanced Observation (VEO) is an excellent, simple piece of software that has an app that can be uploaded to iPads. It safely and securely enables you to store and share video footage between teachers.

Jim Knight (2017) talks about developing a playbook of strategies that can be used by coaches and coachees over time. Tom Sherrington and Oliver Caviglioli have done just that in their Teaching WalkThrus (2020). They are building an excellent library of strategies that include the steps to success for each strategy to aid conversation and development.


Conclusion

There have been many barriers along the way to implementing instructional coaching and we are far from making it work perfectly. We still have much to learn. As each term goes by, we are looking at how we can improve and develop our practice to help every teacher get better and, as a result, make a bigger difference to the lives of the young people we serve.

Further information & resources

  • Bambrick-Santoyo: Get Better Faster: A 90-day plan for coaching new teachers, Jossey-Bass, June 2016.
  • Burns: Instructional coaching: What it is, how it works and why it matters, Headteacher Update, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3LAScku
  • Knight: The Impact Cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching, Corwin Press, 2017.
  • Sherrington & Caviglioli: Teaching WalkThrus: Five-step guides to instructional coaching (Volume One), John Catt Educational, 2020.
  • VEO: https://veo.co.uk/


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