Developing a coaching culture in schools and academies to raise performance

Sara Spinks 10 April 2023 4 min read
Developing a coaching culture in schools and academies to raise performance feature image

Put simply, coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the ‘here and now’ rather than on the distant past or future.

In this article, SSS Learning content author Sara Rawnsley reflects on her experience as a former Headteacher / Local Leader of Education and Headteacher Coach, sharing her top tips for developing a culture to raise performance.

There is a huge difference between teaching someone and helping them to learn. In coaching, fundamentally, the coach is helping the individual to improve their own performance: in other words, helping them to learn.

Good coaches believe that each individual always has the answer to their own problems but understands that they may need help to find the answer. Coaching is a process as well as a philosophy. The process is quite easy; asking mostly open questions that invite people to think for themselves, listening with empathy to really understand individuals and giving effective feedback to enable learning and progress.

However, it is the philosophy underpinning coaching that is essential for it to work. It requires a leadership style where the emphasis is put on asking and involving, not telling and directing. This, in turn, enables staff to feel empowered to be independent firstly and then, to be interdependent or collaborative. Through the values of trust and integrity and believing that everyone has ability, coaching can help unlock potential.

So, here are my Top Tips on Teacher coaching:

Different types of teacher coaching

There are different ways, types and methods of coaching to support to teachers, depending on your teacher's situation, time and resources.

1. Instructional Coaching

Instructional coaching is where an expert teacher helps the classroom teacher to focus on one aspect of their technique that can be isolated and practised, e.g. Feedback, explaining and modelling.

Instructional coaching is high-quality professional development for teachers. It is a high-challenge but a low-risk strategy, addressing issues teachers face daily in their classrooms. It is ongoing, not a one-off. Its goal is twofold: improved teaching practice and improved student learning.

Instructional coaching works by partnering coaches with teachers to help them improve teaching and learning and raise student outcomes. To do this, instructional coaches collaborate with teachers to get a clear picture of where their teaching is currently, identify goals, choose teaching strategies to meet the goals, monitor progress, and problem-solve until the goals are met.

Benefits of instructional coaching for teachers and schools

Recent meta-analysis on instructional coaching shows that it has promising outcomes for the improvement of practice, and subsequent academic gains for students. Suggesting that it is a worthy investment of time and effort.

Six benefits of instructional coaching are that it is:

  1. Individualised;
  2. Intensive;
  3. Sustained;
  4. Context-specific;
  5. Focused;
  6. Encourages self-reflection.

However, the benefits of coaching go far beyond supporting the teacher in just the classroom. When put in place, instructional coaching can also change school culture because improvement efforts are school-wide, not just made by individual teachers.

It can also improve collaboration because professional growth opportunities are stressed by instructional coaches, and collaboration and building of successful relationships is encouraged within the educational community.

So, the benefits of instructional coaching are plentiful. But according to Lucy Steiner and Julie Kowal from the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement–

“For an instructional coaching program to be effective, school leaders need to play an active role in selecting trained coaches, developing a targeted coaching strategy, and evaluating whether coaches are having the desired impact on teaching and learning.”

2. Peer coaching

Peer coaching is when teachers of similar or equal status support each other through mutual problem-solving, observations, collaborative teaching, and planning. The aim is to improve upon skills through reflection and collaboration without evaluation or judgement. In addition to helping teachers transfer new skills into their own classrooms, peer coaching also facilitates the development of a culture of learning, experimentation, and collegiality.

Peer coaching works when a teacher invites a coach to observe them in the classroom. During a pre-observation meeting led by the inviting teacher, they decide on the focus of the classroom observation, the way they will collect data, guidelines for the coach's behaviour in the classroom during the observation, the parameters of the discussion of observed teaching, and the date and time of the observation.

After the observation, a post-observation meeting provides opportunities for the teacher and coach to discuss, analyse and reflect on what was observed and how to move forwards.

Other types of peer coaching can involve a pair or a team of teachers co-planning a lesson or curriculum unit, problem-solving, analysing videos of lessons or study groups, and conducting action research.

The benefits of peer coaching for teachers are:

  • Improved student achievement and progress;
  • Increased ability to analyse their own lessons;
  • Better grasp of best practices in teaching and learning;
  • Wider repertoire of instructional strategies/resources;
  • Deeper sense of efficacy;
  • Greater feeling of autonomy;
  • Overcoming feelings of isolation;
  • Stronger professional ties and relationships with colleagues;
  • Improved teaching performance;
  • A better-articulated curriculum;
  • More cohesive school culture and positive school climate.

But, how do we develop a coaching culture? Developing a coaching / high-performance culture is not a quick fix. It takes time and commitment, but the results are worth the effort and can become transformative, changing the language in a school to become more reflective and proactive.

So here are five key steps which I believe support the process of coaching:

Set out the 'Why'
Make it clear as to 'WHY' a coaching culture would be beneficial for all. Make sure that everyone has a clear understanding and rationale backed up by research. Without it, you will not get the buy-in you need from across the school. This is the fundamental first step.
Prepare the Ground
Once all have understood the 'why', then there needs to be an analysis of the current situation and decision of the culture to be created, the outcomes to be achieved and which type of coaching methodology to be used. Read research and explore training opportunities, deciding on a common reference or techniques for all staff.
Create a Plan
A clear plan needs to be developed to move forward with clear time frames and actions, clearly communicated and shared with all stakeholders. Ideally, this plan should be integrated into the school's development or improvement plan, CPD plan and scheduled into directed time. Fail to plan, plan to fail.
Take Action
Put the plan into action. When staff all have the same understanding of the workings of particular techniques, the organisation is well prepared for rapid development. Use a common reference point so that, through discussion and practice, each teacher and teacher-coach is able to engage with the ideas, in the same manner, step by step. With shared understanding, the emphasis is then on how to improve implementation without risking miscommunication or wasting energy on defining the steps.
Measure and Consolidate
As with all progress it needs to be measured and evaluated. One of the keys is to praise small wins, and regularly review and communicate progress.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher