Getting started with teacher coaching in international education programs

Increasingly, coaching programs for teachers are present in many donor-funded education programs. Discover what coaching is, why it is important, and the different types of coaching.

August 25, 2020 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
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6 minutes read
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A teacher and students at the Niamey Teacher Training college. Niger. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
A teacher and students at the Niamey Teacher Training college. Niger
GPE/Kelley Lynch

“No matter how well-trained people are, few can sustain their best performance on their own.”

Atul Gawande

A while back, a reader asked whether I had seen any positive changes in teacher professional development since 2013 when I began writing for GPE. Yes, I replied, many! The most positive change I have seen is the international education community’s embrace of coaching.

In 2007 when my EDC colleagues and I initiated a coaching program in Indonesia, coaching was so uncommon in donor programs that I was shuttled about various offices as a coaching whisperer-cum-apologist—arguing (not always successfully) to intrigued but skeptical donors why coaching was beneficial to teachers and how it could promote a greater return on professional development investment.

Fast forward to today and we increasingly see coaching programs as a central, or at least ancillary, requirement in many donor-funded education programs.

Given the proliferation of coaching programs in international education programs, it seems worth devoting some digital ink over the next few blog posts to coaching—what it is (the focus of this post), and in the next posts, some of the common misperceptions about coaching, and how we do coaching in the age of a pandemic.

What is a coach?

If you are a sports fan or have played a sport, you understand how essential a good coach is to performance.

A coach is a trained and knowledgeable professional who is skilled at taking teachers (or principals) from where they are to where they want to be. In education, as in sports, a coach’s job is to make people work better in their profession and be better professionals.

Coaches do this in three ways:

  1. They help teachers focus on clear, doable goals and support them in meeting these goals.
  2. They help individual teachers and groups of teachers develop the skills needed to attain goals.
  3. They help teachers increase their capacity for collaboration, adapt to change and work through conflict (Garmston & Wellman, 2013).

A coach is not a supervisor, an evaluator or an inspector (think about how well that would work for an athlete or team). S/He is not the teacher’s boss. Nor is a coach a teacher’s helper or assistant. Finally, coaches and mentors are not the same thing (more on that in the next post).

Image
In Indonesia, a technology coach (left) works with two teachers. Photo credit: EDC
In Indonesia, a technology coach (left) works with two teachers
Photo credit: EDC

What coaching is

Coaching is a highly personal relationship between two professionals. As in sports, coaching in education is goal-oriented, ongoing, intensive, structured and focused on the work of improving performance.

A coach’s support is individualized; it is job-embedded (at the school where the teacher works); and it is just in time (support when the teacher needs it). Above all, it is focused on the fundamental work of teaching.

As with athletic coaching, educational coaching involves a myriad of tasks—demonstrating, motivating, planning, formatively assessing, cajoling, listening, persuading, modeling, co-creating, debunking, processing, building confidence—but above all it involves empowering teachers with a particular set of knowledge and skills that lead to better student learning.

Coaching is physical and temporal. It is highly analytical and mechanical. Just as a football or cricket coach does, an educational coach breaks down a complex behavior into its constituent elements so that teachers understand these components and the concepts and mechanics of each. Teachers and coaches often work together to create a lesson, a unit, an activity, or an approach based on examination of the results of a shared analysis.

…And what it is not

Not every supportive interaction with a teacher is coaching. From 2015-2017, I worked with university instructors in Southeast Asia. I traveled to the region a few times per year, visited classrooms, provided feedback and guidance, and helped instructors periodically with lesson design ideas. However, I consider that to be “follow up,” not coaching. It was supportive. I hope it was helpful. But it was not structured, intensive, temporal or ongoing.

In contrast, during that time I worked with two instructors who were part of this same program. Over a number of years, through bi-monthly Skype calls, we brainstormed ideas, I debriefed with them, they shared lesson plans and ideas for new activities, they would do a walk-through via Skype, and I interviewed their students to get the student perspective on these activities. The relationship was often just-in-time, intensive, structured and ongoing. I consider that to be coaching.

Why coaching?

Coaching is not new. Most of us have been coached in developing some talent —in a sport, in life, in a job. In education, coaching has developed in response to the failed virtuoso model: “You’ve been trained as a teacher. You’re an expert. Go forth and conquer.”

Coaching has also moved to the fore because of the failed in-service professional development model: “We’ve trained you in this stuff. Now go do it!”

Ultimately, coaching in education is a recognition—per the observation of Atul Gawande that frames this post— that to give their very best, every professional needs ongoing guidance and support from a more knowledgeable practitioner ; that learning is not an event (a one-time training) but rather a process.

Coaching, when done well, works. A recent meta-evaluation of 43 studies on coaching shows that, when done well by skilled coaches, coaching has large positive effects on teachers’ instructional practices—effects that are greater than the difference in instructional quality between novice and veteran teachers (Kraft et al. 2018).

Coaching is also enormously popular with teachers. This is borne out in my own experiences and by research. In a recent U.S. study on coaching, nearly nine in ten teachers who were coached reported value in coaching as a form of professional development and more than half considered it “highly” valuable (Van Ostrand, Seylar & Luke, 2020).

Are there different kinds of coaching?

Coaching is often an undifferentiated term, but in fact it is often quite specialized. In education, there are instructional coaches, technology coaches, literacy coaches, data coaches, content coaches, among others. In practice, many of these roles overlap.

In addition, there are two larger categorical differences. Coaches can be external—outsiders tapped to coach teachers (like me) — or internal—a lead teacher or peer coach.

A successful method of professional development…if we can keep it

Coaching, when done well, with qualified and well-prepared coaches, is a proven model of helping teachers sustain teaching improvements. However, it demands much from coaches and from those who design and run coaching programs—commitment to excellence, time, resources, effort, and a willingness to make some profound changes in our approach to professional development.

The next post will discuss how we can coach teachers during this time of forced distancing.

Notes

(1) While coaching is new in the international development realm, the U.S. Department of Education Regional Laboratories in the 1990s and early 2000s promoted coaching as part of overall professional development initiatives for Title I (poor) schools. As part of one such program, I worked as a coach along the Texas-Mexico border, in Austin, TX, in southwest Louisiana and on the Tahlequah Indian Reservation in Oklahoma.

References

Garmston, R.J. & Wellman, B.M. (2013). The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. London, U.K.: Rowman & Littlefield

Kraft, M.A., Blazar D, Hogan D. (2018). The effect of teacher coaching on instruction and achievement: A Meta-analysis of the causal evidence. Review of Educational Research, 88 (4):547-588

Ostrand, K.V., Seylar, J. & Luke, C. (2020). Prevalence of Coaching and Approaches to Supporting Prevalence of Coaching and Approaches to Supporting Coaching in Education. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/swgkg5p

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Comments

Iam interested in coaching in education plz guide me.

In reply to by Inayat ullah

Hi Inayat, I would say that (if you don't have it), try to get teaching experience. Then (not knowing your situation), you could start reading about instructional coaching. I would start with Jim Knight, Bruce Joyce (and his various collaborators), Robert Garmston, and Elena Aguilar. Good luck!

Mary

Good article that explains well coaching as an ongoing activity. It defferenciate clrearly between a coach and a teacher. supervisor, trainer, principal, evaluator, etc and how important the role of a coach is especially under the current situation of social distance due to the Covid19 pandemic. Thanks to the author.

In reply to by Mohamed Marzou…

Thank you, Mohamed.

It's nice of you to respond. I'm glad it was helpful.

My best to you,

Mary

Thank you Mary for this wonderful blog entry. Since reading it in August I have been thinking about the ways that mentoring is different than coaching. We at Perkins International through our Educational Partnership Program have coach, mentored, supported and have had on going meaningful conversations with over 300 teachers from all around the world about educating children with significant disabilities. Looking forward to your next post when you describe the differences between coaching and mentoring.

In reply to by Lisa A. Jacobs

Hi Lisa, Thanks for reading and commenting. I loved the earlier Perkins blog post. It would be great if you shared Perkins' coaching and mentoring approaches via GPE. This is one of the few international development blogs where we can share good practices.

Cheers,

Mary

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