Perhaps no reform effort has enjoyed more rapid uptake in international education projects over the last few years than teacher coaching. For good reason. Research shows that instructional coaching, in contrast to other reforms (like smaller class size), can result in improved teaching that in turn yields more positive effects on student achievement (Kraft et al, 2018).
As a result, donors, governments and implementers have placed their faith in coaches and coaching to help teachers transfer the fragile knowledge gleaned from a workshop into deep learning in the classroom and to reform teaching.
But as this post will argue, coaching only works if it is conceptualized, designed and implemented well. And here international development coaching programs, writ large, often struggle.
The theoretical underpinnings of coaching often appear intuitive versus research based. Many coaching initiatives are grounded in incomplete theories of change; and recruitment, training and support for coaching are often inadequate.
In short, our aspirations for coaching, minus the foundations that make these hopes a reality, result in a kind of magical thinking about coaching that threatens this potentially powerful form of teacher professional development and support.
I write about these internal threats from the perspective of one who has been a school-based coach, who was trained in cognitive coaching, and whose job over the last several years has been designing and supervising coaching programs for donors in developing countries.
Threat #1: No teaching experience necessary
Coaching is highly technical. It is highly differentiated, individualized, personalized professional development that is craft focused. Teaching is extraordinarily complex—that’s why so many people struggle to do it well.
Skills demonstration; deep understanding of the many dimensions of teaching; empathy with the many travails teachers face; experience with the reality of schools, classrooms and students; offering guidance based on prior experiences; and credibility are essential coaching skills—and they are skills that come from the lived experience of having taught.
Threat #2: No assembly required
But there’s also an inversion of the above, which is, if you’ve been a teacher, ipso facto, you can be a coach! And when we do train coaches, it is often focused on filling out observation forms and donor-funded compliance and accountability forms.
But if teaching is complex, coaching may be more so. The “bricks” of strong teacher experience must be bonded with the “mortar” of coaching skills: feedback; understanding which coaching approaches to deploy (See #7); conflict resolution; change management; and communication skills like summarizing, shifting, and paraphrasing that move teachers from one performance level to another.