The traps of donor-funded coaching … and what to do about them

How to overcome coaching traps that are part of donor-funded coaching programs for teachers’ professional development.

May 23, 2022 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
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8 minutes read
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Mariam Mohamed Vall, 32, a 3rd year student at Ecole Normale des Instituteurs de Nouakchott teaches a 4th grade Arabic class at Ecole Annexe primary school in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Mariam Mohamed Vall, 32, a third year student at Ecole Normale des Instituteurs de Nouakchott teaches a fourth grade Arabic class at Ecole Annexe primary school in Nouakchott, Mauritania. November 2017.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

This is the fourth blog post in a series on coaching.

As a former school-based coach and a longtime proponent of coaching in donor-funded teacher professional development projects, it’s been heartening to witness the embrace of teacher coaching programs over the last several years. While the research on coaching is still evolving, one thing is clear—teachers find coaching extremely valuable1.

That said, the nature of international development programs—the focus on “technical coaching” and the size and speed of such programs— creates unintended consequences or “traps” that threaten to subvert the potential benefits of coaching.

This blog post identifies some of the inherent traps related to coaching in large-scale systems that threaten the sustainability, intent, effectiveness, equity and resource allocation of the coaching program itself. It also identifies potential remedies.

The expertise trap

The first is the expertise trap. We see this in many projects where the coaching is carried out by someone external to the school—for example, from an implementing agency or a university.

Where a coach provides technical assistance, he/she may be viewed by the teacher as the expert. Indeed, the coach may in fact regard themselves as the expert, too. This creates the risk of teachers assuming a passive role and the coach an overly assertive one. Such a dynamic can potentially undermine teacher agency and autonomy. Thus, the expertise trap threatens the sustainability of the coaching program because the program will end, and the teacher may not feel they have the capacity to carry on without the coach.

There are numerous remedies to the expertise trap. First, projects can employ peer coaches so there’s less of a status differential. Next, “partnership agreements” between the coach and teacher can outline each person’s role, ensuring that the teacher—not the coach—is in charge of the professional relationship2.

Finally, programs need to invest in developing “skilled coaches who can structure conversations with teachers as dialogues between two equal partners” to help teachers take charge of their learning3.

The compliance trap

A second trap, emanating from the first, is the compliance trap.

In international development, the dominant capacity building paradigm rests on the “broken teacher” theory: the teacher doesn’t know how to do something; the implementing agency remedies this through professional development; and the coach is deployed to help teachers put new skills into practice.

In large projects with a focus on numerical outputs, the coach, because of their access into teachers’ classrooms, inevitably becomes the accountability agent, not the support agent. And compliance becomes the focus of both the teacher and the coach’s actions.

Compliance is a good thing—we do things because we are supposed to—and there is surely an undercurrent of compliance in technical coaching. We often have to get teacher compliance before we get teacher buy-in.

But if the expertise trap threatens the sustainability of coaching, the compliance trap threatens its intent. Coaching and accountability are two different activities. Coaching is professional development— not monitoring and evaluation.

The blurring of the coach’s role—supporter and evaluator— weakens the coaching relationship by distorting its focus, making the relationship hierarchical, and transforming the nature of coaching from support to accountability and control4. This can undermine genuine teacher commitment to professional growth.

The solution to the compliance trap is twofold: First, implementing agencies need to clearly differentiate between accountability activities and coaching ones. They can then divide labor with the coach and a supervisor, evaluator or inspector supervising and assuring accountability.

The fidelity trap

Related to the compliance trap is the fidelity (of implementation) trap. High-fidelity implementation of some approach or innovation is often the goal of both teacher professional development and coaching. The underlying concept is that the “innovation” must be implemented exactly as intended by designers with no variation from that model.

There is certainly research promoting the importance of fidelity of implementation. A 2019 review of federally funded studies of classroom improvement programs in the U.S. associated poor-quality implementation with weaker impacts on student learning outcomes5. But these are programs carefully designed by content experts and grounded in rigorous testing. That may not be true for every international development program.

The fidelity trap, when carried to the extreme, changes the focus of coaching from teacher agency, empowerment, contextualization and development to imitation—following the script or a step-by-step process—and often imposing a one-size-fits all approach.

Additionally, to be effective, coaches must show they trust teachers’ professional instincts. The fidelity trap threatens the coach’s trust in the efficacy of the teacher—foundational to the coaching relationship itself.

There are two remedies for the fidelity trap. First, we must be certain new approaches are worthy of being implemented with fidelity, based on rigorous quality assurance and external evaluation. Second, we should allow what Hill, Papay and Schwartz call “adaptation with guardrails”—helping teachers gradually modify aspects of the innovation while sticking to its core elements.

The same review shows that doing so can improve student learning outcomes beyond what is possible through program fidelity alone.

Pedagogical Advisor Orkeo Chittavongsa observes teacher Khammanh Ladavone's fifth grade classroom. Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Pedagogical Advisor Orkeo Chittavongsa observes teacher Khammanh Ladavone's fifth grade classroom. Somsanouk Primary School, Pak Ou District, Lao PDR. December 2018
Credit:
GPE/Kelley Lynch

The feedback trap

If there is one common thread in all donor-funded coaching programs, it is classroom observations with feedback. Its underlying theory of change proceeds like this: The coach observes a class and provides corrective feedback, and the teacher works to improve based on those observations.

Except feedback doesn’t always work like that. We can accept it, modify it to fit our existing schema, or reject it outright. And a lot of research shows that we routinely do the latter. We get defensive and reject the feedback—so this critical element of our coaching programs may not be as effective as we think.

There are other issues with feedback: Pointing out weaknesses in performance can actually inhibit learning6. Learning and excellence don’t happen by focusing on failure but by building on what we do well. Thus, the fourth trap—the feedback trap—threatens the core belief of many of our coaching programs.

We can combat the feedback trap. First, we can abandon the “telling” about excellent classroom instruction for the “showing” of what it looks like in practice. Second, we can employ protocols that structure conversations so that the teacher, versus the coach, identifies what to change.

The last two traps are about resources and using them effectively.

The uniformity trap

The uniformity trap is borne of the best intentions—ensuring that every teacher gets the same “dosage” of coaching. Yet since every teacher embraces change differently, not every teacher needs coaching or even the same amount of coaching. In fact, those who need the most coaching may be disadvantaged by a coaching program that treats everyone equally. Thus, the uniformity trap threatens the equity of coaching.

Coaching is personalized, not a one-size-fits all form of teacher professional development. Innovators and early adopters often take an innovation and run with it and many resistors will never adopt an innovation7. Given this, coaching should concentrate on those in the middle—the early and late majority adopters who will require substantially more support to implement an innovation.

Providing coaching to those who need it most makes for higher-quality more personalized coaching. Working with a more manageable number of teachers allows the coach to support teachers around a particular innovation and work intensively to help teachers meet their goals around this innovation.

The simplicity trap

The simplicity trap is related to the uniformity trap and comes from another good impulse—wanting to help teachers with every challenge. But, just as not every teacher needs coaching, nor does every innovation.

The simplicity trap first involves an examination of the types of activities or tasks associated with change. Simple tasks involve a set of steps that will produce the same results each time when the steps are followed. Complicated tasks require more intricate and difficult work, but they involve formulas and steps that should produce predictable outcomes.

Finally, complex tasks present an adaptive challenge. Progress requires going beyond existing knowledge and ways of working. They may involve discovery, shifting paradigms, and thinking outside the box8.

Some innovations are simple (perhaps, teaching the alphabet) and others more complicated (learning how to use technology). Yet both have technical solutions—if teachers follow a series of steps, they’ll arrive at a solution.

For innovations that are complex—for example, teaching a new standards-based curriculum—step-by-step guides don’t work because there is a great deal of variability and unpredictability inherent in these innovations. Additionally, complex tasks involve teachers’ beliefs, intentions, paradigms, values and behaviors.

Many programs provide coaching for all three types of tasks—simple, complicated and complex. Thus, the simplicity trap dilutes the effectiveness of coaching because it is easier to focus on simple versus complex changes. However, we need to focus coaching on complex activities, especially when those tasks are accompanied by high expectations.

We can do this by categorizing our innovations, helping teachers find resources for simple and complicated challenges, and devoting intense coaching efforts to complex innovations that would most benefit from a coach.

*******

Read the previous blogs in this series:

  1. Getting started with teacher coaching in international education programs
  2. Instructional coaching’s magical thinking problem – or 8 threats to coaching
  3. Can virtual coaching be an effective substitute for in-person coaching?

References

  1. Ostrand, K., Seylar, J., & Luke, C. (2020). Prevalence of Coaching and Approaches to Supporting in Education. Retrieved from https://tinyurl.com/swgkg5p
  2. Garmston, R., & Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. London, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.
  3. Knight, J. (2022). The Definitive Guide to Instructional Coaching. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  4. Knight, J. (2019, November). Why Teacher Autonomy Is Central to Coaching Success. Education Leadership, 77(3), 14-20.
  5. Hill, H., Papay, J., & Schwartz, N. (2022). Dispelling the Myths: What the Research Says About Teacher Professional Learning. The Research Partnership for Professional Learning. Providence, RI: Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. / Hill, H., & Erickson, A. (2019). Using implementation fidelity to aid in interpreting program impacts: A brief review. Educational Researcher, 48(9), 590-598.
  6. Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A. (2019, May). The feedback fallacy. Harvard Business Review, 92-101.
  7. Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusions of innovations (4th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.
  8. Glouberman, S., & Zimmerman, B. (2002). Complicated and Complex Systems: What Would Successful Reform of Medicare Look Like? Ottowa, CA: Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/english/pdf/romanow/ pdfs/8_Glouberman_E.pdf / Haifetz, R., & Linksky, M. (2002, June). Change Management: A Survival Guide for Leaders. Harvard Business Review.
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Do you have resources for preliminary assessments and indicative planning? I have never applied for funds this could be the first application. If you do the what is the process and procedures of application? Thank you.

Hi James,

What are you assessing and what is indicative planning? I think I need more information to properly respond.

Cheers,

Mary

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