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.