Building trust and empowering teachers: step inside Instructional Coaching with Sue and Singh

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Date published 26 April 2024

Teacher education never stops, according to Sue Turner, Assistant Principal at Our Lady and St Chad Catholic Academy.

“I'm really passionate about all things teaching and learning,” says Sue. “Whether you're teaching a four year old or an adult, learning is just learning.”

Sue is a geography teacher and part of the senior leadership team at the 11 to 18 school in inner-city Wolverhampton, which is part of St Francis and St Clare Catholic Multi Academy Company. She also leads on the professional development for trainee teachers and Early Career Teachers (ECTs).

It’s this ethos and desire to invest in the continuous professional development (CPD) of its teaching staff that drew the school to the Instructional Coaching programme with Ambition Institute. The programme focuses on developing coaching expertise in experienced staff to support teacher education at all levels. Together, Sue and the school’s Principal planned to roll out coaching across the whole school to improve collective teaching and learning approaches, and Sue admits the journey has made her “rethink all aspects of CPD”.

Senior leader and junior teaching mentoring using a laptop

Developing a bond of trust and open communication

As part of the programme, participants receive three one-to-one coaching sessions with their tutor. Sue was paired with Ambition tutor and instructional coach Amarbeer Singh Gill. Their first job was to identify Sue’s current and target performance – where her teaching currently is and where she wants it to get to.

“Sue sent me a clip of her teaching,” Singh begins, “and I watched it and took very objective and factual notes. From that, we constructed a coaching conversation to pick apart the goal.”

“We'll ask coachees lots of questions to work out what their goal and purpose is and how might they achieve that. We get them to think about the strengths and benefits of different solutions to this central problem. Through that dialogue, we settled on a goal that Sue felt would be most appropriate for her classroom in that particular situation.”

Sue’s goal was around checking for whole-class understanding: “How do we know pupils have understood what we're trying to teach them?”.

“We try to meet the coachees’ needs at their level,” Singh explains, so a core aspect of instructional coaching is tailoring support and solutions to the teacher and school’s context. From there, they identify opportunities to practise new classroom habits in a safe environment before applying them in a real-world situation.

Singh is clear that coaches “try to avoid saying ‘this is the thing to do’ or ‘this is the best thing’. Partly because we don't always believe there is a universal best thing to do.” Instead, “it's a two-way relationship: coaches need to understand the coachee’s thinking and context and make them feel comfortable in engaging with the process in the spirit of development, not judgement”. Sue was only too happy to get stuck in.

“Singh would model a new behaviour and then I had to stand up and model it back to him, then remodel it. I think people walking past thought I was mad!” she laughs.

As Sue became confident in the basic strategy for whole-class understanding, Singh wanted to push her to use it more flexibly in an unpredictable environment. “Singh made it a scenario with a specific pupil causing a disruption and we had to pretend it was a real-life classroom situation.” Sue found the immersive experience of having to respond in the moment useful in translating the strategy back to the real environment of the classroom. “You had to think ‘if this were to happen, how would you deal with it?’”

Singh agrees that “modelling and practising standing up in front of a stranger can be unfamiliar”. “But,” he says, “Sue engaged with it and was really open to hearing my thoughts and reflections and being challenged, which is really important.”

These conversations are key to developing a strong bond of trust and open communication between coach and coachee. The interactive method of learning is part of what makes instructional coaching so impactful.

“The excellent material was delivered to a really high standard and was really well structured,” says Sue. “It makes you think on your toes and engage with the content.”

Sue completed the term-length programme between April and July 2023. After focusing on Sue’s teaching, Singh and Sue went on to collaboratively plan a coaching session for a colleague. Sue sent a video to Singh of her providing the coaching, who gave feedback to Sue on her delivery of that session. That gave her the confidence to begin the next stage: offering more development to a group of six teachers at Our Lady and St Chad Catholic Academy.

Two junior teachers engaging in professional development using a laptop in staffroom

Coaching others: from low to high stakes

Sue accommodated the next phase into staff timetables from the start of the 2023/24 academic year. But developing her skills as a coach was a challenge in itself.

“When I was planning it, I thought ‘this is really pushing me outside of my comfort zone’,” she admits. But Sue wanted to apply her learning from the programme to support the development of those already mentoring at her school.

“Most of the group are ECT and PGCE mentors,” Sue explains, “so it was quite low stakes in that PGCEs and ECTs are novices and we can go into their lessons and identify something that can be improved upon quite easily.”

Sue recognised that ECT and PGCE mentors play such an important role in the development of new teachers. For this reason, she wanted to make sure they got a similar level of investment from the school.

“First, they came to the session with me with their detailed coaching notes. Then they had to create an action step and some success criteria.” Some of the coaches struggled, Sue reflects, “so we had sessions where we unpicked these things together and came up with action steps. Then they went away and delivered a coaching session to their ECT or their PGCE. I got them to record themselves like Singh did with me,” Sue says, which she watched and used to provide feedback on their coaching.

Sue recalls how excited she was by the coaching process. “It was so rewarding seeing the coaches do everything that we had been practising, seeing them get so excited and feel so proud they had done it.”

Part of the satisfaction was seeing the teachers flourish with the extra support. Although ECT mentors have some training on instructional coaching, Sue believes the additional hours of training they have had with her has “had a huge impact on ECT mentoring because they didn’t always understand the nitty-gritty of deliberate practice [a flexible approach to practising new classroom habits]. Now they understand the importance of these bite-size chunks, of modelling and of pushing ECTs out of their comfort zone to practise it back.”

Discussing what she’s observed of ECTs and trainee teachers in the classroom, Sue says: “The first time, they are really focusing on implementing new behaviours, but then they absorb it and begin doing it automatically. But they don't get to that point unless it's been modelled to them, they've practised it and understood it.” This is one of the main benefits of instructional coaching.

The cascading approach, which creates a sustainable approach to whole-school professional development, meant it was never the intention to simply stop at those teachers in the earliest stages of their careers. “Instructional coaching is meant to be for everyone, not just the most novice,” Sue believes.

“We are now doing it in a more high-stakes way,” she explains, “so the six teachers have been paired with one of their fellow coaches.”

This challenges the coaches to find areas for improvement in already experienced teachers’ practice.

Female science teacher pointing towards the periodic table with two pupils watching

“Everyone can be better”

For Sue and Singh, continual learning is part of being a teacher and a coach.

“I have a very experienced PE teacher who is working with a very experienced geography teacher and they said ‘I've just observed a really good teacher outside of my subject area and with a high achieving class that all behave, I'm struggling to identify an action step that will make a difference’.”

“I knew that would happen,” Sue says, “but after the coach rewatched the video she came up with two possible action steps.”

“When they really break it down, there will be something that a teacher can do to improve their practice to improve outcomes. As a coach, you have to dig deep and trust yourself that you've been chosen and trained to do this. The coach may think, ‘Oh, no, I can't do that. That teacher is really good,’ but everyone can be better.”

Singh agrees: “Teaching can be thought of as problem solving: how can we get pupils to remember key information? How can we gain and maintain their attention? This helps when working with teachers because, as coaches, we have to know how to teach adults as well as the content of what good teaching looks like. So if you've got a really strong practitioner you need to ask ‘How do we challenge them?’” This is all part of the coaching conversation which requires the coach and coachee to define the challenges and goals together and explore solutions by looking at classroom problems through various lenses.

So what do the staff think about this new coaching model?

”They've really bought in. They're super excited about it,” Sue shares. “They understand the theory, the rationale, and they love the phrase ‘learners are learners’. It's really empowering, and I think it can make a massive difference to the whole school.” She continues, “I can see some of the biggest cynics buying into my training because they've seen all of the research behind it and what a difference they can make.”

Three junior teachers sat in a Maths classroom with laptop laughing

Whole-school improvement built on culture change

Sue believes rolling out an instructional coaching model throughout the school will be “transformative” but understands that “it's about a cultural change”. She acknowledges how “everyone can continue learning, no one is the finished article. We all have things to learn. But that doesn't come from one person leading, it needs to be a mindset change and everyone needs to buy into it.”

Reflecting on how well the coaching worked for trainee teachers and ECTs, there are now discussions around how to use the learnings to take the whole school forward in the next academic year.

Sue explains that from September, Our Lady and St Chad Catholic Academy will be delivering teacher training through St Francis and St Clare Catholic Multi Academy Company’s partnership with Ambition Institute. She notes that this presents the perfect opportunity for implementation: “I think it will be huge because most initial teacher training programmes now have some sort of an instructional coaching basis.”

“I’d like all of our teacher development to contain an element of instructional coaching so that we can develop better teachers from the get-go,” Sue says. “Teachers that know why they're doing things and have time to practise because that can only result in better teachers that we can keep in the profession. The same with ECTs – the goal is that they get better, they're more confident, they know they're invested in so that we retain them.”

How could your teaching staff flourish with instructional coaching? Discover more on the Instructional Coaching programme page.

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How could your teaching staff flourish with instructional coaching? Discover more on the Instructional Coaching programme page.

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