“As a school, we care about making staff the best they can be. The same message you have for the kids, you have for the teachers a lot of the time.”
Nicky Blackford is an Assistant Headteacher at Telford Priory School and recently completed Ambition’s Instructional Coaching programme. As part of her role, she is responsible for teaching, learning and continuous professional development (CPD), including the development of early career teachers and trainee teachers.
Nicky joined the school as a teacher six years ago. For the past three years she has overseen the development of a coaching offer which focuses on the continual improvement and growth of staff, using the principles of instructional coaching.
The impact of effective coaching
Since implementing a coaching strategy, Nicky has seen a positive impact on both teacher performance and how pupils are engaging in class.
Nicky recalls one coaching session with a teacher who was struggling to get her class to respond to the recall questions she gave them at the beginning of class: “The teacher said the classroom was deadly silent; that it was a bit like getting blood out of a stone”.
Nicky worked with the teacher to diagnose the cause of the problem, which was that her pupils weren’t remembering content from prior lessons and therefore lacked confidence. She then created an action step for the teacher to implement, involving the introduction of a rehearsal phase before the retrieval phase. The teacher told her pupils which questions they would be answering and gave them time to review their notes before asking them to retrieve the answers – focusing on boosting engagement as a starting point to develop the confidence needed for future retrieval practice.
“She probably had about 10% engagement from pupils at the start, and then within three weeks of working on that action step she was getting 90% to 95% engagement. It was brilliant,” Nicky says.
Nicky’s story is an example of instructional coaching. A sustainable approach to development, instructional coaching involves a coach working with a colleague to identify challenges in the classroom and create bite-sized action steps to tackle those challenges. The coach supports the colleague to implement the action step in the classroom, observes its impact and gives feedback on their progress outside of the lesson.
“That teacher is now looking to see where she can use a similar sort of rehearsal phase to get pupils communicating a little bit more. Using instructional coaching has started off really well, and it will continue to have the same effect, I would like to think.”
Since seeing the impact instructional coaching can have in the classroom, Nicky will continue to implement coaching practice in her school. But how did her school’s coaching journey begin?
Developing a coaching offer
Two years ago, coaching wasn’t as ingrained as it is now at Telford Priory. The school originally followed a traditional performance management model in which the sole development requirement was an annual drop-in for all staff to check on progress. “This is not enough”, says Nicky. “It’s like saying to the kids, ‘we’re going to do this topic for an entire term and actually, not until the second to last day of term, am I going to tell you how well you’re getting on.”
“Teaching can become so insular. Teachers are in their own classroom and that becomes their own world. You run the risk of a lack of feedback which results in a lack of desire to improve practice.”
It was when Telford Priory introduced a new professional growth policy from Community Academies Trust, called ‘Growing Great People’, that the school’s coaching journey really began.
Growing Great People was launched in 2021 and rolled out across the trust to schools, including Telford Priory. Core to this approach was the centring of effective professional development to create a culture of continuous growth and support. The trust used a coaching model and provided resources, training and support to allow its schools to effectively implement the new strategy.
“Coaching was something that we at the trust considered as one of the most effective and efficient models that we could use to drive development, and therefore improvement,” Nicky says.
“This shift made professional development a formative journey that the individual could drive. It wasn't an arbitrary ‘over the last year, how have you managed to meet this goal?’ conversation. It was a formative, ongoing thing.”
With the support of the policy, Nicky implemented coaching pairs and trios who would meet and discuss questions about their teaching practice. Where individuals needed more intensive support, Nicky gave one-to-one coaching.
But this approach had its challenges: “I was one person, but there could be five or six people needing my input. It became unmanageable – coaching was happening, but it wasn’t happening well.”
It was then that Nicky started to think more about developing her own coaching expertise. Her colleague Matthew Shaw, who is a Senior Lead Practitioner, had been on the Ambition’s Instructional Coaching programme and Nicky decided to sign up too.
Using instructional coaching
Once Nicky had completed the programme, she and Matthew began to pull together the knowledge they’d developed on the programme. “We became a bit of a powerhouse, asking the questions – How are we going to roll this out? What's this going to look like? What do we want it to look like? What do we want it to do?”
Together they facilitated a course to teach the learnings from the programme to eight lead practitioners of teaching and learning, with the aim of piloting instructional coaching across the school. Nicky explains: “The lead practitioners paired up and went through the instructional coaching cycle together. Every week they observed, had coaching conversations and created action steps. Once the lead practitioners were confident, we deployed them where they were needed.”
“Our model was always going to be to pair up the lead practitioners with staff that would hugely benefit from having a coach and from having somebody to talk to each week,” Nicky adds.
After half a term, the team checked in together to review how the coaching model was working and the impact it was having on staff. One coachee fed back to the lead practitioners that the instructional coaching practice of recording a lesson had made them aware of the subconscious habits they held in the classroom. Supported by their coach, they were then able to target these habits with an action step, leading to conscious change.
The lead practitioners shared positive examples like this with staff, encouraging them to volunteer to be coached themselves to support their Growing Great People goals. Nicky also ensured that senior leaders were given the option to be coached. “Senior leaders are coached to ensure that they are a visible part of the process and continue to develop their own classroom practice,” she says.
Key to the school’s instructional coaching model is a ‘horizontal’ coaching approach: teachers will coach teachers; senior leaders will coach senior leaders. Nicky says that it is important that nobody feels threatened by coaching. “By pairing colleagues with similar school responsibilities, you remove the perception of ‘line managing’ and make coaching more of a collaborative relationship”.
Going forward, Nicky says that “the ultimate goal is that everybody in the school will have a coach”.
The Instructional Coaching programme
Nicky says that the programme she completed was the “springboard” for developing coaching “in a better way”. “The programme took you to the point where you would be confident enough to start to implement instructional coaching.”
The Instructional Coaching programme is designed to build theoretical knowledge of coaching and teacher education, and practical knowledge of how to implement this practice in your setting.
The programme is built around four virtual conferences which combine the theory of effective instructional coaching, with modelling and practise of key components of coaching. These sessions are delivered by experienced coaches and introduce participants to the latest research on instructional coaching.
“The programme was well sequenced in that it began with a foundation in professional development, the research and psychology of what it means to lead it well. Each conference built on prior knowledge and progressed through the what, how and why of instructional coaching, concluding with how to implement it effectively.”
As part of the programme, participants are also required to coach a colleague to trial the learnings from the programme. Nicky recalls how she revisited a coaching relationship she had previously, but with the new instructional coaching approach: “I was able to say to my colleague ‘I need your help. I'm learning this [instructional coaching] and I need to practise on you. I'd love to work with you and for you to help me understand how I can do it better as well’.”
This collaborative aspect of the programme, paired with clear sequencing and research, helped build Nicky’s confidence to a place where she could implement a clear plan of coaching. She says she has since seen improvement across her school’s coaching offer and how her staff are developing: “You can see the difference in engagement and buy in. It’s not passive CPD.”
“I've been teaching for 22 years,” Nicky says, “And the Instructional Coaching programme was one of, if not the best, courses I've ever done.”