Instructional coaching is increasingly being used to develop teachers and school leaders.
As one of Ambition’s research team seeking to build the evidence base on professional development, I was intrigued to recently discover a school using instructional coaching to develop their teaching assistants.
Many professions and pursuits involve coaching. Teaching is no exception. Instructional coaching is the process of an expert working with a novice in an individualised, observation-feedback-practice cycle. In the emerging field of teacher education research, it has one the strongest evidence bases – but there is, so far, little insight on its potential for teaching assistants’ development.
That’s why Manchester Communication Primary Academy’s approach caught my attention and I was delighted to visit the school to find out more about what they’re doing.
Maximising teaching assistants’ impact
The school’s headteacher Alex Reed is investing in developing teaching assistants through instructional coaching to recognise the vital contribution they make to his school. This gives us a first glimpse at how the practice might work.
“It’s about maximising the impact of teaching assistants,” Alex told me. “We need them – yet in schools we’re all too often reliant on them and not investing in them.”
Professional development for teaching assistants is vital to supporting pupil achievement because of changes to the role over the past decade. The number of teaching assistants is growing: in 2021, there were 275,812 teaching assistants in England (DfE, 2022), a 25% increase from 2011.
Teaching assistants previously worked with small groups of lower attaining pupils. Now they are used by schools in a combination of targeted deployment using well-evidenced interventions and general deployment to in everyday classroom conditions (Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), 2021). The EEF also acknowledge that “if the expectation is that teaching assistants have an instructional teaching role it is important they are trained and supported to make this expectation achievable” (2021), though there is currently a lack of evidence on the best way to train teaching assistants.
A culture of instructional coaching
Alex’s belief in the value of teaching assistants meant he was determined that they received professional development. When Alex took part in a pilot of Ambition’s Instructional Coaching programme, he came away with a vision of what he wanted coaching to look like at the school. This led to the school establishing instructional coaching for teaching assistants, led by Elliot Hahn.
With a background in early years and leading professional development, Elliot joined the school in a brand-new role dedicated to developing teaching assistants. They worked together, with Alex sharing the instructional coaching model from Ambition through training sessions and using recordings of himself teaching to practice creating create action steps.
In his first term, Elliot prioritised building relationships with the teaching assistants, showing vulnerability and developing rapport as well as beginning to coach them. He also had the time and space to develop specific development action steps (things that they need to do differently to improve) for each teaching assistant.
“It is extremely hard putting together an action step. Some are quite simple and quite natural but when you have a more complex one it can be a minefield to battle with”, Elliot told me. “I’ve sat there for half an hour asking myself ‘what is it specifically that they need?’”
Elliot and Alex also worked hard on creating a culture of instructional coaching. “It had to be a positive culture from top to bottom: an open-door policy,” Elliot says. “We want teaching assistants to say, ‘Come on into my lesson, let's look at what I do really well, and let’s look at where I need help to get better.’ Coaching is a ‘hand-in-hand’ experience, and for that idea of it being ‘a journey we’re going on together’ to work, the culture needs to be this way.”
“The language I use in my role all comes from the focus on building strong school culture. I have learnt how to use praise tied in with the previous action step so the teaching assistant can really see their journey, and the value of probing and encouraging constant reflection – I think our teaching assistants have got a lot more reflective in what they’re doing”, he adds.
Gaining coaching skills and confidence
Elliot also joined Ambition’s Instructional Coaching programme to gain the tools he needed to develop teaching assistants. “Doing the programme propelled my understanding of and confidence in instructional coaching. That is when it really took off for me as a practice,” he says.
“I was a lot more confident in knowing the answers to the questions that underpinned our vision for instructional coaching in the school like ‘What is the science behind teacher development?’ and ‘What are the mechanisms to use to build teacher motivation?’”
As part of the programme, Elliot got three one-to-one coaching sessions with an expert in instructional coaching. This was something he particularly valued.
“Coaching is not about quick fixes. It's about changing habits and long-term impact. So it was intense, it was challenging – exactly what a coaching session should look like. After each session, I was able to think about what I was going to take away to make my coaching sessions with my team the best they possibly could be.”
Though it can be challenging, Elliot told me “when you see a teaching assistant make a change in their practice and see the impact it has, for good, it gives you a moment of thinking ‘wow, really well done’”.
The emerging impact of the Instructional Coaching programme is clear, and Elliot has been able to trace the effects of the coaching sessions. A coaching session with one teaching assistant focused on handwriting which resulted in pupils in the class improving their writing fluency.
One teaching assistant Elliot is developing has been working hard on an action step around where they physically place themselves in the classroom to have the best impact. After coaching them, he was able to go back into their classroom to see them putting their learning into action. The teaching assistant was making conscious choices about where to place themselves in relation to pupils and the teacher at different times during the lesson.
For another teaching assistant, seeing a video recording of their lesson and talking it through with Elliot helped them to understand in a tangible way what it was they’d been working on. Previously colleagues had told Elliot they “felt silly” using techniques such as deliberate practice, which is central to instructional coaching. But now deliberate practice is understood and enjoyed because of coaching, Elliot’s recent staff voice survey showed.
It's not only teaching assistants who are feeling positive. “I’ve always been of the view that we can always get better and, as professionals and practitioners, we need to get better,” Elliot says. “Coaching is about providing that opportunity. It has been a huge learning curve for me. I’ve absolutely adored it. I will speak to anybody about how investing in our teaching assistants’ development means they are having an even greater impact for our school.”