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Professional Opinion

Peer coaching supports teachers

Using instructional coaching to improve teacher effectiveness
Bill McCarthy is the assistant head of Lower School at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City.
Bill McCarthy is the assistant head of Lower School at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City.

Several years ago, I attended a four-day training on instructional coaching at the University of Kansas, led by Jim Knight, an expert in the field. During this training, Knight presented a comprehensive model that can easily be implemented as part of internal professional development in schools.

As the academic year began at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, we discussed how this could constitute an effective and important model for our own professional development.

Based on Knight’s seminal work Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction, we adopted the term “peer coaching” for the work we would do and agreed that we had a powerful learning opportunity.

“Peer” meant that we would aim for a greater sense of equality and reciprocity—two of the essential values that Knight highlighted as “must haves” within a coaching relationship.

The process

Each faculty member chose a partner as well as a coaching framework. For example, some participants chose to videotape one another, have time for self-reflection, and then allot time for constructive feedback from their peer coach.

Other participants preferred to have their partner observe their work and then provide feedback. Some decided on an informal approach and just appreciated having the time to think about goals for their teaching practice and have a peer be able to provide feedback in a way that was supportive and constructive.

The most effective peer coaching framework was one that allowed sufficient time for self-reflection and then consistent follow-up and ongoing exploration with a partner. This model best fit the needs of our teachers and gave us an incredible opportunity for ongoing and meaningful internal professional development.

Consistent coaching

In 2012, I became the school’s peer coaching coordinator, working with a small group of colleagues. We have four coaches and about 20 faculty members participating in the program.

To help make the coaching process consistent, I designed a general format and specific protocols. This also allowed us to develop goals and provide consistency within the different coaching relationships.

In our first meetings with teachers, we all agreed that engagement was our first priority for the peer coaching relationship. A clear definition of the roles also takes place within the first few sessions, so expectations are clear and detailed. A large emphasis on engaging in relational work and greater self-reflection constitutes much of the ongoing professional development.

One of the essential components to good teaching is being a lifelong learner. The peer coaching process allows teachers to reflect on key aspects of their practice and create attainable goals for improvement.

For example, teachers may choose to strengthen their conceptual understanding of a new curriculum or to explore methods of classroom management. Inherent within the peer coaching model is a great deal of flexibility that allows teachers to achieve their goals.

Another important component of peer coaching is the development of a process that’s parallel to the one in which teachers are engaging with students. And we firmly believe the result is inspiring and dynamic teaching.

We think this newly implemented platform and process will allow us to reach these goals. I will be checking in with fellow administrators, peer coaches and the teachers participating in the program to assess their reactions to the platform. I believe the impressions will be positive and that we will continue to use this model in future years

I urge other school leaders to strongly consider the benefits of a peer coaching program. It provides all the components for excellent professional development. As school administrators are stretched thin and expectations are high, peer coaching and observation allow teachers to feel supported by their colleagues and remain invested in the wonderful art of education.

Bill McCarthy is the assistant head of Lower School at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City.