In this perspective piece, we examine the key drivers in a model of peer coaching that is being trialled at the Veritas Multi Academy Trust (MAT) to support the development of a middle leadership team (Lofthouse and Hall, 2014).
Vision and values
Coaching has been recognised as highly effective professional development practice (Cordingley et al., 2015), but what does it look like in a high-performing education system? In our busy professional lives, it might be too easy to include coaching in a MAT or school-wide plan for improvement without fully engaging in what staff and governors collectively understand by coaching. Investing in building a secure and shared understanding of what coaching is, and the vision of what a coaching culture looks like across the MAT, is imperative.
In considering how coaching can be embedded in an organisation’s culture, it is important to be mindful of the research highlighting the challenges of developing coaching (Lofthouse, 2016), specifically in the performative environments of educational settings (Ball, 2003). Coaching is not something that can be taken from a toolkit training manual page and simply applied in a school. It takes time, training and compassion, as well as trust and honesty from the leaders about their context. Used well, we believe that coaching creates a can-do culture where staff look to their colleagues for help to think through unresolved issues. Coaching, and specifically peer coaching, challenges individualism and puts a collective and distributed model of leadership and professional development practice at the core of an organisation’s vision and values. We believe that coaching can help with problem-solving, but this requires trust, the kind of trust where it is okay to be vulnerable and say ‘I need help with this one’ (Lencioni, 2012). It is important to avoid the slippage into using coaching as a vehicle for performance management. For us, openness in terms of laying out for scrutiny the core principles of an organisation should be the starting point for all coaching partnerships, followed by a discussion of what is meant by coaching and what it might look like in context.
So, how did we develop a peer coaching model across Veritas Multi Academy Trust, a small two-school MAT?
It’s helpful at this point to describe our respective roles and aims. For Graham, CEO of the MAT, coaching underpins high-quality teaching and learning and the ongoing cycle of school improvement. It helps staff to become increasingly reflective practitioners and helps to build trust and engagement in deep developmental conversations across the organisation. In ongoing work with leaders and middle leaders as a coach, Kerry, Principal Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, has invested in her own professional development to support colleagues through coaching, and has worked with more than a dozen senior and middle leaders over the last five years. Our coaching conversation evolved from a BrewEd and TeachMeet presentation that Kerry gave in the summer of 2019 (Jordan-Daus, 2019) – BrewEd and TeachMeet are both organised informal meetings for educators to discuss pedagogy and classroom practice.
One of the key questions that we grappled with is ‘How much time can be invested in getting middle leaders to a place where they can be honest with each other, with their line managers and with themselves?’ As Whiteside (2017) points out, for line managers, there can be tensions around accountability, performance management and improving outcomes on the one hand, and an approach to coaching that expresses that it’s okay to admit that you’re struggling on the other. Our goal was to move from a culture where middle leaders might not feel empowered to question the systems in place to one where they have the courage and support to challenge existing systems, based on evidence-informed practice.
The peer coaching project has involved working with a group of six middle leaders who have protected time to meet with Kerry to focus on how they are engaging with a school improvement plan (SIP) priority through formal peer group coaching conversations. As an external coach, Kerry does not have any line-management responsibilities. The MAT senior leaders are not included in any of the discussions and there is no reporting back on the specific content of any meetings outside of the group. This is about building and maintaining trust – among the coachees and from the CEO/senior leaders that these coaching conversations are confidential.
The first cycle of meetings began in September 2019. We meet every school term – we met as one group initially before breaking into smaller groups/triads. The initial session was a three-hour workshop, and each session thereafter has lasted two hours. Early discussions with the group examined their ownership of the SIP priority, what this meant for them, and how they feel that peer coaching might support both their growth as middle leaders and how they work together as a team to support each other. Time has also been devoted to discussing and challenging the tenets of the MAT’s coaching vision and how it was being put into practice.
Approaching the mid-point of this peer coaching cycle, there is evidence that colleagues have valued the time to talk about teaching, both in the formal protected time given to them and in conversations that are continuing outside of this space. Some tentative first steps of challenge and critique are also evident, as the middle leaders act upon the conversations. The peer coaching conversations have tended towards questioning why they are doing certain things if they do not believe that, or do not know how, they are supporting pupils’ learning. Coaching conversations have sought to encourage and legitimise these conversations through creating a safe, confidential space for honesty and exploration, facilitating the capacity to question and support each other. From the start, Kerry sought to move the conversations on to action and then subsequent review through implementing a GROW coaching conversation model (Whitmore, 2002; also see Warwick Centre for Lifelong Learning, 2019).
Building and developing a sustainable model of peer coaching practice
The values of coaching can easily be undermined or lost if there is not consistency in approach and integrity to the process; the focus of peer coaching can unconsciously become highjacked because of competing agendas (Lofthouse and Hall, 2014). Our experience has shown us that leaders must build a sense of self-leadership in all, deepen an openness to self-reflection, and commit to developing a culture of evidence-informed practice. This is a culture that requires consistent attention – it takes commitment and time before the results begin to show.
It is important to share the commitment to coaching with all staff and governors across the organisation. This helps to embed the practice and normalise the use of coaching as a solution to complex issues. It helps staff to understand that they have the capacity to solve issues through the support of a coach. We suggest that in engaging in peer coaching, staff become increasingly conversant with the skills of asking helpful questions of one another and of their students. Building a culture where it is everyone’s role to ask a ‘Socratic question’ (Pask and Joy, 2007) helps the organisation to becomes a place where peer-to peer relationships are built by finding solutions together.
As we continue our journey at Veritas MAT, we offer three principles that may help others to get started or move forward.
- Be clear about building coaching ground rules so that all staff and governors in the organisation understand what coaching is (and is not)
- Ensure that leaders accept that coaching may lead to their leadership being questioned by staff, and that this is enriching to the growth of the organisation
- Provide a safe space (this might be off-site) for coaching to take place, where conversations cannot be overheard
- Ensure that the peer coaching conversations are facilitated by a trained coach
- Be honest in your conversations as coach and coachee – this builds relationships
- Understand and recognise people’s fears.
- Give time to peer coaching, ensuring that staff are valued and that coaching conversations allow ideas to grow
- Give time to building a culture of coaching in your organisation; don’t be worried if this does not happen quickly, and don’t give up, as the culture is worthy of growth
- Understand that success takes time and is more than a one-off – this is an investment in longitudinal development
- Give time to build, and openness to be allowed to experiment, to be creative and to nurture this.
- Believe in coaching as a tool for improvement
- Allow coaching to help staff to think things through and understand that the solution is already within their reach
- Grow a belief in the agency and empowerment of staff
- Deepen the growth of a culture where professional critique is normalised.
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