By Barry Sweeny, © 1993
The culture of many schools, particularly secondary schools, is characterized by teacher isolation, interactions which are usually superficial, minimal sharing or collaborative work, and a singular focus on student learning. A major reason that many school systems are now supporting peer coaching is that coaching promotes a deeper analysis of teaching and learning, norms of collaboration and sharing, and an appropriate focus on and support for adult learning as the prerequisite for student learning.
Indeed, coaching promotes development of many new skills precisely because it takes place in a sub- culture which is NOT the traditional school culture. For this reason, learning the new skills of collaboration and sharing feedback will require some new structures for our use of time, new roles for teachers, and individual support for the individuals who participate in the coaching.
Yet we see that peer coaching has been and of and on and off again initiative since the middle 1980s. This is the case because it is exactly as described above – it is NOT EASY to implement and sustain.
The well-researched work of Joyce and Showers (1987) on coaching shows the critical role that peer coaching plays in the refinement of skills and the transfer of training to the classroom. Simply put, if changed professional practice is desired of teachers, they MUST be supported by peer coaching within the context of a mentoring relationship.
Ironically, while many peer coaching programs are established to gain increased skills transfer from the workshop to the workplace, many such programs do not provide the required coaching for those who are trying to learn the skills of peer coaching itself.
To develop mastery as a peer coach requires that we:
- Hear about the theory and process of coaching
- See demonstrations of coaching
- Practice coaching and receive corrective feedback, both during training and in the classroom too
- Repeatedly practice the new skills in the classroom and receive peer coaching
on the practice, for problem solving, and for application of those skills.
What this means is that those who are developing skills as peer coaches need to have a coach who has already mastered coaching and who can help guide their practice and refinement of the skills as they work as peer coaxches.
Provision of a peer coaching coordinator is a very critical element in planning for implementation of a peer coaching program. Such a coordinator needs released time to organize several aspects of the program so that it functions efficiently and effectively. That released time is also needed to allow the coordinator to provide the necessary coaching that the developing peer coaches require as they master the new skills.
Without a peer coaching leader, the peer coaching program is MUCH less likely to succeed and to attain it’s goals.
Coordinators typically need to facilitate the smooth functioning of the program by:
1. Scheduling peer coaching periods or days between individuals so that only a few individuals are out of
the classroom and involved in coaching on the same days.
2. Arranging for efficient use of substitutes for the classes of those who are involved as coaches.
3. Planning and conducting training for peer coaches and for administrators and parents who need to be informed about the program. Parents particularly wonder why the teachers may be out of the class periodically, and need to appreciate how teachers will become better at their work through peer coaching.
4. Coaching of individuals who are participants in the peer coaching program. The program coordinator needs to function as a coach of the coaches.
5. Monitor the application of coaching skills and the implementation of the coaching training in the classrooms of program participants, and assess the need for additional training and support.
Until an individual has mastered the skills of peer coaching and become used to a new form of collaborative work and sharing, the individual will not have reached a self-sustaining level of expertise as a coach. Without the critical support that a coordinator can offer individuals trying to develop coaching mastery, and without the peer coordinator’s challenge to practice coaching skills and set and pursue individual growth goals, peer coaching will not become embedded in our work culture and many who will have tried will give up.
Coaching is different, it takes time to get used to, it requires new skills and new thinking about adult learning. That is why peer coaching holds so much promise for making schools more collaborative work places and for improving instruction. This is also why successful peer coaching programs utilize peer
Given the necessary support, peer coaching can become an integral part of what it means to be a teacher. When that happens the culture of the school will have become much more collaborative and focused on learning for all because adult learning will have become as common as student learning.