Formal lesson observations Vs Developing a coaching culture in schools
Just curious! With all the pressures on teachers at the present time and the number of teachers that appear to be leaving the profession, do formal lesson observations still happen in schools and how do these impact on teacher’s well-being and children’s outcomes?
I had a conversation at the start of last years’ summer break with an ex colleague who has twenty years’ teaching experience and who works in a primary school. She told me that she’d had a very stressful last week of term as her Head Teacher had organised to undertake observations during that week. She explained that she knew she shouldn’t have worried about it but couldn’t help it and this had caused her sleepless nights. I asked her the reason for the observations so late in the term and she replied that she didn’t know. This obviously opened up a whole discussion!
When I was a Head Teacher in a primary school I decided to move away from formal lesson observations for a variety of reasons:
The observations were stressful for teachers and caused a high level of anxiety (even the most experienced), no matter how they were presented or the reasons given for doing them
The observations took up a lot of my time – observing and providing feedback
The observations didn’t tell me anything more than I knew already. I knew my team well and had a good understanding about the quality of learning and teaching in each and every classroom
The observations produced a lot of ‘paperwork’ which at that time only OFSTED may have found useful
The observations didn’t always produce the necessary improvements in learning that were wished for
The main reason for moving away from formal observations though was that I really wanted to empower teachers to have ownership of their own learning (for greater impact in the classroom) and to use their strengths in a positive way to support each other – whilst also providing cost effective CPD!
So, instead of formal lesson observations, I went about creating a coaching culture in the school, where teachers ‘coached’ each other.
It wasn’t all plain sailing and after a painfully slow start I came to realise that I hadn’t really communicated my vision for the programme well enough. It became clear that the focus for the coaching still appeared to be more about the teaching than the learning which wasn’t helpful and did not produce the desired outcomes.
So, I approached the coaching programme from another angle, focusing the peer coaching very clearly and directly on improving pupil outcomes, whether this was academic or pastoral outcomes.
The initial step to this was for teachers to build trust with each other – being open about challenges, and what they perceived to be ‘failures’ as well as identifying strengths and sharing successes.
The next step was for everyone to acquire ‘coaching skills’ eg practise asking the ‘open’ or ‘probing’ questions and employing effective listening skills.
The last step was to organise the programme practically so that teachers could visit their partner’s classroom and then have the necessary time needed for discussion and coaching. The aim was for teachers to provide support to each other, discuss potential barriers to learning and challenge thinking in overcoming these and providing possible solutions, with the ultimate aim of improving children’s outcomes.
This proved very powerful. Over time, teachers became comfortable with talking to each other about their successes and challenges and asking for support if needed and the culture and ethos of really working as a team became embedded.
Teachers often feel they should have all the answers, leading to lack of confidence, so being coached in a partner relationship can relieve them of this pressure and support them in creating solutions for themselves and between themselves. Likewise, an added benefit is the feeling of empowerment that supporting others brings.
The interesting thing that happened once formal lesson observations stopped, was that staff and pupils started inviting me into their classrooms to show me what they were doing. So, although teachers appreciated that they did not have to go through the normal termly formal lesson observation procedure, they were keen to share with me their strengths and the pupils loved showing me all the incredible things they were learning.
Several points to note:
Of course, if there was an individual who needed extra support then a more formal plan would be put in place, with observations playing a part in this.
The learning conversations were very much part of the coaching discussions, but were also part of staff meetings, performance reviews and termly data reviews.
Coaching has to be embedded within the leadership structure too as without it leaders then can't ask this of others. I established coaching as part of my own senior leadership team's development first before launching it to the rest of the staff. And, before I left headship, I started to introduce the idea of the coaching programme to support staff too.
Does this resonate with anyone else? If it does then I would be interested to hear of your own experiences in the comments section, or if you would like to find out more about my experiences and how we could work together to establish a coaching culture in your school, then it would be lovely to have a chat, so message me.