Three women and a camera

Developing a coaching partnership that crosses professional boundaries

Education conference season in September 2015 seemed more frenzied than even as ECER and BERA took many of us away from our desks for two subsequent weeks.  Researchers from CfLaT gave many papers and workshops in both Budapest and Belfast, this blog is about just one of them and its back story.

Picture three women; Jo, Bib and Rachel.  If you saw us in a coffee shop or pub you would see us in animated conversation.  We might even be old school friends.  You might overhear us talking about our children and husbands or our holidays.  We would probably look like we had been chatting all day as we popped in and out of shops and impersonated ‘ladies who lunch’.  But this impression would ignore the real reasons for our conversations, and the shared passions that have brought us together.

What has this got to do with conference season?  Well we three women shared a conference presentation, the very last paper of the very last session, in the most distant seminar room of BERA 2015 in Belfast.  Our paper was entitled ‘Sustaining change through inter-professional coaching; developing communication-rich pedagogies’ and through it we explained how and why we had come to work together and what outcomes we are now able to identify.

So – a little background.  Jo and Bib are independent Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs), working in Derby. Their aim is to develop an evidence based model of support that enables the workforce in nurseries and primary schools to maximise the skills of all children who experience communication difficulties.  They have written about this work on the BERA blog  I (Rachel) am a teacher educator and researcher at Newcastle University. My research and teaching expertise is in teacher coaching and mentoring, including the use of video.  I have also written about this for the BERA blog   We have been working together for about two years (in part funded by a Newcastle University business development voucher) to develop a model of video-based specialist coaching for workplace learning through which Jo and Bib (as SLTs). We have worked with teachers and teaching assistants in a primary school (3-11 yrs) and a pre-school nursery (3-4 yrs) located in multi-cultural and multi-lingual communities in the East Midlands, UK.  In these settings 85% of the children are learning English as an additional language to their home language.  The coaching is designed to support the teachers’ and teaching assistants’ professional development to create communication-rich pedagogies, drawing on the research and practice evidence offered to them through the coaching.

The coaching approach was informed by models of teacher coaching (Lofthouse et. al., 2010) and video interaction guidance (Kennedy et al., 2009), and was rooted in learning which made deliberate and explicit work processes, learning activities and learning processes Eraut (2007).  It made deliberate use of video to allow the speech and language therapists to engage teachers and teaching assistants in conversation about their own classroom practices. Video is proving to be a great tool for professional development. Its value is described here We developed the coaching approach through collaborative action research as our combined motivations and work drove us to improve the practice through adopting an inquiry stance with a ‘continual process of making current arrangements problematic’ and assumed ‘that part of the work of practitioners individually and collectively is to participate in educational and social change’ (Cochran-Smith and Lytle 2009, 121).

At the same time we wanted to make sense of the role of the inter-professional coaching in shaping practices in the school and its impact on professional development.  We used a Theory of Change approach as a structure of two interview cycles, enabling multiple voices to inform both the development and evaluation of the intervention.  This ‘Mental model’ of Theory of Change privileges the knowledge & experience of stakeholders (school leaders and practitioners) who have their own ideas about how things will work. This approach is outlined as a case study in this CFLAT guide

So what have we learned?  Well at this point I hand over to those we interviewed. Amongst their comments we discovered that the coaching helped to build professional confidence,

“The discussion with the SLTs about my video clips was very reassuring. They found things I do well which I see as natural.  They asked me questions about my practice, they focused my attention on things I had noticed and gave me advice. This worked because the video coaching came at the end of the audit and training process, so I had got to know them and felt comfortable with them. I trusted them and accepted their feedback.  I feel more confident and reflective.” Nursery teaching assistant

We also found that video was significant in enhancing the coaching conversations,

“Although video was initially an uncomfortable experience through watching myself I noticed many of my own teaching and learning communication behaviours. I realised I needed to stop answering for children and also to give more thinking time.  I questioned the concept of ‘pace’. The coaching raised my awareness of the significance of the elements of the SLC training in my classroom.” Primary teacher

In terms of the development of the schools as learning organisations engagement of staff in coaching helped to change the culture in the settings,  

“There has been a definite shift from individual specialist coaching to staff coaching culture.  The setting is open plan and I now notice teachers and teaching assistants commenting to each other while they are working with the children, referring to commonly understood concepts which support SLC.  Because they are more informed their conversations with parents about SLC are more meaningful.”  Nursery headteacher

It also supported strategic capacity building

“While some impacts have been diluted by staff maternity and promotions to other schools the teachers who have been coached and remain in post are being given strategic roles in school to support NQTs or lead key stages, with an explicit intention to focus on communication-rich pedagogies with new colleagues.  This is being deliberately linked to a renewed whole-school focus on literary.” Primary headteacher

So, what can we conclude from this small scale development and research?  There is evidence here that specialist coaching can play a significant part in creating bespoke professional training. Coaching can create a neutral, non-judgmental space in which teachers’ own interactional practices can be exposed and made open to co-construction based on the relationship between pedagogic and communication knowledge and skills. The coaching approach formed a key component of an ecology for focused professional development, providing participants with common understandings, a shared language, a willingness to share ideas, and to be more open to self-evaluation and critique.   It also provided some of the ‘triggers’ and ‘glue’ which supported access to, and learning from, other CPD and the development of new leadership and support roles.

What next?  Well, that depends on spreading the good news, and also on developing strategies and structures that can fund the co-operation through coaching between speech and language specialists and the teachers and teaching assistants that can learn so much by working with them.

Blog by Dr Rachel Lofthouse

Leave a Reply