During the current and past year, I have been working with the staff at QSI International School of Chengdu in China. Using Skype, I facilitated professional learning sessions with the entire staff and held coaching sessions with individual PLCs. Last year we focused on professional learning communities and this Fall we added peer coaching practices. I recently met with each PLC, examining their initial peer coaching experiences. I heard several personal experiences and insights that supported the benefits of peer coaching for students, teachers, and teams.
The lower elementary team of seven teachers had four teachers who were in their first year at the school. The team formally conducted three coaching cycles, with a pre-conference, observation, and post conference, holding each coaching session with a different member of the team. Teachers shared their pre-conference conversations and we identified that in most cases these conferences clearly focused the observing colleague on specific teacher and/or student behaviors. That specificity allowed peers new to coaching to know what to observe and record. The specificity also created comfort in providing feedback in the post conference. The observers knew the data they were asked to collect and could remain non-evaluative. A lack of specificity pushes an observer to decide upon a focus and thus the feedback can feel more supervisory or judgmental.
One of the issues I shared with teachers was to be comfortable entering a pre-conference as the coachee without having a specific request for the coach to focus upon. Some teachers put off coaching because they are unclear of a focus. If you enter the pre-conference and identify the learning goal you have for the students and then identify the student learning production behaviors (what will students do to learn) and the teaching actions you will take, a focus will likely emerge. A coach’s questions about what you believe might be a challenge in the plan or how students might respond differently can lead to an observation focus.
When meeting with the performing arts PLC another example of a specific-focused observation was shared. This PLC has a goal of building students’ use of creative processes. One teacher identified that she needed to decrease the delivery of information and solutions from her and allow the students to search on their own. She invited a colleague to observe the amount of time she spent in whole group presentation at the beginning of the period and to record the kind of responses she made to students in groups as she travelled among them.
Frequently when I explore building effective teams, I discuss that “knowing” each other strengthens teamwork. Peer coaching is a great strategy for speeding up and deepening “knowing.” These initial coaching experiences built teachers’ trust with each other and thus they became more vulnerable asking colleagues to share thoughts and ideas outside the coaching focus. One teacher shared a request to observe a colleague using a specific approach that he wanted to learn more about. Another teacher reported that since the coaching experience, she has found herself reaching out with requests for ideas or support outside of coaching activities.
Teachers in the Chinese language department identified “strategies for differentiating” as a common concern as they shared their coaching experiences with each other. Colleagues could observe in each other’s classrooms, identifying various strategies being used. Then they could invite that teacher to coach them when they implemented the new strategy. Many teachers across the school commented on the insights and options they gained as they observed colleagues. For several teachers this was a new experience having previously taught in environments where teachers were mostly isolated to their own classrooms.
When debriefing with the middle level teachers and intensive English teachers, participants shared that they had the opportunity to do some observations where the coach had previously worked with the same students. That experience brought additional opportunities to gain insights from the observation of student learning behaviors. The pre-school teachers observed across classes for 3,4, and 5-year-olds. Those observations created conversations around the developmental expectations in their program. The secondary teachers shared that they gained insights from seeing how their students engaged differently in other content areas.
One teacher’s comment provided a great summary: “Observing in other classrooms reinforced that I can engage in continual learning about teaching and that my colleagues can be a great source of new insights and options.”