Coaching for Teacher Agency | Steve Barkley

Coaching for Teacher Agency

Hand sketching Results-Effort graph. Maximum effort for maximum results. Success is dependent on effort.In a recent book, Grades K-12 Rebound: A Playbook For Rebuilding Agency, Accelerating Learning Recovery, and Rethinking Schools, authors Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Dominique Smith, and John Hattie dedicate a chapter to educator agency.

The authors point out that when we don’t see the link between our efforts and the impact that they have, our efficacy and agency are reduced. If we believe that our efforts are not impacting student learning, burnout might set in, and we can become demoralized. Likewise. when we see our hard work producing learner outcomes our agency and efficacy grow. Teachers seeing the link between their actions and student learning is crucial. In many ways, the pandemic challenged seeing those connections.

Three elements for positively impacting teachers’ sense of agency were highlighted by the authors. All three have connections to coaching: collaboration, feedback, success.

  • Collaboration – “Agency means having others listening to your thinking, the problems you are working on, and attributing success or otherwise to your actions and thinking.”

Coaches should assist in supporting teachers’ engagement in PLCs with a focus on learning conversations. In an earlier podcast that I recorded concerning PLCs with authors Douglas Fischer and Nancy Frey, Fischer stated,” The key is that teachers are learning from the interaction. They are learning from each other, and their students benefit from that learning. They are coming together to learn about impacting their students’ lives.” Frey added, “A struggle that we have had is that in a conventional PLC, teaching isn’t discussed. What we wanted to do was to be able to create a system where teaching is a natural part of that conversation. It is certainly not all of it, but it belongs within those conversations. For example, many professional learning communities are looking at their qualitative and quantitative data and figuring out where it is that they are and where it is that they want to be able to take their students. However, there is often sort of this empty space about how it is that we actually move the learning forward. So, we placed in the center of that as one of our guiding questions, how do we move learning forward? We encourage PLC to use things such as learning walks, to be in and out of each other’s classrooms, to engage in micro-teaching so that they can talk about their practice as it relates to the common challenges that the team has identified.”

I have been a strong supporter of adding peer coaching to the PLC process. In an earlier blog, I proposed having a PLC session end with teacher pairs holding pre-conferences and agreeing to observations occurring before the next PLC meeting. Begin the next PLC with post conferences in pairs and then a whole PLC debrief of the findings. Those peer coaching sessions can advance learning and agency.

  • Feedback – “Learning and growing in a supportive environment also builds agency. We all want to know that we are doing a good job. And we want to know how we can improve to better meet the needs of our students.”

I often describe that a key role of an instructional coach is to be the ‘coach of coaching’. The amount of feedback that teachers need (deserve) is only likely to occur if we can create coaching cultures in schools where colleagues coach each other. For that coaching feedback to generate teacher agency it needs to generate reflection for the coachee. Sherry St Clair, the author of Coaching Redefined, shared these thoughts in a podcast. “I think peer coaching can be incredibly powerful if it’s done in the right way. By that, I “mean, that relationship piece also has to be there. The teachers have to truly trust each other, and they have to be able to push each other. If I’m going into your classroom, and you’re just hearing “good job, great, wish I could do it that well, fantastic;” that’s not helping you. You might like me more, but it’s not helping you to grow. Peer feedback must be done in a way that those two individuals or however many are involved in the process, are able to truly have a collegial conversation that will be constructive and push each other towards growth.”cycle to reach success: try, fail, try again, success

  • Success – “Success is motivating. When we experience success, we are more likely to engage in similar tasks, including tasks that are a little harder.”

Coaches working as “strength spotters” can assist in engaging teachers individually and collectively in conversations that highlight the connection between their efforts and the impacts. Positive Psychology represents a paradigm shift for many workplaces from focusing on weaknesses or what is wrong—the deficit model— to focusing on strengths– building on what people do well and can do better. It is informed by an assumption that people naturally want to discover, grow, and develop their potential and that their positive qualities can be harnessed to enhance performance and wellbeing.

Just as building student agency must be a conscious and consistent focus for teachers, administrative and teacher leaders need to maintain a focus on encouraging teacher agency. Consider the purposeful practices you can implement.

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