Teacher Autonomy and Coaching - Steve Barkley
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Teacher Autonomy and Coaching

In the November 2019 issue of Educational Leadership, Jim Knight shared an article titled, Why Teacher Autonomy Is Central to Coaching Success.

Jim presented two research supported statements that identify why coaches need to be considering the role of teacher autonomy.

  • An ever-increasing body of research shows that professionals are rarely motivated when they have little autonomy.
  • Despite evidence of the importance of autonomy, however, research suggests that autonomy is decreasing in schools.

Recently while interviewing teachers about the role of instructional coaching, I was asked, “With our large class sizes, why would we be spending money on creating another level of middle management?”

I read that statement as the teacher seeing an instructional coach meaning less autonomy. The teacher sees the coach as an extension of management rather than as an empowerment of the teacher. In my mindset the stronger (more effective) the teacher becomes the more autonomy the teacher should be gaining.

“Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
— Daniel H. Pink

In a podcast discussion about teacher autonomy that Jim Knight and I recorded, I shared that we need to build coaching for professionals.

If I were looking at teaching as a trade, I might teach you the right way to do something and then coach you to do it the right way. But if I’m working with a professional, I’m coaching people who are in an area where they study a lot, they learn a lot, and then they conduct experiments with their clients. So, the way an attorney experiments with a case or a doctor experiments with the patient, the teacher experiments with learners.

Jim reinforced that view:

“I would say the defining characteristic of professionalism is discretion. The ability to make decisions. We go to a doctor because we want the doctor to look at all the data she can gather and make a decision about what’s best for our health. We don’t go to the doctor so she can plug a little thing into our body and give us a printout. There may be an element of that, but ultimately the professionals make a decision based on their expertise. They have to make a discretionary decision. It’s discretion maybe more than anything else that defines what a professional is. So. if we take away the person’s ability to have discretion, that is to make decisions in the moment about the complexity they’re facing, we treat them like they’re unskilled laborers, not like they’re professionals.”

In his article, Jim connects this professional role to the complexity of teaching. He says, “School leaders and coaches must also understand that teaching is not something that can be boiled down to a set of prescriptive steps. Its complexity requires independent decision making and self-directed growth.”

In a post titled, Getting the Most Out of Coaching, Doug Reeves describes the value in having coaching focused on clear goals. He says, “A more effective practice is to have every conversation focus on the professional and personal goals that were established at the beginning of the coaching relationship, with a thoughtful focus on celebrating progress made since the previous conversation, identifying and addressing barriers to achievement of goals, and where appropriate, making modifications to those goals.”

solutions written in snow

Jim reinforces the need for goals in our podcast, “for coaching, you need a goal because you need a finish line. You need to know what you’re striving for and you also need that external standard of excellence and a commitment. A goal will probably increase commitment on the part of the teacher.”

When coaching is focused upon goals that are important to the teacher, chosen by the teacher, the teacher’s autonomy is being honored. Professional Growth Plans (PGPs) can provide an opportunity for instructional coaches to build partnership coaching around teachers’ goals. Most teacher professional growth plans should include the feedback gained from peer coaches, instructional coaches, and administrators’ coaching to gain the evidence necessary to validate the plan’s implementation and learning outcome. If the plan is based on a hypothesis, in other words, the teacher believes that by changing this teacher behavior, she’ll change this student behavior which will produce a learning outcome, the teacher really needs the evidence collected by a coach to track the process.  A coach supporting a teacher’s professional growth plan can observe whether or not the changes that the teacher was planning to implement have been implemented.

For example, a teacher might have a hypothesis that she can deepen student learning by changing the way she responds to students’ questions; having responses that encourage further thinking on the student’s part rather than assisting the student to quickly move in the correct direction. She would value a coach spending time in her classroom collecting her responses so that she can confirm that the change she wanted to make has been made. As the coach shares the teacher’s responses that she collected, the teacher can reflect and identify additional choices. A coach can assist the teacher in identifying unpredicted implications of the teacher’s change in practice. There might be students who respond negatively while others are responding positively to the teacher’s change. All of this feedback and dialogue with the teacher reinforces the complexity of teaching and the role of professional decision-making (autonomy).

“As educators, we must nurture, coach and build in learners more capacity to initiate, manage, and maintain their own learning.”
— Barbara Bray

As school leaders we must do the same for teachers.

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