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Making Coaching Work at Woodham
Case study • 7 Nov '22
Sarah Dickinson
Anya Thomas

Introduction from Josh

At Steplab, we feel honoured to work with many schools that have developed a novel approach to implementing instructional coaching. Often, when we first try to implement Instructional Coaching in a school, it doesn’t work perfectly. The real work of building a great coaching programme begins at this moment, where leaders respond to data, make adaptations to their systems and try again. Sarah Dickinson and Anya Thomas at Woodham are a prime example of this: their initial attempt to build a great programme didn’t meet their high standards, so they went back to the drawing board and developed their own, contextualised approach. As part of this, they adapted the idea of instructional coaching, moving away from an approach where each coach chooses the highest-leverage action step for their coachee (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2016), and towards an approach where coaching works in the service of whole school priorities (Kretlow & Bartholemew, 2010).

The chances are, if you’re reading this case study, you have either embarked or are about to embark on your own ‘journey’ of instructional coaching. If you’re the former, we were in your position around 18 months ago and at the risk of sounding cliché: what a journey it has been. The transformation of the quality of teaching and the cultural shift of our staff has been colossal. There is a palpable intellectual curiosity amongst staff which simply was not there before we implemented instructional coaching. That isn’t to say it has not been without its challenges. In this case study, we’ll cover what we initially tried in our first attempt to implement instructional coaching, what went wrong, and most importantly, how we adapted our programme to fix it.

Part A - What happened when our first attempt didn’t work?

When we first began researching the model of instructional coaching we would adopt, we knew we wanted to create a team of responsive coaches. We were also acutely aware that a lack of ‘structured’ professional development during the pandemic meant our coaches potentially lacked the expertise to coach effectively. Thus, we opted to subscribe to Steplab, this would provide us with the data we needed to quality assure the process and ensure our coachees were receiving high quality, granular action steps. Within a month it became clear that regardless of the data suggesting we were rapidly improving; this was not necessarily what we were seeing in classrooms. It was clear that coachees were cognitively overloaded trying to execute several action steps simultaneously to appease their coach, irrespective of their appropriateness.

At Woodham, we passionately believe that any whole school change needs to be routed in evidence and be ‘problem orientated.’ For the programme to be successful we knew it required meticulous execution: searching out barriers and overcoming them (Fletcher-Wood, 2022). We had to be honest with ourselves: the model of instructional coaching we had built was not working in the way we hoped, and we had to change it before staff began to lose faith. When examining our model, it became evident that there were two problems. Firstly, coachees were simply enacting their action step when the coach was in the room but weren't really making this an integral component of their teaching more generally. Secondly, that there was a lack of understanding from all staff about what great teaching looks like and therefore what coaching should aim towards.

Part B - How did we fix it?

This is where our Coaching Cycle approach was born. We decided to completely change our approach so that, over a term, coaching was focused in the same area for all staff. We developed an 7-phase process in order to make this work, which we will detail below.

1. Contract with staff

First, we created ten guiding principles that underpin the Woodham vision of excellent teaching (agreed upon by all staff). Here, we adopted the concept of 'bounded autonomy': for us this means our staff have the freedom to teach their own lessons and truly be themselves within the classroom, but within certain loose principles of what effective teaching means.

2. Check Prior Knowledge

One of our fundamental principles when leading teaching and learning is that teaching teachers and teaching students are very similar. Learners are learners, whether they’re 13 or 30. Perhaps, it is even more challenging when teaching professionals, who all come to you with their own unique experiences, initial teacher training and length of service. Every single member of staff approaches a pedological area with differing levels of understanding and expertise. This is where the unique challenge of leading Teaching & Learning in a school arises: how would you approach teaching a class of 90+ students who were all at different starting points?

Hopefully, you would begin by checking prior knowledge. This is exactly what we do in the first stage of our coaching cycle. We have a duty to ensure professional development builds on prior knowledge (EEF Effective Professional Development Report, 2021). It’s difficult to build knowledge if you haven’t first established what people already know. Using the drop-in function on Steplab, our SLT look for areas where they feel that all staff could make improvements. We chat with coaches and decide on a whole-staff focus linked to one of our ten principles. What we really want to check is if staff understand the insight behind the area, e.g. Why is it essential for teachers to provide students with clear models of success?

Once we’ve narrowed down on a potential area of focus for staff, we send out a quiz, and dig into the data we get back from staff. This has been incredibly useful from a QA perspective: we can compare what staff were doing and what they’re doing now. We can also target opt-in professional development and our Teaching & Learning briefings to close the gaps in our collective knowledge. We’ve found this to be incredibly important when building a positive culture, nobody wants to feel like they’re being taught things they already know.

3. Decide on a termly focus

Using the information we gather from our staff quiz, we then sit down and decide on our termly focus. Along with EEF’s principles for designing effective CPD, we believe that effective professional development takes ‘…into consideration the context and needs of the school’ and that it is all aligned towards a single focus.

Framing a term’s worth of coaching and professional development around a single high-leverage whole-school focus is new way of thinking for us: when we first established our coaching programme we allowed coaches to select any action they wanted to work on with their coachees. The approach we have now allows us to integrate coaching with everything else we have going on in school: our T&L briefings, CPD sessions, T&L newsletter etc., This gives a real sense of purpose to what we do. It also allows staff time to really get to grips with the focus of the term and enough time to embed change over a sustained period.

4. Create a bespoke action step ‘tree’

Once we have decided on our termly focus, it’s important to communicate this to staff. One of the ways we do this is through the creation of a customised list of action steps on Steplab. Rather than letting coaches access the entire list of action steps that Steplab offers, we restrict access to so coaches can only see the action step list that we are focusing on for that term.

This is where we are so glad, we went with Steplab. Our initial plans were that we would be able to design our own coaching content. After spending three painful weeks writing a set of action steps for a single one of our T&L principles, we quickly started looking for alternative solutions!

Using some of the Steplab content, we edit the areas and action steps to reflect the shared vocabulary that we have developed around teaching in our school. We can easily delete some of the Steplab action steps, or add some of our own. The Steplab content is so flexible, allowing us to create sequences of action steps based on our focus for the term: it is truly personalised to our staff and our school. This was really important to us: we wanted to create a ‘Woodham’ language around coaching and Steplab allows us to ‘Woodhamise’ the content to reflect the unique nature of our school and staff.

We will be developing this further as we move forward as we are keen to get our staff to contribute. For example, we currently use the Steplab model videos which are so useful in helping coachees see the gap between their current practice and their action step, but we think this will be even more powerful when staff can see their own colleagues doing this with our children.

5. Launch the new focus

After we’ve created our bespoke action step sequences, we then start our communication process with staff. We are lucky that when we started our coaching programme, we pre-empted that having some weekly contact with staff to be able to focus solely on teaching and learning would be helpful, so we established a weekly Teaching and Learning briefing which takes place every Wednesday morning from 8.30-8.45.

We launch our termly focus in our Teaching and Learning briefings and every T&L briefing for that term will focus on the same area. In the first launch, we usually focus on the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. What is this focus, what does it look like in practice and, more importantly, why is it important? In this launch session, we also communicate everything that will be happening to support this focus, T&L working lunches, briefings, CPD etc.,

6. Coach!

Coaching: the most crucial part of the process. As outlined in the 2021 EEF Effective professional development report staff need time to implement if we want professional development to influence student outcomes. All our coaches are given a lesson every week in which to coach. This time is protected and sends the message that coaching is something we value and prioritise. We have a Lead Coach to QA the process and pair coaches carefully to ensure that coaches are best placed to give the support teachers need. Although our Coaches are expert practitioners, we supplement their understanding with the aforementioned T&L working lunches, a teaching and learning newsletter, coaching group lunches and an optional T&L weekly briefing.

7. Work out when to move on

One of the most challenging aspects of the cycle process is deciding when to move on. Arbitrary dates in the school calendar like half terms should not dictate whether we need a new focus, but as with everything, some staff will master the principles faster than others. We tend to work on the threshold of 80% when ascertaining whether to move on, so this seemed a solid place to start. What we were really looking for was habits: had our focus become habitual for teachers?

Like with all things T&L, it is so much more nuanced than that. As Sarah Cottingham outlines so well, effective professional development is not just tips and tricks, it is not about arming staff with tools and enforcing them. Instead, it is about ensuring they understand the problems in student learning they are trying to solve (Cottingham, 2022). Essentially, we needed to assess whether coachees had the ‘under-the-hood’ understanding behind the techniques they were using. This data came from two places: we held coaching lunches and asked coaches directly about the level of understanding from their coachees, and we engaged in SLT learning walks to check on the fidelity of implementation.

Final thoughts

As with any initiative launched within education, Instructional Coaching is vulnerable to lethal mutations. To avoid this, we have always kept a clear idea of what we want the outcome of instructional coaching to be. At every opportunity, we question whether what we are currently doing is taking us to where we want to be? As with anything in schools, if you stall, you stagnate. It is never enough to mirror a professional development model from another school and apply it to your context. Instead, we must take ownership, be bespoke, be dynamic.

Figure 1. Woodham's 7-phase process for making IC work.


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