How can PD Leads support busy teachers to become great coaches?

Essay • 11 Nov '22
Rachel Sewell

This blog post explores:

  • The challenges Professional Development Leads typically encounter when training new and more experienced coaches
  • How the Steplab Coaching Programme supports coaches’ ongoing development

Ahmed’s Story

Ahmed is about to launch Instructional Coaching in his school. He’s attended some online training, and has been working with his own coachee for a term now. He has seen real improvements as a result of their work together, and he’s confident with the structure of the observation and feedback cycle. But he knows there’s a lot he doesn’t know about coaching: is he selecting the right steps to work on? Why does modelling and rehearsal still feel a little bit awkward?

Ahmed is worried that when he starts training his first group of pilot coaches, he won’t have all the answers. He knows how much subject expertise effective curriculum planning requires, and wonders if he knows enough about Instructional Coaching and its ‘big ideas’ and common misconceptions. Will he be able to design an effective set of training sessions for his coaches?

Maria’s Story

Maria has been leading Instructional Coaching in her school for a while now. She trained her coaches in three after-school sessions, ensuring they knew how to offer specific praise; select a high-leverage step based on lesson evidence; and use rehearsal to embed the change. But Maria has a hunch that coaching isn’t having the impact it could: she notices that feedback sessions are often chatty and meandering; the steps that coaches set jump from lesson routines one week to cold-calling the next; and rounds of rehearsal often feel half-hearted.

Maria is still working on improving her own coaching – she’s read lots about it, and attended webinars, and she’s constantly reflecting on how to improve as a coach. She knows the quality of coaching in her school could be better, but isn’t quite sure what she’s looking for, or where to start. She wonders how she can go about designing further training for her coaches when she’s still learning herself, and when many of her coaches are busy Middle Leaders who often seem at capacity at the end of a school day. She wonders if they’re thinking as hard about their coaching as she wants them to.

What’s the problem and how can Steplab help?

Here's the thing: teaching is really complicated. Teaching teachers is arguably even more complicated. Teaching teachers to teach teachers – well, that’s something that PD Leads like Maria and Ahmed definitely don’t have time to explore and master on their own.

At Steplab, we’ve spent lots of time training coaches, observing coaching, talking to PD Leads, and immersing ourselves in the research on teacher education. We’re building a clear picture of what works, and what doesn’t, and we’ve done lots of the difficult thinking and curriculum design for Leads like Ahmed and Maria.

The Steplab Coaching Programme (SCP) is a fully resourced and customisable training programme that PD Leads can pick up and use in their schools to develop expert coaches. At Steplab, we do whatever it takes to make Instructional Coaching work in our schools. As part of the Steplab family, access to over 15 hours of training resources is free.

The Steplab Coaching Programme’s Design Principles

Putting coaches in a room and training them with a one off after-school session is unlikely to lead to improvements in their practice. Why? Because the same principles that apply to student learning apply to teachers:

We can only attend to a few things at once

The school environment is busy and noisy, and coaches will arrive at training sessions with a multitude of different things competing for their attention. Instructional Coaching is complex, and the temptation to train coaches on everything in one go is strong. But we need to focus coaches’ attention on a few big ideas and coaching skills at a time, or vital ideas will be forgotten.

Design Decision: The SCP is made up of carefully sequenced units and 30-minute sessions, which focus on exploring and practising one or two aspects of Instructional Coaching at a time. Slides, booklets and activities have been designed with the principles of cognitive load theory in mind, so that busy coaches can focus their attention on one thing at a time, and get a little bit better at coaching every week.

What we don’t use, we lose

Learning is a persistent change in knowledge or skill, rather than a temporary increase in performance. Coaches are unlikely to remember a big idea, or make a specific coaching skill a habit, if they only encounter it once in a session.

Design Decision: All sessions begin with a ‘Retrieval Practice Do Now’ which supports with retention of knowledge by quizzing coaches on big ideas from across the SCP. Sessions end by highlighting ideas and skills to go away and immediately put into practice in coaching sessions that week.

The deeper and more fluent our knowledge, the less attention it uses

Coaching is cognitively demanding and complex. Coaches need to be able to retrieve ideas effortlessly and fluently, so that when observing lessons and feeding back to coaches, they can focus their attention on the nuances of diagnosing barriers to learning in complex classroom environments.

Design Decision: Across each unit, coaches explore and rehearse the same big ideas and coaching skills repeatedly. These develop in complexity as coaches’ confidence increases, helping them to automate the 5 stages of the observation and feedback cycle.

Instructional Coaching Model Diagram

We learn by gradually building on (and with) what we already know

All coaches come to coaching with a variety of different experiences of teacher training, observation, and feedback. Coaches will learn best if they build gradually on their existing knowledge and skill, but this process is different for every individual coach. To deliver training sessions effectively, PD Leads need an understanding of coaches’ pre-existing and evolving mental models.

Design Decision: Exit tickets are designed to be handed in and reviewed by PD Leads at the end of each session. This will expose coaches’ evolving mental models and insights, and any gaps in knowledge or skill. Digging into observations taking place on Steplab will also support this process. Upcoming SCP sessions can then be edited responsively.

Sessions also develop coaches’ mental models of great coaching through providing exemplar videos. Leads can also use the scripts provided to model their own context-specific coaching and meet the needs of their coaches.

Learning by discovery is slow and errorful

If we train coaches in one-off sessions, and then set them off on coaching without any further training, it’s likely that they will forget ideas and important coaching skills, or develop misconceptions and bad habits. If they are left alone to experiment and discover what makes great coaching, making progress as a coach is likely to be slower.

Design Decision: The SCP is chunked into flexible 30-minute sessions so that, ideally, coaches could meet during a regular morning, lunchtime or after-school slot. This means that whilst they are coaching, they are constantly learning and reflecting on their practice. Each session also contains an opportunity to practise and apply new knowledge and skills within and immediately after a session.

Learners are influenced by their peers

Arranging social support can help teachers to develop. Coaches will often share a common language and understanding of the typical problems they face in their school, and therefore be able to support each other with improving their practice. Agreeing and setting goals with peers can also support with building effective coaching habits.

Design Decision: The SCP has been designed to be delivered face to face and to create regular connection and peer support within a group of coaches. Sessions will build a collective, context-specific understanding of what makes great teaching and coaching in a specific school.

The Steplab Coaching Programme will ensure that Maria’s coaches are always thinking hard about their coaching, and that Ahmed has the curriculum expertise he needs to train his coaches.

Click here to access the Steplab Coaching Programme

Click here to enquire about becoming a Steplab school and accessing our resources

Want to know more?

Here are some of articles we’ve read, written, or contributed to on teacher education, which have informed this blog.

Collin, J. and Smith, E., 2021. Effective Professional Development. Guidance Report. Education Endowment Foundation.

Fletcher-Wood, H., Bignall, B., Blewett, L., Calvert, J., Goodrich, J. and McCrea, E., 2019. The Learning Curriculum. (Download version three here)

Goodrich, J. and Boguslav, A., Coaching: 4 Implementation Challenges And How To Defuse Them.

Kennedy, M.M., 2019. How we learn about teacher learning. Review of research in education, 43(1), pp.138-162.

McCrea, P., 2019. Learning: What Is It, and How Might We Catalyse It.


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The Evidence and Rationale Behind Steplab
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