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Beyond mentoring; peer coaching by and for teachers. Can it live up to its promise?

Rachel Lofthouse

Creating opportunities for individual teachers to work together for professional development is a common ambition in schools in England. Mentoring forms a critical learning resource for both pre-service teachers and those newly qualified (NQTs), offering instruction, support and critical friendship, and typically engaging the mentor in making judgements about the new teachers’ practice. Past the NQT phase mentoring is rarely formalised, and a common concern for early career teachers is that they find themselves exposed to the performance management regime of lesson observation, judgement and target setting with fewer sources of personalised support on offer. For some teachers their next experience of such support comes as they proceed through leadership programmes when they are assigned coaches. In between the NQT and aspiring leader stages a gap can open up, which is typically occupied by membership of school professional learning networks, voluntary attendance at TeachMeets, school-based CPD, subject-based training and engagement in moderation activities. For some teachers there is a growing use of social media for ideas, feedback and a chance to share practice.

Peer coaching takes many forms, but a typical rationale is to fill this gap and to enable teachers to share good practice, work on issues they are interested in and to maintain a focus on improving teaching and learning. Coaching is usually distinguished from mentoring in that it can be accessed in between distinct career transition stages and is less likely to be based on forming judgements and linked to performance management, but instead be orientated towards professional development through learning conversations. Some coaching models deliberately locate teachers in pairs and triads across traditional working boundaries (such as subject departments or key stages) while others use coaching as a mechanism to strengthen working practices within these contexts. Sometimes coaching becomes a whole school endeavour involving all teachers, in other schools a team of coaches is established and either as volunteers or through persuasion they work with a cohort of coachees. Coaching frequently includes lesson observations, sometimes extending to the use of video to stimulate discussion. Coaching is often designed to be cyclical, sustaining sequences of plan, do and review; may be collaborative in that participants work together to plan for learning, and is sometimes reciprocal. Importantly most teachers report that they enjoy being coached. What could go wrong when this sounds so flexible, potentially productive and inclusive?

mentoring conversations are sometimes didactic or instructional, driven by target setting and checking

Having researched coaching over a decade it is clear that issues which support and disrupt it affect its perceived and actual success, and the cautionary tales are useful in diagnosing the potential pitfalls. The first of these might be related to the experience that all teachers have of mentoring. Hobson and Malderez, Wilson , Lofthouse and Thomas all found that mentoring can be distorted away from the personal learning needs of the new teacher. The outcome can be that mentoring conversations are sometimes didactic or instructional, driven by target setting and checking, and do not always engage the mentee in proactive participation in professional dialogue. Teachers’ experiences of performance management observation and feedback can be similar. These experiences can be formative creating conversational and behavioural habits that sustain in coaching. Other teachers report that even when coaching starts as a confidential and personalised learning opportunity it gets swept up by the performance management system of the school or ascribed a role linked to the school’s (rather than their own) CPD priorities. Schools are busy places and coaching uses up the most precious resource, that of teachers’ time. Managing this and the expectations that are generated is problematic. Associated with this is the degree to which decisions and actions in schools are expected to generate outcomes to which teachers and school leaders can be held to account. The drive for ‘improvement’ is incessant and as yet there is limited evidence of the direct link between teacher coaching and pupil attainment. We have started to understand these tensions through a CHAT analysis recognising that coaching too frequently fades in the perfomative culture of schools.

So, where does this leave us? Schools will continue to set up coaching, using its promise as a motive. Research gaps include establishing what can be known about the link between coaching and the desired outcomes for learners. As importantly perhaps, at this time of anxiety about teachers’ wellbeing and resilience, there are real reasons to establish whether coaching can address issues beyond teachers’ and pupils’ performance. Watch this space.