In my travels to schools around the world, I have yet to encounter educators who wouldn’t benefit from peer coaching as an approach to professional learning.
As in any field, professional learning should support teachers in improving their practice—there’s no point investing resources in professional learning if it’s not going to make a difference in what happens in classrooms for students. Professional learning needs to focus on the right work that’s going to impact teacher practice and student learning.
Unfortunately, professional learning hasn’t always been effective or focused on teachers’ real problems of practice. Traditional models can be expensive and often disrupt student learning by pulling teachers away from class, and teachers often find them uninspiring when implemented from the top down.
The Experts in the Building
Fortunately, teachers have access to the best professional learning resource there is: other teachers. And through a lens focused on change from the inside out, starting with practices that teachers themselves have identified as important for advancing student learning, teachers can help one another develop skills to more precisely meet the needs of their students.
In its simplest form, peer coaching is when peers engage in an observation-feedback cycle to learn with and from one another. Peer coaching can be done vertically, with an expert coach giving feedback to teachers, and can be especially powerful with a horizontal approach: a team of classroom teachers committed to helping each other improve.
To be honest, peer coaching in general has a mixed record of success reported in the literature. Without a specific focus, defined roles, and a clear understanding of how to give effective feedback, the process can be less than inspiring for some participants. However, focusing on a couple of key elements can result in a positive experience.
First, before plunging into observations, the team should agree on a standard of practice to give feedback on. By agreeing about what they are watching for and articulating a shared vision of success, the team can give specific, actionable feedback based on the standard of practice. Without this agreement at the outset, the feedback frequently becomes more about the teacher being observed than the practice.
Second, I advocate a triad model for coaching. A triad model is democratic and mutually supportive because each team member takes turns as coach, coachee, and observer. This means that everyone, regardless of experience or expertise, gets to participate fully.
The Triad Model of Peer Coaching
Here are some steps to get started.
- Teachers agree on their focus—the strategy, specific learning, or segment of the lesson to be worked on—and develop a plan for teaching the lesson.
- One teacher—the first coachee—volunteers to teach the lesson.
- The team agrees on the look-fors—the standards of practice they are aiming to achieve—and the kind of feedback they’ll provide.
- The coachee teaches the lesson. The coach and observer are in the room for the lesson (or lesson segment), or it’s recorded for them to watch later.
- The coach’s role is to observe and take notes on bright spots and suggestions for refinement and innovation, based on the agreed-upon look-fors.
- The observer’s role is to collect data about student actions and add additional observations focused on the look-fors.
- Once everyone has taken notes and reflected on the lesson, the triad meets. The observer facilitates this meeting, prompts descriptive feedback and reflection, and focuses the group on the intended outcomes. The coach provides feedback to the coachee, who reflects on and discusses what is shared. The observer also invites the team to reflect on the process.
- Finally, the trio determines what adjustments will be made and their next steps to further develop the selected practice in all of their classrooms.
The benefit of a triad model is that with two peers on the case, the coachee receives different perspectives on the actions that contribute to teaching and learning. The observer serves to keep the debrief focused on outcomes and the agreed-upon look-fors, while the coach and coachee dig into the mechanics of what happened during the teaching and learning session.
Compared with other forms of professional learning, an obvious attraction of peer coaching is that it doesn’t involve flights, hotel rooms, and subs. The greatest investment—and it is a big one—is teacher time. There are some ways to minimize the impact of this, however: Teams don’t need to focus on an entire lesson—a 15-minute segment featuring a specific strategy may be all that’s needed if that strategy is the team’s focus. Recording a lesson segment and sharing it digitally means teachers can support each other without finding class coverage or aligning their schedules.
A triad peer coaching model is both accessible and powerful. When teachers own their professional learning and it’s based on the areas of improvement and innovation they’ve identified as important to their students, peer coaching can be an effective component to any school’s professional learning model.