Towards Transformational Coaching
October 30, 2020

Reimagining Professional Development: From Instructional to Transformational Coaching

Peer coaching creates space and time for deep conversations about teaching.
by Corrie Martin

Instructional Coaching is a common practice in the teaching profession that ranges between an informal “buddy system” to institutionalized teacher-teacher mentorship roles. As the name implies, the basic goal is to help teachers improve their “instructional moves” — essentially, to provide the time and support to become more effective educators. When these relationships are truly collaborative, instructional coaching can be one of the most effective forms of professional development for any teacher, experienced or novice. Just as important, it is a way to learn about and try out pedagogical best practices such as facilitating inclusive class discussions or providing authentic feedback to students.

Beyond this worthy goal of the discovery and application of certain moves and practices, peer coaching can also be transformative. Coaching, says leading educational scholar and consultant Elena Aguilar, “can go where no other professional development has gone before: into the intellect, behaviors, practices, beliefs, values, and feelings of an educator. […] A coach holds a space where healing can take place and where resilient, joyful communities can be built.”[i]

In this spirit, the Tang Institute launched its inaugural cohort of five peer coaches during the 2019-2020 school year, building off of other collaborations and programs on our campus, both formal and informal. For Therese Zemlin, the program allowed those involved to participate in a mutual “inquiry partnership“ and experience an exciting process of “discovery, conversation, and potential for improving student experience.” Zemlin is a former Tang Fellow and emerita instructor in art, and was able to sit in on classes taught by colleagues and meet weekly with a new member of the department last year to provide feedback and think through new teaching approaches and strategies.

Ayako Anderson is a new addition to the World Languages department at Phillips Academy and to the coaching team this year. “I often think that the term ‘coaching’ is misleading,” she says, “especially if you think of an athletic coach who plans and directs the agenda for the day and sits on the bench during competition.” Instead of coming in with their own agenda and ideas for what is best practice, a coach can be a thought-partner, and meetings can be about listening and helping to unpack a teacher’s description of their questions, challenges, ideas, and hopes. Anderson explains, “I love the igniting moment when suddenly my partner says, ‘Oh wait a moment, I just thought of something.’ I also enjoy the silence as they jot down new ideas. To me, coaching is a think-aloud process, and my role is to be another set of eyes and ears. It is not to fix something broken (because nothing is broken!) nor to deliver a solution. When a music teacher said to me, ‘I will continue to bounce ideas off of you,’ it suddenly clicked for me that I’m a sounding board.”

To me, coaching is a think-aloud process, and my role is to be another set of eyes and ears. It is not to fix something broken (because nothing is broken!) nor to deliver a solution.

Ayako Anderson Tang Institute Fellow and Instructor in Japanese

Patrick Rielly, Tang fellow and instructor in English, adds, “I got involved in coaching last year to contribute to Tang's work of fostering a culture of collaborative teaching and learning at PA. Although collaborations among our (amazing) faculty have happened for generations, Tang's program allows coaches to engage in focused and sustained collaboration with individual teachers based on the learning goals each teacher has for their students.”

Now in its second year, the Tang team of coaches are inspired and motivated by feedback from those they’ve had the opportunity to coach. English instructor Catherine Tousignant, who worked with colleague and coach Leo Calleja, shares, “Leo acted as a supportive and insightful thought partner during a term where I experimented with more standards-based grading. He helped me design and respond to various assessments, think through the way sequences served or strayed from the goals I articulated at the start of term, and keep moving forward as I was learning.”

The pressure on schools to meet crushingly complex social and political demands under the current pandemic—and to understand and actually address underlying, historical challenges of equity and justice that affect students and teachers alike—is more acute and seemingly intractable than ever. Instead of “experts” who dispense advice and correctives, the coaching relationship instead provides what teachers need most today: the space and time to think, reflect, and try out new ideas alongside supportive peers who are committed to ongoing, mutual growth.

[i] The Art of Coaching: Effective Strategies for School Transformation (2013), Wiley, pg. 8.
[ii] ibid, 27

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