By Tom Many, EdD, and Tesha Ferriby Thomas, EdD
“The benefits of instructional coaching have been obvious to educators for decades, but research data now makes those benefits measurably clear.” – Suanne Bouffard (2019)
Practitioners have known for a long time that the traditional, one-shot workshop delivered off campus to individuals in a large group setting was an ineffective way to provide teachers with professional development. Instead, we have learned professional development is most effective when teams of teachers engage in ongoing coaching relationships that are framed within the context of their daily work.
Effective professional development includes ongoing, sustained learning opportunities that promote experimentation and reflection, but most traditional PD simply does not fit the bill. Research has shown traditional workshops can be effective if they meet three important criteria: 1) the workshop is focused on evidence-based practices; 2) the workshop is part of long-term, multiple session training initiative or network; and 3) the workshop is intentionally focused on incorporating the new strategies into the classroom. Unfortunately, the PD offerings typically available to teachers do not reflect these conditions and most school leaders agree the traditional workshop approach to professional development rarely makes a difference.
Joyce and Showers (2002) found teachers incorporated only 5% of what they learned during traditional workshops into their classroom practice. Modeling and practicing new strategies during workshops had a modest impact on the transfer of new learning into a teacher’s instructional repertoire however, when teachers received coaching in their classroom setting, the rate of incorporating new strategies increased to 95%. Goodwin and Taylor (2019) found similar results; after reviewing 13 scientific studies they reported that, “Basically, without coaching, teachers brought little of what they learned in workshops back to the classroom.” It is clear, coaching is the key to changing teachers’ instructional practice.
So how can principals provide teachers with professional development that promises sustained growth related directly to teachers’ classrooms? We believe school leaders need to transition from the traditional workshop model to coaching as the primary vehicle for delivering PD and shift the audience of their PD efforts from individual teachers to teams of teachers. If coaching individual teachers is good, then by extension, coaching collaborative teams is even better.
“Coaching is an increasingly popular and promising method of professional learning, but unfortunately, many teachers do not have access to high quality coaching.” – Cynthia D. Carson, et. al. (2019)
A literature review conducted in 2010 by Borko, Jacobs and Koellner found support for coaching teachers as the next generation of best PD practice. Borko, et. al. compared “traditional” and “modern” approaches to professional development and identified six important differences in the way that school leaders create learning opportunities for their teachers.
The first difference Borko, Jacobs and Koellner (2010) found was that traditional professional development has typically utilized a workshop or seminar type of format with a focus on activities whereas more modern approaches to PD utilize various formats including job-embedded coaching and collaborative team meetings to build the teachers’ capacity to improve their instructional practice. In this initial comparison, making use of job embedded coaching to deliver PD within the context of team meetings aligns closely with what we know is best practice.
Second, researchers found traditional professional development is typically short-term as compared to more contemporary models of professional development that are long term and designed to take place consistently over time. Again, the ongoing coaching of teachers over the course of the school year and within the context of their day-to-day interactions as part of a collaborative team better reflects what is emerging as best PD practice.
Third, researchers reported traditional PD is based on individual teachers who have the responsibility of identifying ways to use the new knowledge in their classrooms whereas modern PD is scaffolded to meet teachers’ needs and is designed to be immediately applicable. Chalk another one up for real-time coaching of teachers and teacher teams as the preferred method of delivering PD.
Fourth, the context of individual teachers’ classrooms is not typically taken into consideration in traditional PD, while the more modern-day PD models use context as a major component in determining the content of the sessions. Clearly, coaching teachers as part of networks or within the context of team meetings is more consistent with contemporary models of best practice PD.
Fifth, it was found traditional PD is most often delivered off-site, whereas modern day PD is job-embedded, sometimes taking place right inside the classroom during the school day. Once again, the evidence points to coaching teachers and teacher teams as a promising practice that represents the next generation of best practice in professional development.
Finally, while the focus of traditional professional development is geared toward the individual teacher, contemporary professional development is aimed at improving the entire system – score another point for coaching teachers during collaborative team meetings. In each of their comparisons, Borko, Jacobs and Koellner (2010) noted the characteristics of effective professional development are found in the coaching of teachers and teams of teachers.
“The unique balance of support and pressure coaches can provide teachers has the potential to spur growth and impact student achievement unlike any other form of professional development” – Lynch, Moody, and Stricker, 2015, p. 1.
There is a growing body of evidence showing coaching teachers is an effective form of professional development (Thomas, 2019). However, the benefits are not only for individual teachers and their students. Trach (2014) found “coaching creates positive energy and professional renewal that revitalizes and benefits the school culture in a lasting way” (p. 16). For these reasons, many schools have begun to incorporate the coaching of collaborative teams into their professional development plans (Galey, 2016; Steeg, 2016; Steiner & Kowal, 2013).
The idea of explicitly coaching teacher teams around improving implementation of the PLC process while simultaneously developing more productive habits of professional practice has shown promise as an effective strategy for improving student achievement. We are convinced coaching collaborative teams of teachers in the context of their workplace or classroom provides a viable alternative to traditional professional development.
Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.
Dr. Tesha Ferriby Thomas is a school improvement consultant at the Macomb Intermediate School District in Macomb, Michigan where she helps struggling districts implement systems to improve teaching and learning.
Borko, H., Jacobs, J. & Koellner, K. (2010). Contemporary approaches to teacher professional development. International Encyclopedia of Education, 548-556. doi:10.1016/b978-0-08-044894-7.00654-0.
Galey, S. (2016). The evolving role of instructional coaches in U.S. policy contexts; The William and Mary Educational Review, 4(2), 54-71. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1044&context=wmer.
Goodwin, B. & Taylor, M. (2019). Finding the right glue: Peer coaching – done well – can make professional learning stick. Educational Leadership, 77(3), 84-85.
Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (1982). The coaching of teaching. Educational Leadership, (October), 4-10. Retrieved from http://ascd.com/ASCD/pdf/journals/ed_lead/el_198210_joyce.pdf.
Steeg, S. (2016). A case study of teacher reflection: Examining teacher participation in a video-based professional learning community. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 12(1) Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1101024.pdf.
Steiner, L. & Kowal, J. (2013, November 07). Instructional coaching. Retrieved March 7, 2018, from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/instructional-coaching.
Thomas, T. (2019). The implications of instructional coaches’ participation in professional learning community collaborative team meetings (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan-Flint, Flint, Michigan, United States). Retrieved from https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/handle/2027.42/152356.
Trach, S. (2014). Inspired instructional coaching: Stimulate teaching by structuring meaningful observations and feedback that will improve instruction schoolwide. Principal, (November/December), 13-16. Retrieved from https://www.naesp.org/sites/default/files/Trach_ND14.pdf.
TEPSA News, March/April 2020, Vol 77, No 2
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