Live coaching and how it helps new teachers get into good habits quickly
During a lesson a teacher wouldn’t look over a student’s shoulder and think ‘I can’t wait to mark that later!’ They would provide actionable feedback there and then in order to help that student improve. So why not provide this ‘live feedback’ to teachers too when you are supporting them in their classroom?
Several years ago I undertook a lesson observation of a science teacher who was doing her school placement at my school as part of her PGCE. Generally the lesson was fine although she hadn’t left an adequate amount of time for the students to fully write up their experiment. Part of the reason for this was that the opening activity was overly long and this had a knock on effect for the rest of the lesson. Later that day I met this PGCE student and provided her, in my role as her professional tutor, with some feedback. We discussed the timings of the lesson and she identified, with the help of the timeline I provided her, that she had left an inadequate amount of time to complete the experiment write up. Further examination of the timings and some feedback from me helped us to conclude that the opening activity had gone on too long. Her reaction to this was very thought provoking. She said to me ‘Why didn’t you tell me to speed up during the start of the lesson?’ Good point! I did think at the time that the opening activity was going on too long and time might be tight at the end. I even recorded this fact on my note pad. However, I didn’t share this feedback there and then; choosing only to record it and mention it at the later feedback meeting.
Had I provided this feedback ‘live’ would the lesson have been more effective and successful?
Had I done this student teacher a disservice by not pointing this out to her during the lesson?
So why wait? Why not provide feedback in the moment when it is really needed so that the teaching can be improved straight away?
What begins as a well-intentioned respect for the teacher’s ownership of their own classroom possibly ends by not prioritising the students’ learning.
If we are serious about developing teachers as quickly as possible so that they can have maximum impact on the student’s learning we must try to improve teaching as it happens.
John Hattie in his research tell us that feedback to students is particularly effective when provided immediately, during task acquisition, rather than deferred. So why not with teachers too. ‘Live coaching’ is where an experienced mentor or coach, skilled in providing immediate live feedback, works alongside a less experienced teacher while they are delivering a lesson. The coach provides the teacher with live feedback about their teaching so that the feedback is immediate and acted upon rather than being given after the lesson when it is essentially too late.
The method of ‘live feedback’ or ‘live coaching’ seems relatively rare in many schools. There seems to be an unwritten rule that once the lesson is underway the observer remains silent and unobtrusive; possibly sitting at the back, talking to the students and certainly not to the teacher. That is, you find out later how you did. I am, however, constantly striving to improve the way I support future or new teachers in order to help them establish a fast and effective start to their careers. Over several years now I have been developing ‘live’ and ‘hands on’ feedback/coaching so that the teaching can be improved or enhanced ‘in the moment’. As a result I have come to the conclusion that the more frequently I can coach my teachers, and the closer I can do this to the classroom, the better they become as they develop good habits that contribute to establishing a strong default position.
In undertaking ‘live coaching’ I have made some mistakes and learnt some very quick lessons. I have also, however, developed effective strategies to enhance this method of teacher development.
It is very important to follow some rules and protocols to undertake this effectively otherwise you run the risk of unduly stressing the teacher, undermining their authority or reducing their sense leadership in their own classroom.
- The more frequently you visit the teacher’s classroom the more the teacher (and students) will be comfortable with you being in the room. This helps establishing trust and ensures also that you get to see typicality. Why give feedback on anything else other than ‘typical’?
- Use any previous observations, reflections and discussions to ascertain the next required focus for improvement. This is the focus for any observation. Keep it relatively small to retain focus and increase the chances of being successful. The clearer the goal and focus is, the more likely improvement is going to happen. Deliberately work on addressing small changes at a time as this is both more achievable and sustainable for a busy teacher. Stephen Guise in his book ‘Mini Habits’ talks about the need to get started and build momentum. A mini habit is a very small positive behaviour that you make yourself to do every day; a mini habit’s ‘too small to fail’ nature makes it achievable, deceptively powerful, and a superior habit-building strategy. The secret is to engineer situations where the success rate is relatively high in order to build consistent and effective habits. Build one habit at a time.
- Design lessons where there is plenty of opportunity for this focus to be used frequently. The focus becomes the purpose of the lesson. The more frequently and successfully a skill is practised the more likely it is to become automatic. For example, if you are working on transitions, design a lesson with several built in so that practice time is maximised and opportunities for feedback and subsequent improvement increased.
- Discuss the role of ‘live coaching’ before the lesson so everyone is clear about the expectations.
- In the classroom sit or stand close to the teacher so communication is easier and the students also get used to seeing you too. Be aware that another adult in the room may change the dynamic so a balance between being unobtrusive yet near the teacher is the aim.
- Do not attempt to teach something new to the teacher during the lesson or point out things that cannot be changed, such as material on a PowerPoint slide or the objective that is being shared. This will possibly throw them, creating distraction, uncertainty and stress. The focus is pre-agreed before the lesson – stick to it. Instead, reward, remind and reinforce.
- Reward: What your teachers do right is just as important in practice time as what they do wrong. If you see evidence of something going well, especially a strategy you had discussed together previously that they have been subsequently practising, praise them. This will boost their confidence. Remember they will be probably be nervous with you in the room. A quiet word, a thumbs up, a smile or even a word to the class about how you have noticed the class working well in a particular way will be affirming, reassuring and confidence boosting. Praise helps establish the right way encouraging them to do it again, the right way.
- Remind: Before they are about to undertake the agreed focus (e.g. Transition, explanation, modelling, class discussion and so on) remind them about the pre agreed elements of that focus. Possibly even jot these down on a mini whiteboard as a reminder and place them near the teacher. It may be prudent to have done this before the lesson so there are no surprises.
- Reinforce: Give the teacher some feedback and points to reinforce the strategy after it was done. This will prepare them for the next time they use that strategy in that lesson. Try to shorten the feedback loop and achieve correction and development as quickly as possible. Always correct privately obviously. Remember that you are not trying to rewire a skill just make small, simple changes.
- Providing small bite-sized bits of feedback makes it more likely to be acted upon right away. If they are unlikely to be able to act upon the feedback immediately and possibly not get it right ‘in the moment’ make a note and leave it to discuss in more detail in your follow up session. So limit yourself to the focus and limit the volume of feedback you give too. Clarity and brevity are key here.
- Pick the right moment. Don’t interrupt their teaching; pick a moment when the students are working such as during independent or group practice time or talk partner time. This way the students are not distracted by your interactions and the teacher is more able to focus on what you are saying. Say what you need to say before they have to do something (remind) or just after (reward or reinforce). What you say to the teacher must help student learning and make the lesson go more smoothly.
- Be as brief and concise as possible as not to interrupt the flow or the thought processes of the teacher. Remember that they will probably be scanning their class as you talk to them. Allow and expect them to be doing this.
- It may be possible to communicate with the teacher non-verbally. A hand gesture to encourage them to do something or a sign to remind. An athletics coach I had many years ago used to write brief reminders of things I had to remember on pieces of card that were left by the runway – a visual prompt to help me keep focused and remind me about what we had been trying to do in training. One or two words on a mini whiteboard (Scan, check, 3-2-1, stand still, talk partners) as a visual prompt can work well. I sometimes use an app on my iPad called ‘Make it Big’ to do this.You may also use other physical non-verbal cues. For example, exaggerating your own stance and posture will remind your teacher to stand still and face the class.
- Model for the teacher, if appropriate. Sometimes words may not be enough and in order to fully understand the teacher may need to have the strategy modelled to them. Agree this beforehand so not to challenge their leadership and authority in their classroom. This can work really well with novice teachers who may not have a sufficiently developed mental model of excellence.
Practice doesn’t make perfect. It makes permanent. Therefore try to ensure that your teachers practise correctly otherwise poor habits will become quickly engrained and these are really hard to break. Frequent live feedback will help enormously here as it has the power to influence the lesson and therefore the learning in the moment, build great habits and also save time on lengthy feedback conversation too which is a real bonus.