Note: This is the last of a three-part series. For part one, click here. For part two, click here.

Help! I need somebody/Help!/Not just anybody/Help!/You know I need someone/Help!
— "Help," by Lennon-McCartney, The Beatles

Are you an educator or administrator yearning for anonymous, authentic, non-evaluative, non-threatening professional development opportunities that encourage you to take risks and fail without facing pernicious repercussions? Are you an educator or administrator eager for professional growth opportunities in which you can safely take chances in a supportive environment with those who genuinely care about you, respect you, acknowledge your inherent worth, are equally as enthusiastic as you are about working with you as you are with them, and know the value in risking, failing, learning, and thriving?

Are you a passionate educator or administrator who knows what best practices are and is committed to infusing your teaching or management with them, to contributing to the research and application of best practices, to the holistic success of yourself, your colleagues, your students, and your faculty or staff? Are you an administrator who can admit that your program needs help and that the best way to help your program is to inspire and embolden the faculty who work in your program? If you are, then peer coaching is for you.

A Definition

Peer coaching, unlike mentoring or buddying, "is a confidential process through which two or more professional colleagues work together to reflect on current practices; expand, refine, and build new skills; share ideas; teach one another; conduct classroom research; or solve problems in the workplace."

As Dewey’s seminal work established and the eminent and multiple award-winning Dr. Stephen Brookfield has demonstrated in the corpus of his work, especially "The Skillful Teacher" and "Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher," critical self-reflection is an essential component of both peer coaching and professional development at large.

Many others concur; here are a few. (Author’s note: When I read the work of Dewey and Brookfield early in my teaching career, they instantly became two of my intellectual and pedagogical heros. Soon thereafter, Stephen accepted my invitation to be the keynote speaker and workshop facilitator at the critical thinking conference I was coordinating).

Furthermore, "peer coaching has nothing to do with evaluation. It is not intended as a remedial activity or strategy to ‘fix’ teachers. Peer coaching is non judgmental, and non evaluative. Peer coaching focuses on the collaborative development, refinement and sharing of professional knowledge and skills."

Timpson and Doe note "that feedback and coaching are unhooked from the formal evaluation process, that the focus instead be on feedback, support, and assistance for instructors rather than evaluation. In this way, psychological defenses will lessen, while trust and openness will develop." Huston and Weaver, drawing on the work of Slater and Simmons, assert that when peer coaching is "grounded in mutual respect and trust, as well as confidentiality, [it] becomes a non-evaluative opportunity for development."

And unlike mentoring or buddying, peer coaching is for all educators and administrators. "Both novice teachers and veterans...nearly universally reported that (peer coaching) improved their teaching. All involved are enthusiastic, including principals…[and] welcome the new strengths the program brings to their schools."

Peer coaching has achieved substantial and multitudinous outcomes, including teaching teachers to be more effective learners and developing teachers’ "knowledge and awareness of educational theories and practices." Ultimately, teachers’ improvement transfers to student improvement.

Failing Efforts

In the 1970s, national education organizations, reflecting on the dearth of research into how teachers learn and apply teaching techniques, determined that well-intentioned and well-funded efforts to improve teaching and learning had failed. The failures could be traced to inadequate professional development approaches.

Historically, "improvement of teaching practices has traditionally been left to individual teachers working in isolation. Whether learning a new practice or working to improve a current practice, teachers are expected, without appropriate support, to ‘work it out’ on their own." And if teachers haven’t “worked it out” on their own, administrators have been quick to blame teachers for anything and everything that hasn’t been successful.

Instead of admitting that their program doesn’t reflect best practices and investing time and effort into learning about the faculty the human beings with full lives, idiosyncrasies, worries, and big, big hearts, the last of which no doubt brought them to teaching — helping faculty identify their needs and concerns, and working with them to address and ameliorate them, administrators too often rush to judgment, dismissing anything that challenges their assumptions and prejudices.

Unfortunately but inevitably, it is the faculty who bear the brunt of what is not theirs to bear. For decades, I’ve worked with faculty throughout the world, and I’ve heard the same story everywhere. I have told that story, and educators have hired me to help them prepare to extricate themselves from untenable jobs and to find rewarding positions.

None of the faculty who have confided in me were in peer coaching protocols, and until a few years ago, when a colleague and I designed and implemented a peer coaching protocol — which we presented to a packed room at TESOL 2014 — I had not participated in one: None had been offered at any of workplace where I was a faculty member.

Typically, administrators have required faculty to attend one-off professional development workshops or symposia or all-day institutes, many of which are presented before the school year begins, in the evening after long teaching days, or on precious weekends during which teachers are likely already spending time lesson planning and evaluating students’ work.

If these meetings haven’t been required, they have been strongly encouraged, and it is not uncommon for administrators to take roll of attending faculty, apparently indicating who has (and has not) been interested in attending.

At other times, faculty are handed or told where to find how-to manuals and are expected to “work it out” unassisted. As national education organizations nearly 50 years ago realized, none of these were or are successful approaches to professional development.

Making Progress

By 1980, Showers and Joyce tested their hypotheses that weekly seminars, which they referred to as coaching sessions, would provide teachers with opportunities to practice and apply the content they were learning. "The results were consistent: Implementation rose dramatically, whether experts or participants conducted the sessions. Thus we recommended that teachers who were studying teaching and curriculum form small peer coaching groups that would share the learning process."

Over the decades during which Showers and Joyce continued their research and adapted their application, they found that teachers who participated had been so deeply rewarded that they were eager to continue the sessions even though they had met their goals. As a result, Showers and Joyce suggested creating ongoing formats. While Showers and Joyce offer their own peer coaching constructs, there are others. "The forms peer coaching can take are limitless."

While approaches to successful peer coaching may be limitless, there are non-negotiable and essential components: Participants voluntarily engage (faculty initiate the process; it is not required, suggested, or overseen by anyone), and the process is non-evaluative. Anonymity is often considered a prerequisite; that is, the teachers who choose to participate in peer coaching are under no obligation whatsoever to share any of their conversations or the work they do with administrators or other faculty. Participants have every right to keep their discussions and work confidential.

Introducing Peer Coaching

The success of the peer coaching approach is easily seen in Joyce and Showers’ striking findings (slide 2), which are substantiated by many others. According to Johnson, Finlon, Kobak, and Izard, “Traditionally, many programs that seek to improve preschool classrooms are based on a professional development model that relies extensively on didactic workshop training, which has generally not proved effective with low rates of transfer of skills to the classroom. By contrast, programs that combine multiple components, such as in-service training, consultation, and individualized feedback, have produced more promising and sustainable benefits.”

Although coaching has been a long established practice in nearly every profession one can name, from barista to neurosurgeon, it has been conspicuously absent from education. "Even the best-educated new employees need on-the-job training. Despite completing college and medical school, doctors spend years working as hospital residents before entering private practice. Newly elected judges, armed with law degrees and years of experience, attend judicial college before assuming the bench. Pilots receive initial training and recurrent training every time they advance from co-pilot to pilot, or change planes, say from a 737 to a 757. Every baseball season begins with Spring Training. At training camp, the camp is crawling with coaches. They have coaches for pitching, hitting, catching, base running, outfield play, infield play, sliding, base stealing, taking signals, and warming up drills, just to name a few. They do not give each player a mentor. Each coach has the responsibility to bring out the best in every player under the coach’s tutelage. In turn, the coaches meet with the manager on a regular basis to assess the progress of each player. Baseball, like a school, is a team function, and everyone needs to know the culture of the team and how it operates in harmony and unison. The most effective schools have coaches. In many schools we find literacy coaches, math coaches, science coaches, technology coaches, instructional coaches, and even coaches (not mentors) for principals. The coaches meet with the principal on a regular basis to assess the progress of every teacher and student. In an effective school, everyone functions as a team and there is a laser focus on student achievement."

Slowly, because of years of research findings and anecdotal evidence, peer coaching established itself as a best practice, and the approach began to make its way into schools.

However, it unfortunately remains largely situated in K-12 settings despite the fact that undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate teachers are those who frequently lack instruction skills, and those who are skilled instructors are teaching students studying to become K-12 teachers. Still, peer coaching is not as common as traditional mentoring or buddy programs despite the fact that peer coaching yields greater rewards.

A dozen years ago, a troubled school district near Denver was investigating routes to stem the tide of teacher turnover and students’ consistently poor performance. The district earned a five-year federal grant used to develop a comprehensive coaching protocol.

"Coaches met biweekly in professional learning communities to study, discuss, analyze, reflect, seek, share, risk, and grow professionally in their coaching roles. Because of their efforts, the district gained coaches with expertise in teaching skills and adult learning, and teachers gained flexible formats for professional learning. [...] With each coaching interaction, teachers and coaches hone their skills and increase their appreciation of the power and the need for high-quality professional learning that makes a difference for students."

Specialized Peer Coaching

Veteran Teachers

As we’ve seen, peer coaching is for everyone, whether teachers are recent university graduates or seasoned veterans. Teachers along the spectrum have particular coaching needs though there is a common misperception that peer coaching is for new or early career educators. Historically, professional development of all kinds has focused on novice, early career, and adjunct faculty at the expense of veteran educators. "Institutions often overlook the professional development needs of mid-career and senior faculty." Just as our personal needs change throughout our lives, so do our professional needs, yet "mid-career and senior faculty members may be disappointed in professional development activities that do not offer sufficient time and opportunity to explore the questions of greatest interest to them at this point in their careers. Historically, the needs of mid-career and senior faculty members were not served [...]."

Huston and Weaver’s research has found that experienced faculty, compared to junior faculty, "ask more nuanced and sophisticated questions about most teaching and learning issues."

Additionally, veteran faculty often have coaching needs related to instructional technology because they are two, three, or more generations away from being digital natives. Indeed, one-off workshops, all-day institutes, or instruction manuals are inappropriate methods and tools for helping veteran faculty learn new technological skills, and it is an unreasonable expectation that veteran faculty should master technology from these approaches. Did you learn to walk, talk, run, or use a knife, fork, and spoon the first time you tried? The second? The third? The fourth? No, no, no, no. Did Olympians become Olympians the first, second, third, or fiftieth time they practiced their sport? No, no, no, no times 50.

Those of us who appreciate the scientific method and those scientists who have worked through failure upon failure upon failure to ultimately move incrementally forward toward a cancer or AIDS or Huntington’s Disease or ALS cure couldn’t agree more with the wisdom of astrophysicist and author Ethan Siegel, "Being wrong is not a death sentence, but rather is often a stepping-stone to an even greater success. ‘Once a failure, always a failure’ couldn't be further from the truth."

Peer coaching dedicated to veteran teachers, especially in reciprocal coaching, provides experienced teachers not only with the time, the safe environment in which to take risks and fail, the encouragement of a colleague who is trusted to act in the best interests of each individual in the coaching pair and the pair together, but also and necessarily, a generational peer whose own desire to participate in peer coaching likely stems from issues and questions similar to her coaching partner.

For example, veteran faculty, fearing reprisal or impatience, may be reticent to ask for technological help from junior faculty, but they will embrace working through challenges with a respected contemporary who has comparable experience.

According to Huston and Weaver, experienced faculty — unlike junior faculty — are "more able to identify salient characteristics they wish to solve. Problem analysis can be more sophisticated, and resolution is more likely to focus on very narrow or specific aspects of the problem."

Seattle University launched a peer coaching pilot project for experience faculty in academic year 2005-2006, a year after the university established its faculty development office. The pilot project emanated from the overwhelming faculty demand for formative — non-evaluative, non-threatening — classroom observations. Responding to faculty’s needs, the faculty development office director and a College of Education adult education faculty member designed and implemented the pilot peer coaching program.

Huston and Weaver examine Seattle University’s pilot project, offer a six-point model for success, and assert, "[...] if campuses are dedicated to providing faculty development throughout the career-span of the faculty they support, providing additional opportunities for experienced faculty members is a must. We believe peer coaching is an appropriate and meaningful investment in the ongoing development of this important group."

Expat Educators

Administrators working with expat educators can learn fundamental and imperative lessons about coaching their faculty from the research of management experts Abbott, Stening, Atkins, and Grant. Though the authors focus on coaching managers, their insights are applicable to the many thousands of teachers who are teaching in countries and cultures with which they are unfamiliar.

"Based on an examination of the relationships between the theoretical underpinning of both coaching and expatriate cross-cultural contact, we propose that coaching can offer value beyond that offered by mentoring and training [...]. Assisting expatriate[s] in achieving a smoother acculturation which will facilitate better work performance and personal satisfaction is no easy matter, mainly because the acculturation process is complex and multi-dimensional. Also, it is an ongoing process that has no identifiable end point where one could consider to be ‘acculturated’. New experiences and more time in the sojourn simply bring new developments and challenges. [However], A growing body of research has shown that training, particularly cross-cultural skills training, can be effective in facilitating adjustment to a foreign culture and in improving work performance abroad."

The authors conclude that coaching, in addition to other supports, is a vital element in success for the expatriate and her employer.

Coaching for Managers

In the Harvard Business Review article, “Most Managers Don’t Know How to Coach People. But They Can Learn,” Milner and Milner report on their years of research and on a recent study they conducted, the results of which reveal that while managers believe they are doing a great job coaching, they are failing badly at it. “Managers tend to think they’re coaching when they’re actually just telling their employees what to do.”

Of the lessons learned from the result, the authors found that, “The biggest takeaway was the fact that, when initially asked to coach, many managers instead demonstrated a form of consulting. Essentially, they simply provided the other person with advice or a solution. We regularly heard comments like, ‘First you do this’ or ‘Why don’t you do this?’” One result found that the manager participants assessed each other “significantly higher” than expert coaches assessed them.

Milner and Milner offer hope for the "ill-equipped" manager. With a commitment to improvement through coaching and by investing the requisite time, the authors are convinced that managers can become quality coaches by learning from skilled coaches. As other researchers have asserted, coaching practice must be in a safe place and coaching must be clearly differentiated from other "manager behavior." That is, being an effective coach is only one part of being a fully competent manager, but it is a necessary part. "If you take away only one thing here, it’s that coaching is a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time. Fortunately, even a small amount of training can help."

Next steps

Although those with insight appreciate that learning never ends and they recognize the need for quality ongoing professional development, there remain those who do not. As Showers and Joyce observe, some expect teachers to have all the answers for every teaching situation in which they find themselves, as though once teachers graduate and enter their first classroom, they have no need for further development.

"You’re the teacher. You should know," tragically, is a common refrain, and if teachers reach out for help, they are considered incompetent when instead they should be praised for their eagerness to learn and problem-solve and for their humility at seeking assistance. Those with negative attitudes know nothing about best practices, so it is the enlightened educators’ responsibility to attempt to lift their veil of ignorance.

The "nattering nabobs of negativism" (a term coined by pre-eminent wordsmith William Safire) may not welcome your effort — they may be threatened by your perspicacity — but you can try. You have plenty of evidence.

Additional Resources

Building the Capacity for Peer Coaching within a High School Mathematics Department

Experienced Teacher Learning within the Context of Reciprocal Peer Coaching

Models of Coaching

Peer Coaching and Professional Development

Peer Coaching at Work

Peer Coaching: Building Capacity for our Schools and Districts

Peer Coaching Supports Teaching

Positive Effects of Peer Coaching: A Literature Review