Provoked: What Peer Coaching Taught Me about Learner Agency

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Part 2: Provoked and ready for action

In part 1, I described how the feeling of having no agency provoked my colleagues and me into reflecting on our beliefs as educators and taking action to develop a peer coaching program that supported.  After being reminded that we had creative control of this project, we took steps to revamp it into something we would have ownership of that would reflect our values.

Step 1:  What did we want this to look like?   

We put our goals for the program into a word cloud generator and saw that the most common threads were a desire to improve our students’ learning while creating a sustainable program.  We wanted to learn from each other in a positive, supportive culture of collaboration. Sounds like a vision and mission statement to me!

What is peer coaching?

Step 2:  How can we make this work for our school?  

Mr. Consultant would be back in January.  Like generals preparing for battle, we took stock.  One of the most valuable tools we generated was a Known Self/Blind Self inventory, similar to the Johari window model.

If you develop a peer coaching program, or if you just want teachers to learn from each other, this is a fantastic way to identify areas of strength.  We wrote things we felt confident helping others with, but our cohort also added what they saw in us that could help others. This had the added benefit of improving morale because who doesn’t like to hear about things they do well.  We can be so self-critical, that this “blind self” section was truly eye-opening for some of our team. You can view that document here.

We also set a goal of observing each other’s classrooms 3 times before Mr. Consultant’s return.  This was trickier to schedule than we thought. Our admin supported us with providing coverage for being out of class, but a lot of the time, we really wanted to be in our own classes! If we took the time to observe someone else or debrief that was time away from our students.  Speaking for myself, that was a hard sell. However, we mostly managed through using times our kids were out of the classroom with specialists to tackle these observations.

Another great (but underused) tool our school uses to get teachers in each other’s classrooms learning from each other is a “Golden Ticket.”

ISHCMC’s Golden Ticket

These tickets were given to everyone at the beginning of the year as a free pass to get coverage to observe another class or grade level. You could observe for a day, a few days, a period, it just depended on your needs as a learner and your own professional goals.  Last year I used mine to observe Studio 5 for a week to get some ideas for how to promote the studio concept in grade 3. However, these tickets were rarely used due to teachers, again, wanting to spend time in their classrooms.

I mention this because it is still a barrier we’re grappling with.  If anyone has found ways to help promote cross-classroom pollination in your own schools, I’d love to see ideas posted in the comments.  

We also did a fair amount of research, reading, and looking at models of coaching.  One of our cohorts participated in a similar program at a former school and developed this list of resources as a result.  We added a few books and sites to it as our inquiry continued.

Step 3:  Transformation

We developed our own set of protocols that embodied the respect we have for each other, as well as respect for each other’s time in the hopes that these improvements would be more sustainable than Mr. Consultant’s version.  

Our first objective was to change the name.  

We disliked the authoritarian tone that “observation” had, so we called it a pop-in, and from there, we reworked the name of the program:  The Peer Observation Process for Progress, or POPP. The slightly cheeky acronym lightened the overall tone of the program, as well as helped us view it in a less dismal light.  

We decided that one thing we disliked was the middle 20 of the 20-20-20 protocol.  This felt like we were talking behind the teacher’s back. We also wanted the teacher to have some say in what the focus of the pop-in would be.  Therefore we came up with the following structure:

  1. Conduct a 5-minute “pre-pop” during which the teacher to be observed shares a professional goal for the observers to focus on
  2. Observe for 20 minutes (1-2 observers)
  3. Within 24 hours, have a post-pop discussion, with a focus towards the teacher’s stated goals
Our “have it your way” approach to peer coaching

We also thought the teacher should have some say in how the observation was conducted.  We created the menu above and a tool for the observers to use that included ideas generated from the group and provided space for the teachers to share what kind of feedback they sought.  

For example, my focus might be on questioning, so for the first pop-in, I might ask for specific data — ie. my peers to tally the open and closed questions I pose to the class.  In the post-pop, I might ask for resources to help with my questioning skills. The following observation I might ask my peer to focus on my questioning with a growth mindset lens on the language I use.  This way, the teacher has much more agency in their growth and development.

A challenge we have encountered is in how to provide support over the long term.  After the observation, what does the teacher do with the feedback? What are the next steps?  Where is the accountability? One aspect of the original program that addresses this challenge is to have teachers paired up so that one observer remains constant over a period of time.  This allows for continuity to see teacher’s progress over time and provide an in-house support structure. Because my coaching partner is aware of my long-term goals, she can address those within each observation along with the short-term goal that I’ve identified during the Pre-Pop.  

Step 4:  Roll Out

It was with these new tools that we felt ready to take on two new tasks:  recruitment for the second wave and our follow-up meeting with Mr. Consultant.  Both would take place within the same week. Though many of us were anxious about another battle of philosophy, we encouraged each other to think of it as an exercise in articulating our values and taking a good long look at what we’re doing.  We all knew there was plenty of room for improvement in how we assess student learning, as well as the vital role assessment plays in personalized learning. With a sort of ruthless optimism, we linked elbows and jumped.

With the buttery smell of popcorn enticing potential participants, we encouraged teachers to fill out a survey describing how a coach could help them in their professional growth. We inducted two new coaches into the program and recruited more potential coaches so the program could be sustainable. We are now offering our coaching services to the school at large.  One was in my classroom last week as part of a schoolwide effort to be more conscious of the language we use to encourage learning. The secondary team, which had a completely different experience from us, rolled out an entirely new cohort for their second wave in January.  

Owning it

The most vivid difference between our first meeting and our second was our own sense of ownership.  In the first week, we had some choice, but no agency. This left us feeling powerless, frustrated, attacked, and defensive.  In no way could we grow a peer coaching program out of the quagmire of judgment we felt. Then we realized that Mr. Consultant had a specific agenda, but we could take what we liked from the program and change the rest.  We were given the space to do so, the time to research and develop our own tools, and in the end, the choice of where to go from here.

This more than any other experience at ISHCMC has helped me understand agency.  Because of this shift, we had the confidence to engage in some valuable conversations that we were ready for regarding assessments, learning outcomes, and personalization.   This, after half of the coaches were ready to walk out during that first week. Agency made the difference in our motivation, in the development of the program itself, and in our desire to make our program one that would endure the typical international school turnover.  

So I challenge you:  Could you use agency as a tool to support your students’ learning to really POP?  Perhaps one of our fine coaches can help you! If you’re interested in participating in the peer coaching process, complete your service order request and you can have it your way!

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