Provoked: What Peer Coaching Taught Me about Learner Agency


Part 1

Why peer coaching?

When I started hearing the word “agency” I believed I understood it. That, in fact, I had been doing this for years and this was just the newest buzzword for differentiation or choice.  I offered my students loads of choice! Certainly, this wasn’t anything different than I was currently doing.

In the words of my Kiwi colleagues:  “Yeah, nah.”

It wasn’t until I participated in a peer coaching initiative at my school that  I realized what that word, “agency,” embodies, what it means to be without it, and how empowered I felt when I had it.


Peer coaching:  (as presented to my colleagues and I):

  • an opportunity to go into each other’s classrooms, give and get feedback on self-directed goals
  • a chance to build a culture of coaching in our school, instead of having only one or two people as instructional coaches, similar to the #observeme movement
  • a professional learning community  

SIGN ME UP!  This sounded perfect. During the previous year, I explained that I needed observations and feedback to help me grow. Here was a program that seemed in every way to fit the bill, and the best part was that the group I would be working with encompassed many grade levels and disciplines. I’d get to learn from just about every area in the school. Woohoo!

Cue the consultant; we’ll call him Mr. Consultant.  It was clear from the start that Mr. Consultant was an “Expert.”  His lecture could have been said anywhere to any group of teachers regardless of experience.  The delivery reminded me of sitting in a 120-seat lecture hall in my university, listening to a professor expound at length without any regard for his audience’s level of experience, interest, or various purposes.  Still, this was my CHOICE to participate. He was invited as an expert. He doesn’t know us, I reasoned, so why would his pitch be any different for us than for the other schools where he has given this same talk?

I began to glimpse the similarities between my own experience and a student in a class where the teacher is teaching the same lesson he taught last year, and the year before that.

Despite that feeling, his model did give us something to start from.  Based on his model, three people were involved in the process: the teacher, and two observers.  Ideally, Mr. Consultant wanted a person from admin as the second observer. The process followed a 20-20-20 format.

  1. Observe the teacher for 20 minutes.
  2. The observers compare notes for 20 minutes without the teacher.
  3. The observers debrief with the teacher.

We could work with that. Sort of.

Over the course of the following week, our cohort realized that not only did this set of protocols clash with our professional culture (more on that in part 2), but it was clear Mr. Consultant did not understand who we are as a school.  We value inquiry and discovery, conceptual understanding, and so-called “soft skills” like conflict resolution. Mr. Consultant wanted standardized testing data, evidence of their content knowledge while at that time in the school year we were still getting to know our learners. Suddenly this wasn’t about peer coaching, but a battle of pedagogical philosophy!  

Think of this as a kind of… provocation.

We met with our administrative team to reflect on the purpose of Mr. Consultant’s presence when his ideas so clearly clashed with the educational mission of our school.   Their answer?  Think of this as a kind of ‘provocation.’ An opportunity to explore our purpose and the “why” behind the decisions we make in the classroom.  Admin advised us, as learners to not discount the whole process but instead to consider, “what did this experience reveal about yourselves and your values as individuals and a team?” Using de Bono’s Thinking Hats, they asked us to reflect on the process and to consider our next steps — this time not on a prescribed program, but instead — based on our needs as learners, our desires as professionals and our vision as a school:

Using our school’s provocation protocol ,we got to work.

It made us realize we had been lacking a crucial component in our learning:  a sense of agency. We felt powerless. We had become defensive, and we felt that our philosophy of teaching and learning was being attacked and undervalued. Our administration reminded us that Mr. Consultant’s goals were similar to ours:  to raise the level of teaching and learning through peer coaching. We could empower ourselves by defining what learning meant at ISHCMC, and how to improve it through peer coaching.

The following week the cohort met several times (even one weekend over brunch!) to hash out what we wanted from this program, why those things were important, and how we would accomplish them.  That week helped crystalize a sense of camaraderie and ownership of a program we were all ready to quit just a few days prior. This happened because our leadership team did something very wise.  When we asked “Why is he here? What is this program? What do you want us to do?” they asked, “What do you want out of this program?”

With this new energy, autonomy, and direction, we spent the next few months creating a program we could be proud of, a Peer Coaching program that we would roll out to the rest of the staff in the hopes of building support and inviting others to collaborate in our inquiry. Part 2 of this post goes into detail what we created, the risks and lessons, as well as some tools that you can use in your own peer coaching community.  

We were provoked.  Provoked into determining how we wanted to improve in our own practice, into analyzing and defending our values.  Provoked into taking ownership of peer coaching instead of passively adopting the program as-is, out of the box. Daniel Pink wrote that “Control leads to compliance.  Autonomy leads to engagement.” Understanding our agency engaged us and motivated us to keep going.

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