The power of peer coaching

What will you do when you realize that there is an aspect of your practice you want to improve? Will you make a plea to your administration to attend an expensive workshop? Will you sign up for a lengthy class that you will have to cram into your already jam-packed schedule? Perhaps you will try to hide your weakness and hope nobody notices. I for one will seek to improve my practice with the help of my peers.

Peer coaching is a formal process of two teachers coming together to reflect and refine their practice through a structured conversation. Like many other educators, who’ve had the privilege of being involved in peer coaching, I am convinced that it is a powerful means to provide professional development to those who have a sincere desire to continuously improve.

The power of peer coaching lies in the fact that a teacher voluntarily participates in this confidential process, and it is not tied to his or her formal administrative evaluation.

It’s About You

Many of us remember the days when professional development meant leaving the classroom to attend a conference or workshop. Many of us also remember leaving those professional development days with the feeling that the only thing we got out of it was a free cup of coffee and doughnuts. Although peer coaching doesn’t typically involve breakfast, it does provide professional development that is centered on your instruction. This year, I decided to base my lessons on essential questions and quickly learned that I needed some support implementing this paradigm shift. Rather than hunting for a workshop, I sought feedback from two coaches at my school. During the coaching sessions, their questioning stimulated my thinking leading to an “Ah-Ha!’ moment.

You Become Part of a Team

Nowadays, many educators believe that their students are not just the ones in their classrooms but rather all the students at their schools. Some teacher evaluation systems even tie a teacher’s evaluation to the success of the entire student body. Peer coaching is a genuine way to create a team atmosphere. As a peer coach, I find myself rooting for my peers and their students more than ever before. When a teacher tells me a strategy we discussed is working, I feel like the coach of a winning team.

Equally important, getting out there as a coach is the best way to do some myth busting. Rumors fly at most schools. Did you know Mr. Colucci sits at his desk all day long and plays “Words with Friends” on his phone? As a coach I learned almost all those rumors are a bunch of malarkey. The only gossip should be something like Did you know almost all the teachers are doing the best they can?

The Coach Learns

Peer coaching is certainly not all about the teacher learning; the peer coach may reap the biggest benefit. First of all before you become a peer coach, you must thoroughly understand a district’s evaluation rubric. With the advent of the new generation of teacher evaluations, most school districts have a pretty hefty rubric. Before peer coaching, there was no reason for me to study subtle distinctions between distinguished and proficient. Now, my teaching practice is better because I can apply the nuances.

Moreover, I’ve seen remarkable things happening in classes that I strive to bring back to my students. I’ve watched a 1st grade teacher apply her enthusiasm to make the most mundane task exciting for students and a 2nd grade teacher masterfully use hand signals to remind students of procedures. I’ve observed a veteran teacher incorporate her vast knowledge to teach science, social studies, and life lessons from a reading skill lesson on homophones. You better believe I was excited to try some of these things in my classroom.

You Lead Without Leaving the Classroom

Like many of you, I want to spread my influence and expertise when I believe it will benefit students and teachers, but my passion lies in the classroom.

I’m not willing to give that up. A peer coach does not need to miss a significant amount of face time with his or her students, but still can help his or her colleagues. I know…you don’t like the idea of missing any instructional time with your students. You’re not alone; my colleague—Mark Sass, a Collaboratory member—poses some good problem solving ideas in a recent article.

In the meantime, you might find comfort knowing my experience with coaching has shown me that my students reap the benefits when I learn from others more than they are harmed by my absence during a 20-30 minute observation.

Peer coaching is an awesome opportunity for teachers to engage with each other as professionals—not only to help our students, but also to help each other.

If your district has already begun a peer coaching program, get involved. If not, I strongly suggest that you find a way to bring it to your district. Here are some places to start: Kansas University has started a dynamic coaching project, and Jennifer Abrams Consulting  posts some useful resources as well.  Peer coaching is a powerful tool that can take you and your colleagues to a place they haven’t been.

Anthony S. Colucci, an NBCT and Collaboratory member, coordinates and teaches in the gifted-student program at four elementary schools in Central Florida. He is the author of Copilots, Duties & Piña Coladas: How to Be a Great Teacher and has earned numerous awards for his innovative and creative lessons.