Research shows that teachers at a highly effective school ‘regularly spend time together planning for and assessing learning, engaging in collective professional inquiries as well as participating in and learning from peer observations, mentoring, and coaching opportunities’, and that ‘collaboration time is prioritised and spent wisely’. (ACER, 2023).
Recent research from the United States involving mathematics teacher teams in 4 schools – across a period of 4 years – investigated specific strategies that support a collaborative approach to coaching in schools that are under significant pressure to improve.
In their paper, published in the journal Educational Researcher, authors Hayley Weddle, Marie Lockton and Amanda Datnow, write: ‘School leaders and policymakers have long placed teacher collaboration at the centre of such reform efforts to improve instruction. However, the depth of teachers’ opportunities to learn through collaboration is mediated by the expertise available within the group.
‘While studies demonstrate how coaches can serve as sources of expertise supporting teacher capacity building, such research has traditionally focused on coaching with individual teachers … A collaborative approach to coaching reflects a promising pathway for supporting teacher capacity building.’
The research at a glance
The longitudinal qualitative case study, conducted between 2015 and 2019, took place in 4 racially and linguistically diverse middle schools that were consistently performing lower than their district’s average on the state’s mathematics assessment. The case study is part of a 4-year continuous improvement project aimed at building teacher teams’ capacity to improve mathematics instruction through support from an instructional coach.
Lead author and Assistant Professor of Education Policy at the University of Pittsburgh, Hayley Weddle, tells Teacher: ‘The intended outcome of the project was to improve math instruction, and thus increase students’ opportunities to learn. Excitingly, quantitative research examining the continuous improvement project found an increase in students’ math achievement.
‘This longitudinal approach provided opportunities to observe shifts in teachers’ discussions about instruction, as well as changes in their collaborative relationships. By conducting interviews and observations over multiple years, we gained insights into the impacts of the coach’s efforts that likely would not have been clear if our study had only focused on one moment in time.’
Coaching strategies that help promote improvement
The findings reveal 3 specific strategies the coach utilised in the 4 schools to promote team capacity building, which demonstrates the potential benefits of collaborative coaching as an improvement strategy.
‘First, the coach fostered teachers’ engagement in student-centred discussions about instruction that focused on student thinking and understanding,’ Weddle says. ‘These discussions often took place at cross-school workshops offered by the coach, which helped to strengthen teachers’ collaborative relationships by providing new opportunities to co-plan and reflect with colleagues.
‘Second, the coach tailored capacity-building opportunities to provide access for all teachers. She designed cross-school workshop discussions to align with teachers’ current levels of understanding, with the goal of fostering an inclusive space.’
The third strategy involved negotiation between teachers and leaders. ‘Amidst accountability pressures that shaped leaders’ expectations for improvement at each school, the coach often functioned as a liaison between teacher teams and administrators. She helped them find middle ground, including developing shared goals for instruction and mediating tensions about the use of collaboration time.’
The research team was somewhat surprised by this third strategy, Weddle shares, as their research was initially more focused on the influence of collaborative coaching on teachers’ instructional planning. ‘Given our findings, it may be beneficial for district and school leaders to consider how coaches can play unique roles as brokers attending to collective interests within schools,’ she tells Teacher.
Implications for teachers and school leaders
In this study, teachers were found to perceive the coach positively overall. They saw the coach as a trusting source of helpful expertise, as willing to listen, responsive to their specific needs, and knowledgeable about mathematics content. These findings, Weddle says, may help inform leaders as they make hiring decisions related to coaching.
In terms of the shifts in teachers’ discussions about instruction over the 4 years of the project, findings show these discussions progressed from infrequent lesson-planning discussions in the first year of the project (that mostly focused on the logistics of what to teach and when), to increased engagement in discussion about student thinking and understanding.
‘Findings from our work also reveal challenges of collaborative coaching, which can inform leaders’ future efforts to support coaches in their schools,’ she adds.
One of these identified challenges was that some teachers in this study demonstrated misconceptions about mathematics concepts. ‘Instructional coaches may need ongoing support in navigating the complexities of collaborative coaching, including how to address teachers’ gaps in content knowledge in ways that do not jeopardise collaborative relationships,’ Weddle says.
She adds that as schools across the world navigate teacher shortages, this research shows that a collaborative approach to coaching might be a helpful strategy for supporting teacher capacity.
‘It is important to remember that coaching is not a panacea. Recent research about COVID recovery in education, including my own, has illustrated the importance of a broad range of factors – including high quality instruction, supports that attend to wellbeing, strong engagement with families, and equity-focused leadership. Coaching represents one potentially influential piece of a larger network of support to promote student learning.’
Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). (2023). School Improvement Tool. Australian Council for Educational Research. https://doi.org/10.37517/978-1-74286-700-7
Weddle, H., Lockton, M., & Datnow, A. (2023). Fostering, Tailoring, Negotiating: The Complexities of Collaborative Coaching in Schools Under Pressure to Improve. Educational Researcher, 0(0). https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X231187372
As a school leader, reflect on the opportunities your staff are afforded when it comes to working collaboratively. Are these opportunities limited to collaborating within their own teaching team?
Are there knowledge gaps that exist in your teaching teams? How are you addressing these? Have you considered recruiting an external coach to support this work?