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Side-by-side development: A case study

Written by: Matt Gracie and Nicholas Hopton
7 min read
Matt Gracie, Assistant Head (Pastoral), Bedford School, UK
Nicholas Hopton, Head of English, Bedford School, UK

This case study focuses on the learning created by a coaching-style development model introduced at an independent boys’ senior school. It identifies characteristics of our school’s approach, which is based on enquiry, equity and commitment to development. We found that the approach could be utilised across subject domains and teacher experience in order to support development. We therefore expect that it can be applied in other contexts where professional development is the goal.

Rationale and inspiration

The programme and title were developed following staff training from external consultants in professional development and coaching. Colleagues who, informed by the inset, committed to being ‘coach-like’ (by which we mean having professional conversations that take an enquiry approach, involving open questions and empathic listening), reported greater fulfilment in their work and perceived that this supported students’ academic and personal development. Trained colleagues also started to find that they were helping one another to ‘grow’ in different ways. We therefore explored strategies to utilise colleagues’ experiences of coaching to develop expertise and strengthen pedagogy. This led to the hypothesis that the introduction of a coaching-style development model could improve practice in our school. Reviewing relevant literature, especially the work on the value of teacher development by Gabriel (2018), Timperley’s (2017) study of professional conversations in schools and Kraft et al.’s (2018) meta-analysis of teacher-focused interventions, supported this hypothesis. 

The ‘three-point’ instructional coaching model from Sherrington and Caviglioli (2020) provided a starting point for practical implementation, informing the approach of being ‘side by side’. We modified the model after an initial pilot study, which suggested that working in pairs with self-directed developmental goals to improve student outcomes was more beneficial than meeting in threes. Thereafter, we introduced our aims to a group of 10 self-selecting, interested colleagues who were all secondary phase teachers during the academic year 2020–21. We paired teachers from varying contexts, in terms of both subject specialism and professional experience. Some pairings adhered to the Walkthrus approaches rigidly; others tried alternative methodologies. Most colleagues found that basing their partnerships on modified coaching models or their own expertise worked at least as well. Such feedback informed the first full cycle of the side-by-side programme, which used the approach described below: 

  1. Meet to sit/walk and talk side-by-side about developmental aims.
  2. Listen to one-another’s aims and experiences.
  3. Offer one-another open questions and non-judgmental perceptions.
  4. Pursue your developmental aims further, based on your conversation.
  5. Reflect on progress towards your developmental aims before the next conversation.

 

Project leader summary

To begin the programme, we undertook training in coaching conversations and empathic listening from our school counsellor and other experienced colleagues. We then paired participants carefully for the year, taking their contexts and goals into account to promote psychological safety. Colleagues committed to a weekly 20-minute conversation with their partner, in which both participants reflected on recent developments and proposed next steps. This was supported by protecting one 40-minute non-teaching period a week and offering the opportunity to order a text for the school library to aid engagement with relevant research on their identified focus for development. 

Examples of development goals that colleagues researched were:

  • utilising metacognition in the classroom
  • introducing a student librarian programme
  • creating a psychologically safe classroom.

 

Being physically side by side with someone, on staffroom chairs or walking during a breaktime duty, was promoted overtly to encourage mutually supportive listening and reflecting. The whole group met half-termly over lunch to reflect together and hear about the experiences, perspectives and development of all those involved. We also invited colleagues with expertise that we felt would benefit participants to share for up to 10 minutes. The programme finished with a group plenary, establishing and celebrating what had been learned. This was followed by poster presentations to our school’s teaching staff at a development carousel event, which provided a sense of completion. 

The professional development observed has been deemed a success by the participants; each was clearly able to define positive changes in their practice and their partners were able to confirm their enhanced expertise by communicating examples of changed thinking and improved decision-making. Participants’ conversations were reported to stimulate new realisations, foci and solutions to challenges as each project developed; the following section exemplifies this.

Throughout its first iteration, the core of the programme remained the aim of giving colleagues the confidence to try new strategies, fail at times, refine practice, learn in sometimes unexpected ways and improve. We have come to regard side-by-side development as a practical approach that supports a learning and caring community. Our experiences of the programme have informed other areas of school life. For example, pastoral managers were trained to use a side-by-side approach to enhance annual meetings in which form tutors agreed foci for their professional development. Our aim is to continue and extend the programme, while recognising that it is not yet the time – and may never be appropriate – to make participation compulsory.

Participant perspective

As a busy head of English, side-by-side peer coaching benefits me because it provides a temporal space and support system for professional reflection and development. In September 2021, I was paired with two colleagues, one a librarian and the other a teacher of physics. Both were relatively new to the school and their feedback confirms that being part of the programme helped them to learn about their new workplace, form strong professional relationships and achieve personal development that contributed to their respective departments’ strategic aims. Meeting colleagues from different areas of the school community offered me a useful breadth of perspective that informed my approaches to teaching and learning beneficially. As several members of the side-by-side team have reported, it also strengthened connections between non-teaching and teaching staff. 

Keen to understand how I could challenge students more effectively, I explored the notion of desirable difficulties proposed by Bjork and Bjork (2014). Weekly conversations with my partners were extremely beneficial for several reasons:

  • They encouraged me to prioritise and make progress with an aspect that I had identified as being likely to enhance my pedagogy. I felt accountable to myself for improving my practice but did not face the ‘white elephants’ and pressures that I have sometimes experienced working in a more hierarchical professional development structure.
  • They offered a regular chance to talk reflectively. My colleagues’ questions and feedback informed the direction of my research and practice, as did listening to my own voice while I spoke about what I had been reading, thinking and doing.
  • Discovering areas in which projects and observations overlapped led to both side-by-side partners growing in understanding. My colleagues’ expertise and experiences informed my progress and vice versa.
  • Trust between us grew over time so that conversations became more honest and sensitive to one another’s contexts. This critical friendship led us to talk about other aspects of our professional lives in a mutually supportive manner.
  • Walking alongside one another in the fresh air or sitting side by side in the staffroom contributed to a healthy, balanced and stimulating professional lifestyle. The coaching structures we learned ensured that our talk was purposeful and productive.

 

By the end of the academic year, and largely because of the opportunities offered by the side-by-side programme, learning outcomes and student feedback indicated that my use of retrieval practice, development of students’ self-talk and inner dialogues (Oles et al., 2020) and ring-fencing of challenges when designing learning activities were more likely to offer students desirable difficulty. Feeling emboldened and enriched because of the developmental coaching, I shared my research learnings at a whole-school professional development fayre and the Festival of Education, a large-scale annual event bringing educators together for training, discussion and networking. 

Key findings

Participants’ reflections indicate that the following characteristics are most likely to lead to successful outcomes, which may include improved teaching and learning, professional fulfilment, strong school communities and personal wellbeing:

  • Being physically side by side when talking, sitting, standing or walking embodies and enhances the sense of peer support and breaks down hierarchical barriers
  • Being in the moment (concentrating on the conversation at hand rather than other professional or personal matters) leads to more sensitive and formative talk and listening
  • Recognising that mutual trust can take time to develop but that talking honestly is conducive to progress being made supports meaningful coaching
  • Listening right to the end of what someone has to say, rather than interjecting with proposals or questions, indicates respect and leads to stronger mutual understanding
  • Sharing observations and questions rather than judgements helps to build trust and illuminates lines of inquiry. Not feeling the need to provide answers for your partner is important; sometimes, listening and being alongside someone is enough to help them to find a sense of direction.

 

Participants also stated that they drew confidence and a sense of professional worth from the time that they spent reflecting on developmental goals. They valued the equitable and non-hierarchical nature of the coaching, the opportunities to clarify ideas through conversations and the understanding that they developed of others’ perspectives. Our clearest finding, however, has been that reaching an outcome at the end of a year-long project is of much less significance to individuals than the fulfilment found in growing professionally and developing collaborations with colleagues.

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