Can Coaching Help Transform Teacher Quality?


In the last week Michael Gove has challenged teachers about the setting of the highest standards in our schools. Beyond the Mr Men debate, there is a truth that we should all be seeking the highest standards of teaching and learning possible. In my experience there have been very few teachers who don’t agree with Gove on this, or who do not attempt to challenge students and inspire curiosity with the highest of expectations on a daily basis. Rather than focus upon pointless political point scoring I want focus upon some practical solutions to help raise standards and I would hope Gove lessens his point scoring politicking to do the same. This post aims to explore how we can improve Continuous Professional Development in our schools, thereby improving teacher quality – the singularly most important factor impacting upon standards in our schools.

My starting point is a quotation from Dylan Wiliam, made at last year’s SSAT conference in Liverpool, which has made a deep and lasting impression upon me as a teacher:

“Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.” Dylan Wiliam

There are different considerations to account for when addressing teacher improvement. Firstly, it is crucial to make the case for changing and improving upon our current CPD provision. Research by the Teacher Development Trust – see here – has proven that CPD informs practice, but it is still yet to be proven to embed practice and it patently does not transform practice. Perhaps the notion of transformative continuous professional development is too ambitious. We would hope that our new staff is already good enough to not require ‘transformation’, but instead require marginal improvements to have a strong positive impact upon student outcomes. Clearly; however, we need to ensure that we at least ‘embed’ improvements in practice. This is paramount because we know that despite the complex array of factors that influence student attainment, teacher quality trumps everything else. We also know that teacher impact plateaus after a couple of years (see my article here on reaching the ‘OK Plateau‘) and that we must make professional development genuinely continuous and continuously effective.

Currently, the DfE are presenting solutions to improving teacher quality, such as ‘performance related pay’. I am not wholly against all the reforms put forward by Gove, but this proposal to use market forces to attempt to improve teachers is wrongheaded and will fail. There is no international evidence that PRP impacts positively upon teacher quality and the process fundamentally misunderstands the largely intrinsic nature of teacher motivation. The vast majority of our teachers couldn’t work harder if they tried (although I would argue many could work smarter – myself included) and no pay incentive system can further improve pedagogy in the classroom without a catalogue of damaging effects. The market force of pay differentiation will do nothing except drive down average pay and it will not see teachers improve in a sustained and systematic way that benefits our children.

The current financial plight in schools does mean that as teacher improvement becomes paramount, the means to drive this improvement becomes still more difficult. High quality training costs time and money. The days of expensive external one day training being the sum total of ‘continuous development’ are clearly on the wane – if they have not died out already. Dylan Wiliam has shared research that proves the efficacy of ‘professional learning communities’ in schools and many models are currently being implemented with success – within schools and in broder partnerships. David Weston (from the ‘Teacher Development Trust’) has outlined the following ‘rules’ of truly effective professional development:

– It must begin by identifying teacher development needs based on the learning needs of the students being taught, and it must build on teachers’ existing skill.

– The coaching or training must maintain a balance of focusing on ways for the teacher to help these students while providing skills that transfer to the rest of the teacher’s work.

– The development process must be collaborative, with teachers of similar skill and confidence supporting, observing and coaching each other.

– The development process must be actively sustained for at least two terms for a large number of hours (i.e. more than 40). And it must follow cycles of trying, reflecting, and adjusting, while maintaining the focus on improved student learning – and not teacher behaviour.

-External expertise is vital to keep the improvement on track, avoid false glass-ceilings and disrupt ‘group-think’ that can develop in departments and schools. This could be an expert teacher from a nearby school, or an external consultant.



Various successful models are being shared across families of schools, but more needs to be done to share what effective CPD looks like in schools in a systematic fashion across the country. The impact of such provision needs to be evaluated and measured as closely as possible. The ‘coaching’ model fits the bill for schools in many ways. It meets the criteria outlined by David Weston and, pragmatically, it is relatively cheap considering the budgetary pressures schools are currently under…oh, and it works.


‘The Coaching Model’: Embedding a Culture of Coaching

One leadership guru who commands universal respect is the Great Britain cycling and Team Sky coach, David Brailsford. He made a simple but prescient statement that best sums up the power of coaching:

“You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one.” Dave Brailsford

I wrote a blog about how the elements of the Brailsford model can translate to school improvement here. The above quotation is rightly simple, but its message is a perceptive answer to false idols such as PRP. What we must do is create an engine room of high quality teacher coaching within our schools to drive improvements in pedagogy and teacher quality.

Why invest in a team of ‘Teacher Coaches’? The psychology of change and actually changing the habits of adult professionals is very complex. What is widely known is that externally imposed change rarely sticks and changes the culture within schools, or indeed any organization. Hierarchical, top-down change also suffers from the same inadequacies and unsustainability. It can make for an imposed temporary change, but it doesn’t engineer sustained habit changes in the classroom. Teachers must be emotionally invested in any development of their practice in the school community. Involvement and choice are powerful drivers of habit change. Local knowledge form within the school is powerful and develops a greater degree of trust in what is an emotional and often messy process! Teacher coaches have a better knowledge of the school community; they will invariably gain greater respect than any external figures and they will certainly benefit from higher levels of trust.

‘Teacher Coaches’ are in a great position to shine a light on existing successes and spread that light across the school. School leaders can do this of course, but staff are more open to their colleagues suggesting and driving improvement. The coaches can become roles models of the best kind: undertaking research; tweaking the school environment; providing evidence of successful pedagogy; supporting underperforming colleagues; embodying a growth mindset and being open to adapting their practice to improve – in effect, becoming leading lights to drive change. The investment can be relatively small – the impact significant. By selecting outstanding practitioners, and finding them the precious commodity of time, they can be trained to lead CPD; to work with underperforming colleagues, colleagues looking to become truly great, and to undertake the practical and theoretical research which will give their methods credibility with colleagues.

No matter how effective the team of ‘Teacher Coaches’ are, of course, they will not transform teacher quality alone. The ethos of coaching to improve, with the attendant ‘growth mindset’, needs to permeate the organization – from students upward. What coaching promotes is an institution committed to learning to improve through every level. Senior leaders must lead the way. How many Head teachers share their educational reading or talk about their teaching with colleagues throughout the organization? There are few more powerful influential factors than this wholly free tone setting from the top.

Subject Leaders are also a pivotal group if a coaching culture is to be established and thrive. Subject Leaders need to be coached to be coaches – the language and practice of coaching is nuanced and subtle, requiring deliberate practice. Every department can create their own tailored microcosm of the coaching model if they are steered intelligently by school leaders and given time to do so (most often, Subject Leaders need to be guided to better utilize they time they already possess – for example, how many department meetings are wasted on administrative tasks, when time to improve pedagogy and share best practice is already tight?).

Schools can help work together collaboratively to unify models of best coaching practice. There are already many success stories, from the ‘coaching triads’ implemented during the ‘London Challenge’ program – see page 16 of this OFSTED report here. International models, such as the ‘jugyou kenkyuu’ lesson study’ model in Japan (see here for an explanation) have proved a sustained success and we should look outwardly to such working models. There is evidently a thirst for research and development to provide an evidence basis for change in education and teachers and schools must ensure that they lead that area, or we shall be beholden to changes we feel do not represent our expertise and experience.

I wrote this post to articulate some ideas for the SSAT #VISION2040 action group. Organisations like SSAT can help connect schools and teachers to better share successful coaching models on schools. Every school, as previously stated, should develop change from within, and ideally from the bottom up, but we must also connect more outwardly. Cooperation, and not competition, will see our education system improve. In my school we are initiating change to include a coaching model, supporting and constructed with staff – see here. In the #VISION2040 group, Stephen Tierney is initiating a development model in his school that hones in on formative observations, research and reflection and ‘innovation fellows’ – all aspects of a whole school approach that ideally suits the coaching approach – see here. If we are to improve teachers and teaching and learning, our raison d’être, we can do many things, but systematizing and sharing models of coaching best practice can provide a great way to embed improvements in pedagogy.


Useful further reading:

‘Improving Coaching: Evolution not Revolution’ by the National College:

‘Creating a Coaching Culture’ by the ‘Institute of Leadership and Management’:

‘Creating a Culture of Coaching’ by the National College:

The ‘Teacher Development Trust’ Website and newsletters:

Coaching in Schools – Top Five Reads:


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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

16 responses to “Can Coaching Help Transform Teacher Quality?”

  1. johntomsett says :

    Great stuff Alex. I feel we are focused on absolutely the right things. The detail of implementation is the thing now – we know the What, what matters next is the How?

  2. Joanne Olsen says :

    As well as the detail of implementation we need to have some measures in place to prove the improvements gained and possibly to measure the confidence of the teachers to admit that they are teaching great levels and to be able to admit it without feeling they are somehow boasting! Teachers should be confident and proud of their great teaching which in itself should promote the benefits of great teaching to all.
    Great blog Alex
    It makes me proud to be a governor at the same school to know that the SLT give great thought and detail to what will give us a great school.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Thanks Joanne. I’m really pleased you’ve read my blog! Yes – evaluation of impact and improvement will be very important. Confidence is so key in teaching and plays an important role in the coaching process in lots of ways.

  3. Colinda Clyne says :

    Alex, Thank you for sharing this post, most timely as my good friend and fan-tab-u-lous educator Amanda St Jean leads our school on our first coaching model. I fear that, for the most part, I have seen the cult of the self-employed teacher in my 20-odd years in education. There are many great teachers, but how much greater and more effective when working together. Most times I have learned more in spending half an hour in a colleague’s class then chatting about it together than most mandated school PD sessions.
    I agree with Joanne’s comment about the need to be able to talk about a great lesson, or great strategies, and have it be a culture of celebration and sharing rather than seen as bragging. As David Letterman’s tongue-in-cheek Top 10 reasons to be a teacher indicates, glamour is not one of them!
    Will share your post and recommended articles with my colleagues.

    • huntingenglish says :

      Thank you Colinda. I completely agree with your point about collaboration and how peers can learn more from one another. Done right, coaching gives the best structure for that to happen systematically.

  4. @mrnickhart says :

    An insightful post, Alex, and one that will prove incredibly useful as I pursue the same goal in my school. Thanks for writing.

    The issue of finding the time is a tricky one. I teach Year 6 and over the last few years have thought about ways to balance my own teaching and how I might contribute to the development of colleagues. With the structure of primary schools, it could prove very expensive to release coaches for sufficient time to make an impact, while maintaining the commitment to class teaching. I don’t know enough about secondary schooling to see how it would work. I’d be fascinated to know how you’re going about it.

    • huntingenglish says :

      We are still shaping our model, but time is crucial. We are going to use IRIS connect videos to help, as it can make for greater flexibility – coaches watching lessons in their own time, with colleagues etc. Co- planning in CPD time can be a really positive experience. I think there is a necessary reliance on making the time of leaders accessible to create coaching time – it is all about creating as much flexibility of time. The coaches need to also model best practice in CPD as a method of tweaking pedagogy, then supporting it happening in practical terms.

      I have seen in our departmental coaching that coaching can be hard to sustain in the hurly burly of the school year so it must become more systematic. That is the challenge.

  5. Pedro says :

    Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Found this very interesting blogpost through @CedricVelghe, thanks!

  6. Amy Goldsmith says :

    Great post. Coaching in my dept made me more aware of being explicit about why certain things were important but also reflecting on whether I actually fully practised what I preached… so important for us to do, just wish we were given more time!! (and appreciate not the first person to suggest such a thing!!)

  7. Ron Crump says :

    Hi I am an Executive Coach and have found these comments interesting. I have some recollection that the term “coach” had some origin with the tutors at Oxford not all that long ago.
    On changing culture from the bottom up maybe a read of the work of Leandro Herrero in “Viral Change” may be of some value.
    On PRP there is some research indicating that it has an effect on blue collar type work but very little for professionals. In Australia our state politicians want to reward teachers who have “passion”. I just can’t wait to see the new “passion meter”.

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