The most challenging, rewarding work we do in schools happens when we have the opportunity to build a partnership with the school over time. We really love this aspect of our work. Through these partnerships we gain a deep understanding of the school’s culture and priorities, develop meaningful relationships with teachers and often we act as a consistent, driving force for change.
The advantages of having a relative outsider come into the school community are many – but one in-particular stands out to me. At a number of schools, I have reached an optimum level of integration into the landscape of the place. That is to say, I am known and familiar but am still objective enough to see the ‘big picture’ of the school. Because of this, I am able to ‘connect the dots’ of its people and culture in order to design suitable curriculum, engage teaching teams in effective planning and map the actions that will lead to culture shift over time. When speaking about this to a fellow coach recently, I referred to it as ‘standing across the street, looking into the school.’ Close enough to see everything, but with a wide enough perspective to see the whole picture. I strongly believe that there is not enough perspective in our schools – and that there is an urgent need for it. No matter how competent and skilled the internal personnel of an organisation may be, the fact remains that schools are like bubbles encasing small, intense communities that can become all-consuming to those inside them.
Our role as consultants who are practical and passionate about learning and teaching is clear in this scenario:
By modelling these practices, reinforcing the pedagogical beliefs and language that the school wants to build and nurturing real relationships with teachers, we are able to make a definitive difference. The relational aspect of teaching is often emphasised by classroom teachers and educational experts alike – and trusting relationships are undoubtedly at the core of education. But trust must also mean challenge, measured risk-taking and a strong sense of shared responsibility. This is vital when building a high performance school culture – both in terms of teacher-student relationships, and teacher-teacher relationships. As facilitators and coaches on this journey, we need to be deeply empathic towards those who are finding change confronting, but also to send high-expectation messages about accountability, openness to change and developing resilience in the process of dynamic culture shift. We are able to play this critical role because we occupy the space between school and society - and it is this ‘big picture’ view that can sustain schools through transition from what Sir Ken Robinson refers to as ‘industrial-age education’ to a twenty-first century learning community.
The final, critical piece of the coaching for change puzzle is to develop classroom teachers as coaches. One of my colleagues refers to this process as ‘doing ourselves out of a job’ and this is the ultimate indicator of our effectiveness. As we know, the best teaching is that which achieves genuine transfer of the skills we want students to build so that they can apply them to a range of real-world situations. To do as this a coach means being skilled in assisting teachers to develop the skills of meta-cognitive reflection so that they can monitor their mindsets and stay vigilant in evaluating the conscious and unconscious habits and practices that they bring to the learning space. Additionally, it requires us to be able to teach the critical skill of design to teachers so that they become strategic, innovative planners of curriculum.
At present, this seems to be the ‘missing link’ between organised professional learning and implementation of new teaching strategies. The professional conversation often ends after a ‘one off’ session and the ideas discussed remain ideas, nothing more. We must change the way we offer and access professional development so that we see consultancy as a partnership in moving the school forward and give teachers the real, ongoing support they need to be able learn, trial and reflect on their practice. If we can do this, the ‘bubble’ will burst and schools will become empowered places where people can not only see the possibility of change, but with supported, consistent effort, can embrace it with enthusiasm.