Peer Coaching Strategies for More Collaborative Partnerships

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Ellen Eisenberg, executive director of The Professional Institute for Instructional Coaching, introduces us to some peer coaching concepts and explains how it can support new approaches to school-wide improvement.

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et me ask you this: is there a common understanding of "peer coaching?" I think if ten educators in one room are asked this question, ten different definitions will surface. In fact, ten different definitions of the word "coaching" may even emerge as well! As a result, I think there's a common misnomer when it comes to defining or describing peer coaching and that it's important to really clarify what we mean in order for one to practice it successfully.

Before we dive deeper into what peer coaching, I think it's best that we first define what it is: peer coaching is a guided learning process between colleagues through sharing areas for growth, working towards goals together, and supporting the professional development of each other.

The roots of a collaborative partnership

In my coaching experience, educator colleagues often work together in a multitude of contexts. Some organize around a theme in a professional learning community, some organize around books they want to discuss, and some organize around grade-level issues and seek support for teaching a specific concept or content.

Regardless of what they organize around, though, learning is social; any time colleagues work together, the learning is shared and many of them benefit from this and the collegiality that result from that collaborative environment. Schools must create an atmosphere where shared learning is deliberate, conversations about practice are ongoing, and confidentiality is fundamental. When this happens, peers can think and learn together with a shared goal and defined purpose.

To take it one step further, collaboration is even more meaningful when the learning is generated by the learners. In this case, the learning is instigated (in a good way!) by the colleagues who want to learn together. At the same time, this is a "leaderless" group which research has shown often fails because there is, by definition, no leadership. There needs to be someone—enter the coach—who guides the practice, helps "marshal the troops," and is dedicated to providing ample opportunities for collaboration that results in shared learning. In coaching, time must be made, not found.

For instance, think athletics; very often, instructional coaching is compared to athletic coaching. While there are many similarities to both coaching endorsements, I've not heard or seen any athletic situation where the athletes coach each other without the support of one or two other people not playing on the same team and who see the bigger picture in the context of the coaching scenario.

Leadership doesn't have to be competitive. In fact, it shouldn't be. There's no ego involved or the need to be that one partner who knows more than anyone else. The best learning is a partnership guided by a teacher leader who differentiates the support according to need.

Peer coaching builds off of shared learning

There's often a misunderstanding between peer coaching and shared learning. For example, when colleagues think, plan, and share together, collaboration is really peer learning. Teachers meet and bring ideas to the table or encourage conversation around a specific topic. Colleagues explore these ideas and may or may not feel comfortable enough to invite their colleagues into their classrooms to engage. The engagement is in a deeper conversation about instructional practices to assess student work, to demonstrate instructional strategies, or to share resources. I'm not so sure this is coaching; I'm sure it is shared learning.

On the other hand, when colleagues are guided through a specific process with intentional conversations, that's a peer coaching interaction. It's a protocol that's designed to be objective, collaborative, and focused. Leadership (not necessarily administration) is involved, as is expertise. But neither colleague is an expert; rather, colleagues are partners in learning, equal in sharing their thinking, and are non-evaluative in their conversations. One partner is simply guiding this learning.

In peer coaching, the peers learn with and from each other and are guided by a teacher leader through a distinct process to build capacity and help to increase student engagement in ways they may not have experienced previously. It's this key difference from shared learning that forms the basis for successful instructional coaching programs and coaches should be mindful of how it translates to their day-to-day roles.

The role of a coach in peer coaching

Coaches are not supervisory; they're skilled practitioners who understand adult learning, how to network, give and receive feedback, and have dedicated time to do "it." They help teachers become more reflective practitioners and learners at the same time. Being an instructional coach who guides the practice of coaching demonstrates that the school understands and values the role of instructional coaching in the school-wide improvement process.

Just as important, the school understands that educator colleagues are professionals who deserve every opportunity to learn with their peers, are given time to collectively problem-solve, and promote the notion that everyone is a member of a community of learning and practice.

Coaches must be viewed as trusted partners

When implementing an effective instructional coaching model that leverages peer coaching, there is no "ranking" or elevated status, or observations or reporting to the administrative team. Instructional coaches and their educator colleagues engage in confidential conversations, collaborate regularly, co-create goals, co-construct data collection tools, identify roles when visiting classrooms, and make definite time to share feedback in a debriefing session. They implement a variety of instructional strategies and discuss a myriad of techniques that are appropriate for meeting the intended outcomes.

The important part is that none of this can occur without a trusting peer relationship that has been established between the instructional coach and educator colleagues. And, yes, the teacher is a learner and so is the coach:

  • The coach, skilled in adult learning strategies, honors the voice of the teacher and together they make instructional, data-driven decisions to move practice forward and achieve the school-wide goals for improvement.
  • They create an environment that embraces making mistakes so that learning takes place, all without fear of a negative evaluation.
  • At the same time, instructional coaches foster peer learning across all content areas in schools that value learning for all, every day.
  • Coaches are knowledgeable and "schooled" in the elements of effective instructional coaching, and their training is deliberate just like the support they provide to their teaching colleagues.
  • Coaches provide ample opportunities for collaboration in both small groups and one-on-one support with their teaching colleagues.
  • The coaching interactions aren't limited to talks about strategies or specific content; the accountable talk between coaches and their teaching colleagues are all about beliefs, philosophies, teaching and learning, and most importantly, growth for all.

Wrapping up

Ultimately, peer coaching is a promising, job-embedded teacher professional learning model that's important enough for the school to dedicate a position that empowers teachers and encourages a growth mindset. When done correctly, it opens the door for ongoing, shared learning among peers that encourages collaborative growth for all.

Watch Ellen's video overview

About our Guest Blogger

Ellen B. Eisenberg is the executive director of The Professional Institute for Instructional Coaching (TPIIC), and the former executive director of The Pennsylvania Institute for Instructional Coaching (PIIC) from 2009-2018. Established in 2018, TPIIC is a researched-based resource for developing and supporting the delivery of consistent, high-quality professional development and professional learning around instructional coaching and mentoring designed to help teachers implement effective instructional practices

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