If You Say Tomayto and I Say Tomahto then Why are We Debating Potayto? The Importance of Communication and Collaboration to Successful Peer Coaching.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Teaching is a hard job in the best of times.  Add in a pandemic that requires the ability to teach in-person, remotely, or some combination there-of, and more questions than answers will surely arise.  Teachers need help and support and hopefully this is where peer coaches can come into play, but where do coaches even begin to establish the complex level of support needed by teachers?  In Dr. Les Foltos’s book, Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, he outlines key skills needed by coaches: “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design.”  All three areas are important, but the coaching skills of communication and collaboration are essential.  Both ICT integration and lesson design are dependent upon effective communication and collaboration, “A coach’s successes in incorporating lesson-design skills and insights into the effective use of technology “hinge on their success with communication and collaboration skills” (J. Linklater, personal communication, June 14, 2012).”  A closer look at coaching skills also requires relevant context since the peer coach takes on a variety of roles: “Facilitator, Collaborator, Expert, and Catalyst.”  Successful coaching requires that effective application of skills coincides with, complements, and even enhances the critical context of coaching roles.

Coaching Standards

2. Connected Learner: Coaches model the ISTE Standards for Students and the ISTE Standards for Educators, and identify ways to improve their coaching practice. Coaches: 2c. Establish shared goals with educators, reflect on successes and continually improve coaching and teaching practice.

3. Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches: 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

5. Professional Learning Facilitator: Coaches plan, provide and evaluate the impact of professional learning for educators and leaders to use technology to advance teaching and learning. Coaches: 5b.  Build the capacity of educators, leaders and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback.

Essential Question 

How do coaching skills, with an emphasis on communication and collaboration, translate into all of the different roles that peer coaches take on?

Facilitator

When the peer coach assumes the role of facilitator, this means “Planning and leading meetings, activities, and staff development in one-on-one, small group, or large group situations,” (Foltos, 2018).  Regardless of the size of facilitation, the coach needs to be prepared to model risk taking, “Other Peer Coaches model risk taking and recognize that taking risks may occasionally mean failure” (Foltos, 2013).  This helps lay the foundation of safety that’ll be needed for collaboration later on. This is also a key communication strategy that the peer coach can reference later on when trying to navigate the tricky terrain of providing constructive peer feedback.  As described by famed communicator Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends & Influence People, “Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.”

Acting as a facilitator, means being able to guide staff interactions and transitioning in and out of a peer leadership role.  This means being aware of group norms.  In the absence of agreed upon norms, pairs/groups will develop their own unsaid norms that may not be as conducive to effective collaboration.  By taking the lead in this area and developing norms together, the structure can help facilitate the relationships and learning: “Collaborative norms shape our conversations in ways that build trust and respect; they define accountability and build capacity. Collaborative norms are essential for effective coaching,” (Foltos, 2013).

Collaborator

Being a collaborator means “Working together with colleagues to plan, implement, and evaluate activities,” (Foltos, 2018).  This means “Addressing the potential fear-factor of working with an instructional coach”, which can be accomplished by modeling risk taking as mentioned in the facilitator role and providing a safety net within the relationship, “Their efforts to encourage their peers to adopt more innovative teaching and learning strategies are always undergirded by the safety net they built with their collaborating teachers,” (Foltos, 2013).  When collaborating, you’re often preparing, planning, teaching and reflecting together with a focus on student learning. The reflecting is where the trust and safety net come in so that coach and teacher can “discuss what worked and what the peer would do differently next time” in a safe manner, (Foltos, 2013).

A critical part of effective collaboration is clear communication and utilizing strategies that support this.  A simple but powerful strategy that Dr. Foltos references in his book is paraphrasing, “In its simplest form, paraphrasing is the listener repeating, albeit in a modified form, what he or she heard the speaker say.”  This facilitates clear communication and ensures understanding while also demonstrating that the coach is practicing another critical listening skill that Dr. Foltos refers to as active listening: “Active listeners are focused on what the speaker is saying. They look right at the speaker, block out competing thoughts, and assess what the speaker is saying.”  This also ties into one of Dale Carnegies key strategies for building relationship, “Be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves.”  Again, all of this builds toward the coach being able to grow the relationship with the teacher while helping the teacher grow in his or her practice, “Give honest and sincere appreciation” and “praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise,” (Carnegie, 1936). This strategy is so important and underutilized that it’s worth citing additional support from an Edutopia article on the topic by Shannon McGrath and entitled 5 Vital To-Dos for Instructional Coaches, “Be vocal about the good you see: Teachers rarely get focused feedback on the practices they devote so much of their time to improving. Be constantly on the lookout for small moves your teachers are making that shift students, efforts that go above and beyond expectations, or relationships that are making the difference for students.“

There are additional benefits in this for students as well, because “teachers who learned these communication skills from a coach turn around and teach these same skills with their students (P. Cleaves, personal communication, May 23, 2012),” (Foltos, 2013).  On top of this, good coaching is actually an effective teaching strategy per the meta-analyses of research done by Dr. John Hattie and as cited in The Distance Learning Playbook by Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (2020).  This also leads into and connected with some strong research cited around effective questioning strategies which support a lot of the work coaches do as a catalyst, but, first, let’s explore the often misunderstood role of expert.

Expert

The role of expert is probably the hardest to navigate while maintaining the role of peer and “Acting as a subject matter expert on a variety of topics,” (Foltos, 2018).  This is because growing the relationship means you “Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely” per Dale Carnegie but you also need to posses a self-evident mastery of the relevant content.  Most importantly as the expert, the peer coach needs to be careful not to take learning responsibility away from the learner and inadvertently steal their joy of discovery because this engenders ownership of ideas: “Effective coaches, like Grace Dublin, make it clear to learning partners that “the responsibility to learn something belongs to the learner” (G. Dublin, personal communication, September 13, 2011),” Foltos (2013).  Even better as far as persuading individuals to a new way of thinking goes per Mr. Carnegie, “Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

The following from Dr. Foltos ties together the ideas inquiry into the other teacher’s ideas and advocacy for the coach’s ideas, “Inquiry Over Advocacy: When is the right time for advocacy? How often can they [coaches] present their solutions? As I noted in earlier chapters, successful coaches feel that a little advocacy works, but only after a strong coaching relationship based on inquiry is formed. Too much advocacy, they observed, means the coach becomes the expert with the answer. Garmston and Wellman (1999) argue it is important for successful collaboration to balance advocacy and inquiry.”  In other words, one should refrain from playing the role of expert as much as possible in a peer coaching relationship.  It’s like yelling by the teacher in the classroom, which should be reserved for the rarest of instances (preferably emergencies) so that when actually needed it can be utilized effectively.  Otherwise, when over-utilized, the role of expert will lead to potential disagreements that inevitably grow into arguments, and “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it,” (Carnegie, 1936).  This is doubly important and true of the peer coaching role.  

Catalyst

After significant work has been done to grow relationships with teachers, coaches can serve in the role of catalyst: “Helping teachers reflect on and improve their practice by using question strategies and skills that assist colleagues to become effective instructional decision makers,” (Foltos, 2018).  There are many ways to build to this level.  The work done as facilitator, collaborator, and expert should help and go a long way toward establishing this level of relationship.  Additionally, efforts to grow teacher confidence through careful actions such as providing recognition for positive accomplishments can help, “Successful Peer Coaches use a variety of strategies to get teachers recognition for their work. Many coaches use conversations with their peers to recognize the strengths of the learning activities the teachers are using with students and work to help their learning partners build on those strengths,” (Foltos, 2013).

With inquiry over advocacy in mind, effective questioning strategies can be especially helpful in the catalyst role.  Dale Carnegie emphasizes the power of asking questions with regard to changing attitudes and behaviors, “Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.”  Practice can be built with regard to clarifying questions, which “… are simple and typically factual. They fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle…”, and then lead to higher level probing questions, “Why are they [probing questions] so critical? The answer gets to the heart of effective coaching,” (Foltos, 2013).  Research supports these strategies with regard to learning and so again there is an added benefit that teachers tend to turn around and employ these new strategies with their students.  According to Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, “Questioning has an effect size of 0.48.”  The right line of probing questions lead to deep reflective thinking which is even more powerful for learning, “Metacognitive strategies have an effect size of 0.55.”  One longtime peer coach, Dr. Greg Bianchi, wrote his entire dissertation on the power of metacognition.  When we keep in mind that any effect size greater than 0.40 greatly accelerates student learning then this is powerful stuff.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, it’s still important to remember the power of consistent small changes for continuous Improvement: “Successful Peer Coaches don’t push for one big, dramatic change, instead relying on an incremental process of continuous improvement,” (Foltos, 2013). 

So, What’s the Potahto? 

Teaching is a hard job and, by association, so is peer coaching, “Most Peer Coaches I have worked with know that they are trying to build these kinds of relationships in difficult circumstances. Many have worked in schools in which teachers work alone and in which collaboration consisted of teachers exchanging lesson plans and teaching resources,” (Foltos, 2013).  Building relationships is key to being able to make any progress with regard to effective coaching translating into student learning growth.  True collaboration is elusive because school systems are not designed to facilitate this.  So coaches must rely on relationship to bridge these systemic gaps, “Being friendly, positive, and supportive doesn’t guarantee innovation, but coaches won’t encourage innovation without drawing on these behaviors to create a safety net.”  To influence teachers, coaches need to be adept and adroit with their approaches to create that trust-based safety net so that they can “Arouse in the other person an eager want” and “Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest,” (Carnegie, 1936). Creating a safe enough environment for positive change to happen is more challenging with teaching because it’s deeply personal, “Teaching is an identity and an action, not just a vocation,” (Fisher, Frey, Hattie, 2020).  This means that, ultimately, “Peer Coaches can’t be the experts with the answers. Instead, as Grace Dublin insists, coaches are there to “help them formulate their strategies. It is ultimately their answer” (G. Dublin, personal communication, September 13, 2011),” (Foltos, 2013).  Coaches can truly effect change by believing in their teachers to arrive at their own answers because belief not only has a large effect size on learning, but it also does something even more powerful: it empowers the believer to “Give the other person a fine reputation to to live up to,” (Carnegie, 1936). This action persuades teachers to pursue the desired improvement by way of self-fulfilling prophesy because a coach knew that a teacher could be something more and guided them to that realization through careful facilitation, collaboration, and expertise that all lead up to a catalyst.

References

  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-coaches
  2. Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek 
  4. Foltos, L. (January, 2018).  Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/teachers-learn-better-together
  5. Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Pocket Books.
  6. Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.
  7. McGrath, S. (2019). 5 Relationship-Building Tips for Instructional Coaches. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/5-relationship-building-tips-instructional-coaches
  8. Bianchi, G. (2007). Effects of metacognitive instruction on the academic achievement of students in the secondary sciences. Seattle Pacific University. Retrieved from https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2007PhDT…….128B/abstract

4 Replies to “If You Say Tomayto and I Say Tomahto then Why are We Debating Potayto? The Importance of Communication and Collaboration to Successful Peer Coaching.”

  1. Great post. I like how you took us through the four different roles of a peer coach and then connected everything back together at the end. It is all about strong relationships and how coaches support and build up the expertise in those that they are working with. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. Like Megan, I appreciate how you weaved relevant communication and collaboration skills to the roles a coach might play. Your use of Hatie, et al to support the value of communication and collaboration is extremely powerful. While I always relish it when educators go outside the field to find supporting reading, rarely have they gone as far afield as Dale Carneige.

  3. Wow, what a great post. I love how you connected the different communication and collaboration skills to the various roles a coach assumes. What great application and helps coaches understand when to really focus on each communication skill. I also really appreciated the secondary research you did – it tied in nicely and added more insight and depth to your points. Lastly, what a powerful conclusion! I definitely will be returning to this blog post in the future.

  4. Powerful post! I appreciate the walk through with the four roles. Especially resonate with the idea that schools are systematically (and often physically) not designed with collaboration in mind. How different would a collaborative environment influence learning?

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