Teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement among all school factors. The environment of a school, or its culture, has a significant influence on teachers’ day-to-day experiences in the profession and on their performance, and consequently affects student achievement. Review of an extensive body of research on teacher attrition shows that teachers prefer to work in environments that not only provide necessary leadership support and resources for teaching and learning, but also improve collegial collaboration and encourage change and continuous improvement.
Findings from the Dynamic Learning Project pilot (DLP)1 research study suggest that coaching has the potential to be a strong driver of positive change in school culture. This study shows that instructional coaching can increase collaboration and risk-taking and provide a general boost in openness to change, which can support teacher performance, job satisfaction, and retention.
While teachers’ peers can be invaluable thought partners and sources of information, it can be difficult for teachers to find opportunities for collaboration. Because they have regular contact with many teachers, coaches are uniquely positioned to find these opportunities among coached teachers. These peer-to-peer interactions can expand over time to include non-coached teachers as well, helping spread the impact of coaching to entire schools and foster a culture of collaboration.
In DLP schools, 78 percent of teachers who received coaching and 57 percent of their peers who didn’t reported that coaching supported their school to improve collaboration among teachers. Once teachers working with the coach learned something from the collaboration, they were eager to share their new knowledge and skills with their peers. In this way, the coach’s reach extended beyond the group of teachers with whom they worked directly. One teacher explained, “Whatever [our coach] suggests, I then take to [other teachers in my department] and I’m like, ‘Look, she suggested this. We should try it.’ And then they try it too.” This not only amplified the impact of the coach, but also provided non-coached teachers with models of how the expertise of the coach could be useful to them in their particular context, therefore encouraging them to seek out collaboration with the coach themselves.
In addition, coaches are ideally positioned to take note of opportunities for collaboration that teachers might miss. One DLP teacher described her coach as “a link between all [the teachers], because she sees us all in our classrooms.” Coaches can encourage collaboration between teachers of different grades and subjects, both through staff and department-level meetings and by creating opportunities for teachers to share their practices by scheduling times for teachers to visit one another’s classrooms. For example, one DLP coach invited teachers to participate in a “pop-in program” where a teacher could visit a colleague’s classroom to “check out a strategy, a best practice, flexible seating, bulletin boards, etc., … then offer feedback after the visit” while the coach covered the teacher’s class. Additionally, coaches can amplify teachers’ accomplishments and increase the visibility of these collaborative efforts by broadcasting them in staff meetings, school newsletters, and via social media.
Continuous improvement and learning something new involves risk and the possibility of making mistakes. In their one-on-one collaborations with teachers, coaches can provide support and encouragement to try new things in their classrooms. At an organizational level, the coach and school administrator, as partners in the coaching program, can take action to build trusting relationships that make teachers comfortable to take risks and reflect on their practice without being afraid of failure.
In the DLP, we saw increases in innovation among teachers who were coached, as well as shifts toward innovation in teachers who were not coached. 81 percent of teachers who received coaching as part of the DLP and 57 percent of their peers who didn’t reported that coaching supported a growing school culture of innovation. This change started small with one-on-one coach-teacher collaborations. As teachers who were not participating in coaching began to see their coached colleagues experimenting and growing in their practice through the guidance and reassurance of the coach, they started to become more open to innovative ideas themselves. This cultural shift was supported by DLP school administrators, who modeled risk-taking and continuous learning themselves, and emphasized the non-evaluative nature of coaching. “We want people to be risk-takers and to fail forward, and we’ve reassured them that there’s not a ‘gotcha,’” said one DLP principal. “Please don’t give up if something’s challenging or doesn’t work the first time.”
Teachers at a low-income high school in Texas found that the personalized support of their DLP coach made teachers more willing to try new things and iterate. As one teacher put it, “For me, the accountability to the program is good for motivating me to explore and experiment. I also really enjoy having a skilled guide to bounce my wackiest ideas off of first. It helps me focus and troubleshoot, and keeps me zeroed in on what's best for the students.”
Additionally, having the coach plan, facilitate, and lead departmental professional development meetings gave teachers in this school the opportunity to collaborate, ask questions, and explore new technology tools. As a result, teachers reported that they became more open to trying new things that they might have otherwise considered impossible.
Actively recruiting teacher leaders in order to reach more reluctant teachers and sharing teacher success stories was another successful coaching strategy in building a more collaborative environment in this school. Teachers who were coached at the beginning of the year shared their learning with other teachers in their department and are now poised to lead professional development meetings around technology use alongside the coach. Teachers who benefited from this shared knowledge were grateful that their colleagues had “already done the troubleshooting” and were available to provide guidance. Additionally, veteran teachers were grateful that coaching encouraged younger, more tech-savvy teachers to share their expertise, which has helped to build a more innovative and collaborative school culture.