I vividly remember the first time I was observed on that warm, sunny Wednesday morning at 9 am.
I was a fresh, 22 year old bright eyed and bubbly Middle School Social Studies teacher in my very first classroom.
The lesson topic for that morning; ‘The achievements of Ancient Rome.’
My principal nonchalantly walked through the door in her hip, retro leather jacket, and plopped down on the LazyBoy recliner in back. Although I felt like my heart was in my throat, she acted like it was just another day.
There was no clipboard, observation rubric, or 10 point checklist. Just a friendly, personable human wanting to experience what it was like to be a 12 year old student in my classroom. I was immediately put at ease.
Contrast that to an observation 10 years later in my practice. It was a brisk, Monday morning when the Middle School principal, dawned in full suit and tie, entered my spacious Humanities classroom with an IPAD nestled between his hands. The screen illuminated a two column table with my specific teaching goals and empty boxes to fill in notes. I had 60 minutes for my ‘official’ evaluation.
In my 15 years of teaching I can probably count how many times I have been observed on one hand. All of them were by my principals. None of them had the chance to see the lessons where I turned my classroom into a full production theatre; or the day I set up moveable whiteboards for students to practice their business pitches in pairs; or the time I transformed my classroom into the United States Legislature, with each student taking on a congressional role.
As leaders, what if we could set up systems where observation was not a 60 minute occurrence three times a year, but a regular part of our teacher’s practice? What if instead of being responsible for 50 observations, we created a culture where everyone on staff could be a coach and coachee?
This same question was posed to school leaders across international schools in Asia as part of an ACAMIS leadership training. I have consolidated six of their brilliant strategies below according to risk level. I hope they help spark ideas on how to build a coaching culture at your school.
Hack #1: Trade the Formal Evaluation Sheets for Pineapples! (Low Risk, High Trust)
In a creative school in Suzhou, China, each teacher has been given a single pineapple. And no, the pineapples aren’t for a giant fruit party or staff breakfast, they are to change the mindset around teacher observations. When a teacher wants to show off a new teaching strategy or receive feedback from fellow colleagues, they simply place the pineapple outside their front door. It’s a traditional way of saying, ‘All are welcome here!’ And if your staff aren’t feeling that spontaneous or light hearted, do what professional development coordinator Ewen Bailey suggests, and set up a pineapple chart for observations in the staff room. Here’s an example below:
Hack #2: Level Up Your Coaching w/ Power Wrist Bands: (Low Risk, Low Trust)
Imagine each teacher across your school sporting a wrist band indicating exactly where they excel. ‘Engagement Activator.’ ‘Thinking Visualizor.’ ‘Group Facilitator.’ To earn the wrist bands, teachers set up three peer coaching observations to model their strengths in the classroom. During each observation, the peer coach uses a specific rubric developed by a cross-disciplinary focus group to help define each skill. By the end of the year, not only has every teacher has been acknowledged for their strengths, but there is now a highly visible way for teachers to gain support from their colleagues in areas they need it most.
Hack #3: Use new CHAMPIONS to jump start your coaching program! (Medium Risk, High Trust)
We all have those teachers who jump at the opportunity to try new things. They sign up to stay late at school dances; are the first to pilot new technology; or put in extra hours for tutoring. These are our CHAMPIONS. But if we are going to make the coaching culture ‘stick,’ we need to find new champions. Pair one of your more reluctant teachers with one of your usual champions to be observed. Film the classroom observation and follow up conversation, allowing your more reluctant teacher to narrate the process. By allowing them to present to staff, you will now have a new CHAMPION to usher coaching forward in your school.
Hack #4: Speed Date your colleagues: (Low Risk, Medium Trust)
This was a brilliant idea from a leader of Seoul Foreign School. In the same way speed dating provides only a short 5 minute interval to introduce yourself to potential partners, short coaching conversations can help your staff quickly gain the tools and tips to be more effective coaches. Start by setting up a long table in a gymnasium or large open space with chairs on both sides. One side will serve as coaches, and one as coachees. Using ‘scenario cards’ (ie. teacher needs help with classroom management, more engaging starts to class, making lessons more interactive, etc.), read off a possible dilemma and provide 5 minutes to each pair to model the coaching conversation. After five minutes, coachees rotate and a new scenario is presented. Between each rotation, highlight effective techniques. This light hearted, fun strategy will create a positive feeling around coaching.
Hack #5: Take the straw off your teacher’s back: (Low Risk, Low Trust)
There is a reason why a piece of straw broke the camel’s back. Every new initiative, regulation, protocol and procedure is like another piece of straw, adding stress to our teacher’s already full backs. If we want to make coaching a regular priority, we have start removing some of their other responsibilities. Shorten your teacher’s duty time, required paperwork, or mandated hours. Maybe even let them go home early on Fridays. This will create the space for more reflective conversations, and make your coaching initiative feel transformational rather than transactional.
Hack #6: It’s amazing what you can observe from outside the fishbowl (Medium Risk, High Trust)
Receiving direct feedback from a coaching partner is hard to take. Our emotions can quickly put us on the defensive the minute we hear anything that sounds negative. To make coaching conversations feel less emotional, remove the coachee from the conversation and instead have them observe a ‘fishbowl’ conversation between their peer observer and department head following an observation. The peer observer shares kind, helpful and specific comments regarding what they observed, with the department head asking probing questions to elicit more detail. In this way, the coachee receives valuable and indirect feedback on their practice without feeling defensive.
Setting up a system for observations is easy. Creating a transformative culture of coaching and reflection is most certainly not.
Like a well groomed garden, it requires continual attention, care, flexibility and support. I hope these hacks give you the confidence to get started.
A special thanks to the leaders from Hangzhou International School, Harrow International School, Seoul Foreign School, NPS International, SJI International, The International School of Brussels, Singapore St. Josephs and Yew Chung International School for their valuable insights and contributions to this article. Learn more about enrolling leaders in the ACAMIS Leadership Training here.