In the weeks leading up to our annual conference, Teaching, Learning, Coaching, we’ll be posting interviews with experts who have presented at the conference or those who will be presenting this year. The interviews will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, we hope they inspire, educate, and provoke new thinking. We don’t always agree with everything we hear in the interviews, but we are grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and we hope you feel challenged too. You can keep up with the interviews by subscribing to this blog.
Throughout her career, Rachel Lofthouse has worked in a variety of roles such as senior lecturer at Newcastle University and co-director for the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching (CfLaT). She is currently Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University’s Carnegie School of Education where she established the Research and Practice Centre ‘CollectivED: The Mentoring and Coaching Hub’. She has published in peer-reviewed journals on the subjects of coaching and mentoring, the innovative use of video to support practice development, practitioner enquiry, and professional learning. She also writes regularly for professional publications and websites. Rachel’s work to support educators has made a tremendous impact, and we are very pleased she will be presenting at the TLC Conference this year!
Jim: What got you into coaching in the beginning? I understand you got involved with mentoring, but what’s your whole story with how you got involved with this work in the first place?
Rachel: The first way I got involved was as a secondary school teacher in the North of England, mentoring student teachers on their school placements. This was way back in the mid 1990s, and it was at a time when the whole idea of University school partnerships and the responsibilities between the university teachers and the school mentors was developing quite rapidly. Students had obviously spent time in schools before, but we hadn’t necessarily understood that work through partnership.
At about the same time, I was involved with a school-based research consortium project based in Newcastle University. The University was funded to create a consortium of six secondary schools where we were supported to try to enable more teachers within the schools to be more confident in teaching thinking skills. So, a metacognitive approach to teaching and learning.
Each of the six schools had been identified because there was already at least one practitioner who was working quite confidently in this area—and that was me in my secondary school. The practitioners who were identified as those with the most confidence and competence were then given the opportunity to train as coaches and coach colleagues.
That was the first time as a teacher that I had come across the idea of coaching as a process that could support development. It was influenced by the way that cognitive coaching had been used as a part of the CASE project–Cognitive Acceleration of Science Education project. I worked as a teacher for the vast majority of the time for that project. For part of the time, I was acting as a coach, and the person I was working with most closely was a science teacher. I was a geography teacher, and we were using video-based coaching. The idea being that we had a very discrete and definite focus around meta-cognition through teaching and learning.
Towards the end of that project, I became a lecturer in the University of Newcastle. I became the teacher educator for the secondary geography program, and as a result, I then became responsible for the development of my mentors who were supporting my student teachers in schools. That, in conjunction with the coaching work, evolved into a very early version of a module on coaching for education that we offered in our Master’s program and also evolved into some small-scale research projects around mentoring. For example, using video to allow student teachers to see themselves in practice to change the way that they could work with their mentors in their teaching practice.
Jim: How did you get from that to where you are now?
Rachel: I remained teacher educator at Newcastle University from the year 2000 to 2017. In that period of time, I continued to work on research to deal with mentoring and coaching. We were funded by what was then the National College of Leadership here in England and CFBT – the Council for British Teachers – to do a three-year research project focused on teacher coaching of teachers in secondary schools. The idea behind the project was to try to identify what principles of teacher coaching were being adopted and how teacher coaching could be enhanced and developed so it might have the greatest impact. That was a really interesting piece of work because at the time there wasn’t a clear model of teacher coaching.
I say there was no model, there were no particularly agreed principles, but the National College had identified the need for these. What they were most interested in was whether you could find a golden thread from teacher coaching through to better pupil outcomes, better pupil attainment. I remember quite a lot of conversations about that golden thread and how it was going to be very difficult to find in the timescale, and actually because we weren’t doing any experimental design or eliminating any other factors that could influence pupils, it wasn’t that type of research. What we were able to do was demonstrate that certain approaches to teacher coaching had leverage in terms of reported outcomes, in particular, the use of video.
We also developed a model that described the dialogue practices of coaching based on the transcriptions of actual coaching sessions so that we could define the characteristics of coaching as it was being practiced at the time. We started to see how coaching can be improved and developed so that it becomes a more sophisticated conversation. Then we used that model and went back to our research schools with information for each coach about their own coaching habits, based on our analysis of our transcripts, which they were able to then reflect upon and make some personal strategic decisions about how they wanted to continue to evolve in terms of coaching.
Coaching – just like lots of other things – quite quickly disappears again from schools or it gets deployed as a remedial measure for teachers who are somehow needing competency measures. Then it gets a name for itself as something teachers do not want to get involved with because they do not consider themselves incompetent. So, we have gone through lots of fits and starts with coaching in England, and I suppose I have been lucky that I have been involved in some way and gained lots of insight from that.
I carried on teaching and developed postgraduate modules in coaching, doing associated research, working with schools, and then two years ago, I joined Leeds Beckett University. I was appointed as Professor of Teacher Education, but with a fairly open remit of identifying the area of education that I was the most interested in developing, and that led to setting up the CollectiveED Research and Practice Center. Which sounds quite grand, but is not. We don’t have any physical space, we don’t have any designated staff, except me. It is very much a collection of people within the University, and of many other people beyond the University who share a common interest in coaching and who are working together to hopefully gather a better understanding of coaching and mentoring and other forms of professional development, as well, to establish a community for both researchers and practitioners.
Jim: Tell us about your publications, in particular about your CollectivED working papers.
Rachel: We have created a working paper series. When we agreed to set up the Research and Practice Center, my line manager said, “The only thing I am going to ask you to do is to make sure you publish some working papers.” At the very beginning, I was quite tentative in that I wasn’t even sure I knew what he meant by working papers because they occupy a very unusual space. They are not peer-reviewed journal articles. They are obviously not published in professional commercial publications. But he was quite persistent that this would be worth doing, and it would allow us to publish both work coming out in our own school – staff and students – and also associated work by other people anywhere else.
We also have practice insight papers. These are written by people in the field, and they share their experiences and demonstrate what has influenced the work. Often that is literature based, or talking about how a particular CPD event, or how a training program has influenced them to work differently in schools. Sometimes those are written by school leaders reflecting on their work, for example, a lesson study approach. Sometimes they are written by the practitioners themselves. Sometimes they’re written by freelancers and consultants. The practice insight papers just offer insights into other people’s educational work and their educational practices.
Those probably constitute about half of the working papers, and we also have what we call think pieces, which are most often thought of as kind of an extended blog. There’s somebody’s ideas, somebody’s critique of somebody’s provocation. Sometimes it’s a reflection. It can be a reflection spanning many years focusing on how a certain practice has evolved over a certain period of time, how it’s shaped, and what tensions and opportunities arose.
We also include book reviews and conference reviews. The idea is that within each edition of the working papers there would be a collection of things that people can pick up and read from this wide range of authors. Nearly all of the editions have both UK and international contributors to them, and they all have a balance of research, practice insight papers, think pieces, and book reviews. When you pick it up you will find that there is actually 100 pages or so of papers that you have seen tweeted about online. You are actually opening up a whole library as it were.
We’ve now published eight editions. We’ve got over 120 papers and contributions from about 14 different countries, which is pretty good considering we only started about a year and half ago! That has been quite a big piece of work actually, just determining to start and get people to write.
Jim: Does it come out at a particular time?
Rachel: No, it doesn’t. Essentially, it is just an open call for papers, and whenever someone submits a paper, I always respond and, if necessary, give feedback on how it might be developed. Quite often, I just get emails saying, “are you interested in…?” So, that’s kind of a positive response and appropriate to that email. Once I’ve got sufficient submissions to start to think about collating them and I’ve got a bit of time to do it, I will start collating working papers, and that usually triggers a few tweets. Which usually triggers a few working papers coming in at the last minute. Which then allows me to put together the edition, and then as soon as we’ve had it proofread and people are happy with it, it gets published. At the moment, the gaps are between two and four months, and it depends on people submitting.
Jim: If people were interested in submitting something, how should they contact you?
Rachel: They can email me directly at [email protected]
Jim: What kinds of publications would be appropriate, and what kinds wouldn’t be appropriate?
Rachel: We are interested in papers that reflect the realities of professional development in any educational setting. And where that professional development is largely characterized by professional conversations. It can be development for any purpose. It could be about leadership. It could be about specific aspects of learning and teaching. It could be that you have someone who is an early career teacher. It could actually be professional development that more aligns with teachers’ well-being because there is a very strong sense that those two things come together. There is a reciprocal relationship between well-being and professional development. So – anything essentially to do with how schools become more rich in professional conversations that exist there.
We are not just interested in schools. We are interested in colleges. We are interested in universities. We are interested in work-based learning anywhere where there is a focus on professional development for educators.
Jim: And is there a length that it should or shouldn’t be?
Rachel: Yeah, we’ve published the guidelines – and I can’t remember exactly – but the longest papers are normally the research papers which might be 2,500 words.
Research papers: usually 2,000 – 2,500
Practice Insight: usually 1,500 – 2000
Think Pieces: usually 1,000 – 1,500
None of them are massive, but all of them have got enough to be way beyond a tweet [laughs] and way beyond what most blogs are. These give you an opportunity to have some substantial engagement with some ideas.
Jim: Tell us about some of your publications on coaching.
Rachel: I have written for a number of journals. There’s a good number of articles in a journal called Professional Development in Education. The publishing association that publishes that in conjunction with the publisher is IPDA – International Professional Development Association. I have published articles in that journal, and the most recent one was on understanding what some coaching looks like currently in the UK education setting. It wasn’t a comprehensive review. It was based on a launch event that we had for CollectivED where we established a series of professional conversations between coaches who all worked in different ways and who all worked in slightly different timeframes and settings, but who all described what they did as a form of coaching in education.
We created a situation where they had a conversation with each other one-by-one, giving each one of them an opportunity to share what they meant by coaching in education, how that became apparent in their practice, and what they recognized as some of the impacts of that work. We then used that as almost like focus-group data as we recorded the conversations and analyzed it. What that did was offer a new understanding of coaching in education and an opportunity to think about how each of these practices might share some common characteristics. But also, how they might be quite unique from each other.
When I’d done the analysis of the transcripts, I went back to the participants and asked them to validate that analysis and asked them what they saw as emerging themes. It was quite an unusual piece of research because it has a very small evidence base, basically one hour’s worth of a conversation. The conversations were very rich, and the themes that emerged were very insightful. They just offered a genuine understanding of what it is we mean when we say, “coaching in education.” That was published probably about a year ago.
I have been publishing about mentoring, which is something in the UK that tends to be the thing we do with student teachers or very early-career teachers. And an interesting thing is to fathom what the difference is between mentoring and coaching because more often than not, people just put them together in one phrase: Mentoring and Coaching. The ‘and’ suggests that they are not quite the same, but actually in practice they tend to bleed into each other. Sometimes that is done quite deliberately because we are drawing on some coaching principles to support a mentor to work with a mentee, and sometimes they happen inadvertently. For example, sometimes coaching can become a bit contaminated by a mentoring stance, which perhaps is more directive and a bit less open.
It has been interesting to look at mentoring because in our system if you are a student teacher, you are spending a significant portion of your training period actually in schools, teaching classes, marking their work, and doing all the things that teachers do. And there is a strong argument for that which is that you can’t really learn to teach by sitting in somebody else’s lecture theatre or just reading a book or writing an essay. You have to be doing the job in real time as a real person. But this means that schools are highly responsible for that student teacher’s experience. Then the most important dynamic is the mentoring work.
We know that our population of mentors and their ability to do the work well is impacted when we have schools that are suffering from budget cuts, when schools are experiencing government dictated changes to their curriculum assessment which create significant challenges to their workload, or when schools are themselves victim of a recruitment and retention crisis. If they are finding it difficult to keep their own teachers, to then find the best mentors to support student teachers becomes a bit of a vicious circle. So, several pieces of work have looked at the dynamics of mentoring in relation to that scenario. And that can be quite sad because it isn’t always working well, but when it is working well you can try to identify why, so we can learn more widely.
Jim: I would say that coaching should be dialogical so both people should be sharing their ideas. It is not a dialog if I don’t share what I think, but the second part of it is I share my ideas in a way that is opening, not closing. I don’t force my advice, and I recognize you as the decision-maker in the conversation. I might ask for permission to share something, and then I’d say, “Now you are going to use this however you like. Let me put this out here, and you are going to tell me what you think”. As opposed to, “Here’s what I think you should do.” It’s not directive, it’s dialogical.
Rachel: Exactly. I would agree, and I would say that the best mentoring is dialogical as well, but that it might take longer to get there because of the stage of development that the mentee is at. It also might be somewhat constrained by the impact of the external – in our case, the external non-negotiable standards. For me, coaching, it’s an opportunity. One of the people I talked to said it’s “a place where we do our best thinking.”
Jim: It sounds like mentoring is something that is done with inexperienced teachers, and coaching is something that is done with all teachers. Is that fair to say?
Rachel: In the UK in education, mentoring certainly does tend to be done with our student teachers who are newly qualified. Our government is promoting a two-year early career framework which will hopefully increase the access to mentoring that early-career teachers have. So, there is some mentoring that goes on perhaps a bit less formally, as people switch into different roles. We’ve got very hierarchal school employment structures in England, and as people move into leadership roles, it would not be uncommon to be given a mentor even in the first six weeks of that new job. But it’s essentially very much dictated by what it is you need to do now in order to secure the practice in this part of your job in this point in time. Whereas coaching is much more of an opportunity to engage thoughtfully in your own practice, with the intention to better understand it, and seek opportunities to develop it.
Jim: In light of your experiences in coaching and mentoring, what would you say are a few of your key findings, in addition to what you’ve already said?
Rachel: The first thing would be that these are essentially relational processes. There are usually two people working in close conjunction with each other over a period of time. The good news is that when they are working well, they build and rely on trust. The bad news is that our education system is often a system that erodes trust and leaves people feeling exposed or wary and, as a result, puts people in less of a position to trust each other. So, there is sometimes – and this is demonstrated through research – a really strong tension between the practicesthat people most value and the experiences that people most value.
Another important finding is that we need to be open to learning from a wider range of people than we might have expected as educators. In the past, we tended to think, “If you haven’t done my job in my kind of school, you can’t teach me how to do my job in my kind of school.” But I did some work with speech and language therapists who’ve done some work as coaches for primary and early-years teachers, and the focus for the coaching was developing communication-rich pedagogy for the primary classrooms. What the speech/language therapists were able to do was to provide the teachers with answers to some of the communication issues that their children brought into the classroom and some of the missed opportunities for developing a better communication outcomes.
It was done using actual video clips from that teacher’s classroom and from a stance of curiosity. “Let’s share some of your classroom, and let’s bring both of our knowledge bases to bare through dialogical conversations.” This exposes the teacher to some of the expert knowledge that some of the speech therapists have that give the teachers some insight to individual pupils that they teach day in and day out, but also over time exposes the speech language therapist to their teaching pedagogy, which they are able to then use in their own understanding of how to support pupils. It’s really helpful to know that, as a teacher, there are a very wide range of professionals who have the potential to help us do our jobs really well, that we shouldn’t be scared of introducing them into our space, and that we shouldn’t be wary of allowing them to help us understand how to develop our practice.
I guess it is not really a research conclusion – just a reflection of all the research – that we have to keep making the case for coaching and mentoring. One of the problems being that until a significant majority of people have had really formative and positive experiences as a result of it, it is going to be always easier to default to “Why don’t you just go and read that book or go online and do that training course?”
Jim: What is an analogy or metaphor that is appropriate for coaching?
Rachel: Coaching is like sour dough yeast, creating workplace and education cultures that are akin to sour dough bread. The yeast is a live culture which is dependent on the synergy of its natural components. The yeast has the capacity to be sustained over time with care and can thus be used to create many loaves of bread over long periods. Sour dough loaves are known to be healthier and have a greater depth of taste than those made with bakers’ yeast. Coaching has the capacity to be an active ingredient in the creation of schools which are alive with educational flavour, enable sustained development of practice and promote wellbeing.
Jim: What are you planning on presenting at TLC?
Rachel: The session is called “Postcards from England,” and it carries on to say, “Putting Hearts and Minds into Professional Learning through Coaching.” I will be presenting some authentic short narratives from England from people who have a lived an experience of coaching – either being the coach or being the coachee or leading the coaching. We’ve provided some insights from these lived experiences within coaching to give this opportunity for developing and reflecting on the extent to which coaching draws people into a space. Coaching is informative, both cognitively and emotionally. Emotionally being that sense of motivation, empathy, and desire to use coaching for positive change. Coaching allows you to find your voice as a professional in what can be quite a constraining work environment. It is a very critical point to be feeling that you matter!
It will be quite an informal session that allows people to reflect significantly on their own practices as well as to think about some insights from England.
Here is a list of some people you can expect to see at the Teaching Learning Coaching Conference 2019! Click on each name below to review some of their work.
We hope to see you in Kansas City!
Professor of Teacher Education,
Distinguished Writer in Residence,
Equity Leadership Coach,
TED Talk Presenter, Principal,
Founder and CEO,
Executive Director, Associate Director
The Joy of Coaching
Instructional Coaching Group
Instructional Coaching Group
CEO and Co-founder,
The Disruptive Equity Education Project
The Coach Approach to School Leadership
Growth Coaching International
Executive Educator, Coach
Instructional Coaching Group
Chief Education Officer,
Research for Better Teaching
Author, School Consultant
Safe and Civil Schools
University of NC School of Kenan-Flagler Business School
Instructional Coaching Group
Growth Coaching International
Innovative Curriculum Facilitator,
Lawrence Public Schools
Bowling Green City Schools