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Peer Coaching: Partnership for
Professional Practitioners

The ACIE Newsletter, May 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

By Teresa Belisle, Fifth grade teacher, Normandale French Immersion School, Edina, Minnesota

 


 

Knowledge in all areas of pedagogy is growing rapidly due to recent brain research and an intense drive to improve education. Staff development committees face the impossible challenge of trying to address myriad needs for an entire school and conveying all the latest general research in two or three in-service days each year. Well planned in-service days can be invigorating and informative, but research shows that there is little impact on student learning following these one-shot approaches. Therefore, we need to become creative in finding effective programs for professional development which are on-going and promote success in the classroom. This article offers a response to this challenge by proposing peer coaching for on-site staff development, with suggestions specific to the immersion context.

Peer coaching has come to the forefront in many educational institutions as one key approach to effective professional development. It incorporates three components: self-directed learning, sustained development of expertise, and collaborative professionalism. Immersion teachers are in a unique situation due to the fact that most of them have not been prepared specifically for immersion teaching, and that they often work with administrators who are not well-versed in immersion pedagogy. The lack of specific immersion preparation is a key reason for current immersion teachers to pursue self-directed learning.

 

A peer coaching meeting.

It is evident that becoming a highly effective teacher is not the result of a one-time investment, but rather an ever-evolving process. "Recent research illustrates the value of conceptualizing teacher development as a life-long process, [and] the importance of collective or interactive professionalism…" (Day & Shapson, 1996, p. 122). Teachers must see their professional development as an integral part of their ongoing responsibilities. Teachers have shown that a sane and effective way to implement this continual professional development is in a collaborative setting. Based on a survey conducted by Day and Shapson (1996) with Canadian immersion teachers, "the activity teachers rated as being most important for professional development was collaborative planning, work, or teaching" (p. 123, emphasis in original). Collaboration has become a key technique in school improvement.

The outline for peer coaching provided below shows that it is a process that is designed to encourage self-directed, motivated immersion teachers who want to continue to develop in this relatively new domain of teaching. This kind of peer teaching is truly collaborative in nature, allowing for teachers to share their expertise, strengthen their areas of weakness, and provide continued all-around growth. It provides a non-threatening, enjoyable opportunity for teachers to take ownership of and direct their own long-term professional development. Research conducted by Showers and Joyce (1996) revealed that "successful peer coaching teams developed skills in collaboration and enjoyed the experience so much that they wanted to continue their collegial partnerships [even] after they accomplished their initial goals" (p. 13). Not only has peer coaching proven to be intrinsically motivating and renewing, but also effective. "Results of our early studies showed that teachers who had a coaching relationship - that is, who shared aspects of teaching, planned together, and pooled their experiences - practiced new skills and strategies more frequently and applied them more appropriately than did their counterparts who worked alone to expand their repertoires" (Showers & Joyce, 1996, p.13).

The two key components needed for a successful peer coaching program are commitment and choice. In the program outlined below, teachers choose to participate, choose their partners, and choose the focus of their collegial interaction. For peer coaching to work, participants must invest in their role and feel safe. The act of choosing allows for such personal investment and sense of security. Commitment by the participating teachers is necessary so that this program becomes a priority in already very busy schedules. Each participating teacher must commit to a weekly observation of his/her partner, a weekly time to be observed, a professional reading goal, and a weekly discussion time.

It is important to start small. Only those teachers who are committed and who choose to participate should be involved. Participation will grow with time, as the staff watches the success and motivation of the pioneers of this partnership for professional practitioners.

PROCEDURE

The staff development committee at the school can offer peer coaching as an option for continual professional development. While the principal of the school might also explain this process to the staff, teachers might be more open to the ideas if presented by other teachers. Nevertheless, the more administrative support given to the process, the better.

  1. At the beginning of the year, explain the idea of a collegial peer coaching program to the entire staff, indicating the need for commitment and choice involved. Offer this as an optional professional development opportunity.

  2. Once staff have chosen to participate, hold a second meeting with this core group to decide the following issues. (If funds are made available, provide half- or full-day subs for each pair, so they can prepare their plan of action.)
    1. Partnerships: Having teachers choose their own partners is much less threatening than assigning partners. Also, many will have reasons for choosing a specific partner (e.g., teaching style, teaching philosophy, expertise in an area, etc.).
    2. Type of peer coaching: Teachers can choose to establish technical coaching (related to innovations in curriculum and instruction), or collegial coaching (aimed at improving existing practices) (Showers & Joyce, 1996).
    3. Topic(s), area(s) of concentration: Teachers need to choose areas on which to focus their observations of and feedback to one another. These may involve, for example, (1) issues that are specific to immersion teaching, (2) a specific teaching strategy that is not unique to the immersion setting, such as cooperative learning, (3) applying current research in a specific field, or (4) implementation of state and national standards. Day and Shapson (1996, p. 126) developed a list of specific issues from surveying Canadian immersion teachers (see sidebar at left).


  3. Have partners establish and commit to the following components of the process. A written contract could be developed so that both partners are clear about the process they have agreed to. (If interested in a sample contract you may contact the author through ACIE at 612/625-8848.)
    1. Weekly time for observations and meetings. The teacher being observed determines what s/he wants the partner to look for and comment on. Another option is to videotape a session, and watch the video together. Videotaping can be a valuable tool if used from time to time.
    2. Method for monitoring professional growth and determining impact on student learning. This could be as simple as keeping a teaching journal, reflecting specifically on the issue selected (Rehorick & Edwards, 1995). A more challenging option is to develop pre- and post-tests to evaluate growth.
    3. Number of articles or resources teachers will read dealing with the issue chosen.


  4. Offer time for the core group to meet together during in-service days to share their experiences as they begin implementing the peer coaching program. Pairs can suggest successful strategies for working together, as well as note their progress in their selected focus area. The core group could report back to the full staff on what they've gained from the experience. This would be very valuable for those not involved in the program, but partners should not feel forced to do this. To promote further collaboration, provide a list of the specific areas where peer partners have developed expertise. Other teachers interested in these issues could then consult with peer coaching teams and maximize the collective effort.

Teachers will learn a great deal from one another while planning instruction, developing materials, observing one another with students, and reflecting on the impact of their teaching on students' learning. Best of luck to all who join a colleague in a Partnership for Professional Practitioners!

 


 

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