“Actually it’s useful sometimes to step in”

How best to use a twenty-minute mentor meeting with a new teacher?  We recently filmed the approach taken by Izzy Leahy (’10 Ambassador) to support first year Teach First participant Sam Bower at Harris Academy Greenwich.  Izzy’s main approach was coaching Sam, supporting him to reflect upon his teaching and reach his own conclusions; she also included subtle nudges to help him develop his ideas.  This post explores the different phases of coaching and techniques which Izzy adopted; the video below shows some of Izzy’s interventions and the effect they had.

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Eliciting and developing

Izzy devoted much of her time to eliciting and developing Sam’s experiences and interpretations of his teaching.  She began by eliciting:

“So Sam it might be a really good place to start if we can review the week and see what’s been going on and any issues that have arisen?”

Sam brought up his Year 9 lesson, which had proved challenging, and Izzy encouraged Sam to develop his description of the issues and their causes:

“What went wrong with that one?”

Izzy mentioned that in coaching she finds “the key is small specific things, so just one class, one issue, one section of the lesson, that’s what becomes helpful”.  A quarter of her interventions in the conversation were designed to elicit or develop descriptions of Sam’s recent lessons.

Goal-setting

Once Sam had introduced discussion of his Year 9 class, Izzy helped him to set goals for the end of the meeting:

“Can you just outline a couple of goals or a couple of things that you want to make sure that by the end of today I want to do this, this, and this.”

At the end of their conversation, she restated the goals and actions he had said he would take.  Izzy only used ‘goal-setting’ sentences three times, but they were crucial to the conversation.

Restating and probing

Sam may be a new teacher, but Izzy ensured that he was doing the thinking about how to improve his lessons.  Her probing questions helped Sam to examine his lessons from different angles and to think through what was happening and why.

“You’ve got various different issues going on there; heads on tables, swinging on chairs, not picking up a pen. Is there anything you can think about what might be causing that at the root?”

Probing questions made up one in four of Izzy’s interventions.  In another fifth of cases however, lighter touch interventions which simply encouraged Sam to think through his ideas further were helpful.  For example, Sam wondered about using discussion in his lesson, but wasn’t sure entirely how.  Sam began:

“Me leading the discussion perhaps or getting some of them to model the story at the front and everyone else watch it, I’m not too sure.”

“So you could lead the discussion?”

Izzy’s simple restatement encouraged Sam to go on:

“Yes, I think it would have to be led by me otherwise as soon as I give them a free ride, like  I tried a carousel activity where they went around 15 stations it just didn’t [work] really.”

 Nudging

Conventional coaching models often eschew direct suggestions, but one in five of Izzy’s responses were ‘nudges’, where she hinted at ideas or made suggestions.  Izzy deployed these carefully, offering limited observations from her own experience and allowing Sam to develop them.  So, where Sam suggested that, instead of students moving around the room to different tasks, the tasks could move again, Izzy responded:

“That’s one option yes.  Something I always find an easy way of doing it is using pair work. It’s a bit more structured and it can be contained and you can give them each a character and they can work on their best story and then share their best story.”

This encouraged Sam to develop his idea – using stories – further, into a workable part of the lesson.  Reflecting on the conversation afterwards, Izzy noted that “I find actually it’s useful sometimes to step in and say ‘Actually what about this as an idea or an action?’  Because actually what I found there was when I gave one idea it then fed you to come up with three or four more ideas.”  Izzy does not feel contrained to act purely as a coach with Sam: “I think sometimes in coaching we’re always so worried about offering… that’s not what coaching is.  There’s got to be some kind of play between the two, working with new teachers.”  Her use of coaching places Sam in control of the conversation and his own improvement, but her skilled use of ‘nudges’ allows her to share her expertise with him.

In this case, the approach seemed to have worked well: Sam said that, on a scale of one to ten, he felt “Definitely a ten” to crack the next lesson, while Izzy decided that she would use Sam’s idea structuring a story with her own Year 10 class: “I’ve never really thought about doing it that way.  I’ve got my own ideas now.”

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