Coaching for what

Done! Just finished coaching my first cohort of early career teachers (ECT). I have done so as part of the Graduate Teacher Induction, a trailblazing programme (in its ninth year mind you) by the Department of Education of Western Australia supporting ECT in government schools. When I talk to people, nationally and internationally, about this program and the support our graduates get through it, the not uncommon response is a dropped jaw and ‘how come we/our school/jurisdiction/system we didn’t know about this’. Well, here is the link, let us know if you want to know more… 

Coaching is a part of this programme and what type of coaching this is (and isn’t) was perhaps best summed up in a sentence by one of my ‘grads’, unsolicited and explicitly permitted to share like the rest of the anecdotes here: 

“All these conversations, observations and reflections [coaching] are not showing me how to teach but helping me feel and realise I am actually a confident and a competent teacher.”

Those of you who coach and/or ‘get’ coaching will probably nod at this. My colleagues and I don’t show the ropes, how to teach, but listen for, tease out, challenge and support ECT as colleagues to improve their practice, (and with it the corollaries of confidence, wellbeing, self-efficacy) “not because they are not good enough but because they can do even better” (Dylan William). Perhaps more on what (education) coaching is and isn’t next time, plenty of material and good people to engage with around if interested, just ask. 

This, my first semester, I travelled our enormous state and spent well over a hundred sessions on the phone with ECTs in a range of settings, from kindy to senior high school, metro to regional. I worked with a frazzled primary special needs teacher who has realised the importance of music to him and students and is underway to run a school choir and possibly train further as a music teacher, energised by his new found purpose. I worked with a teacher in a tough high school who wanted to transform her euphemistically called ‘development’ class (aka the class that no one really wants to teach) with the too common trifecta of low literacy – low trust – behaviour issues. On the surface, all she did was install a ‘wonder wall’ (one of her coaching goals) where students, usually too scared to look dumb or weak by asking a question, could put up their question safely. Under the surface, she and her students realised the importance of trust, effort, safety and so much more. Students now walk out and thank her for her lessons. 

I worked with a teacher whose goal was to extend the success criteria of his lessons to include three different levels of achievement and allowing all students in his class to walk out having accomplished them. Sounds easy until you realise what a sophisticated exercise that is. Another has gone from dreading even asking unruly students to line up walking into classroom to the same students busting to get started on their individual goals in a calm, relaxed but working class atmosphere. 

I worked with a teacher on the edge of breakdown who came to this realisation at the end of our coaching cycle: 

“My first year was all about me being good enough with curriculum, meeting standards, expectations and that. It’s the stuff you get pumped up at uni and trying to be doing all and doing it perfect is very stressful! I made this year about the kids. I stress less, students and me are doing much better, well enough in environment where perfection is a myth. And if I got audited last year, I’d fall in a heap, stressed out. This year, I’m able to justify, defend myself and my decisions with confidence in what I do.”

And more …  

Among the many things that struck me in this work was how skilful most of these ECT were in navigating their contexts. While they all work within the affordances and constraints of the systems they are part of, these teachers were strategic, judicious in using, adjusting and at times deliberately ditching the various ‘what works’ models. They showed great skill and judgement as professionals, not merely as skilled technicians and faithful applicators of some teaching approach and/or policy devised outside and often far, far away from their context. What they showed, many of them in spades, was their [teacher] agency, to the benefit of them and, importantly, the students in their care.

Teacher agency, and coaching for it, is the topic of one of my favourite chapters in Flip The System Australia, a book I had been honoured to contribute a chapter to myself last year. Chris Munro, whom I had been delighted to meet in person recently, and my old friend Jon Andrews wrote how coaching can be a great way to help teachers to eke out, (re)claim the spaces foreclosed at a time where “pursuit of secure relationship between input and output seemingly dominates the educational debate, teachers’s thinking and work is at risk of being reduced to applying ‘interventions’ and treatments’ and extracting any deviation from ‘what works”. More on that double whammy of teachers given ‘free hands’ to meet narrowly defined standards of output and (standardised) ways of teaching next time perhaps but coaching, and coaching for agency imagined as ecological growth not mechanistic performance offers and delivers so much to resist this double whammy. 

The term ‘ecological growth’ used by Munro and Andrews comes from the work of Priestley, Biesta and Robinson, who themselves use the Emirbayer and Mische’s initial imagining teacher agency as (part of) an ecology. In this view, teacher agency is not merely ‘an ability to act’ and something you ‘have’. It is something you achieve to varying degrees, depending on the context, ecology you work in. Emirbayer & Mische describe it as ‘temporally constructed engagement with different structural environments’. It spans across three iterative, repeating temporal domains – the past, the future and the present. I attempt to ever so briefly outline the key idea(s) here but encourage anyone to explore this further (I know I will…). 

Past – The greater the range of experiences (teacher’s skills, knowledge, beliefs, values) the greater the repertoire to draw upon to enact agency in a particular environment. This is not to just refashion ‘the old and true’ in a new context but instead manouvering and managing expectations in dynamic environment(s).

Future – the more expansive the future trajectories, aspirations the greater the possibility for teacher agency. This is not to forget that the (range of) aspirations can clash at times – from, ideally I believe, ‘best for students’ to the more instrumental, immediate concerns of ‘not rocking the boat’, perhaps ‘playing the (performative) game’, and ‘survival’ that particularly ECT would be very familiar with. But the broader one can imagine, the greater the chance of agency.

Present – the greater the capacity of teachers to make judgements in the face of current challenges, dilemmas, demands, ambiguities the greater the chance of achieving agency in a given context, ecology.  This means accessing and deploying the available resources – material, cognitive, relational, and managing the ‘shoulds’ of self, system and student in the moment of contact with students and colleagues.

Implications of this? Let us not disregard but instead pay attention to (the importance of) the ecology of teachers’ work. Teachers may come to a situation with substantial capacity (skills, knowledge), strong educational aspiration but innovation (to what they believe and value to be worthy) is simply too difficult or too risky to enact. It is often misleading to talk about ‘capacity building’ (Priestley, Biesta & Robinson) of teachers as it presumes the key to teachers agency lies with teachers personal capacity, rather than the “interplay between what the teacher ‘brings’ to the situation and what the situation ‘brings’ to the teacher.” 

What these authors so eloquently capture is an insight I had realised often during my 20 years of teaching and which the coaching work reinforced, even if just after my first semester of it. It also provided an enormous source of professional satisfaction and focus for growth for both myself and my coachees, experts in our respective ecologies but equals as teachers. We have all seen, felt, reflected on the seductive promises and illusions of ‘the best practice’ and the existence of a presumed linear, efficient path to it. Instead of the anxiety and deficit thinking this can generate, a more reflexive approach to professional practice afforded by coaching has the potential to enable more productive and satisfying teaching career, and, let’s not forget, better educational experiences of and for our students along the way.

Making fellow teachers self-aware of and responsible for their own growth is coaching. Recognising their role in their ecology and building their ability to act within it is coaching for agency.  

Love my job.

Andrews, J. & Munro, C. (2018). Coaching for agency: The power of professionally respectful dialogue. In: D.M.Netolicky, J.Andrews, & C.Paterson(Eds). Flip the system Australia: What matters in education. Abingdon: Routledge. 

Biesta, G, Priestley, M & Robinson, S. (2015) Teacher agency: an ecological approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic 

Priestley, M. (2015) Teacher agency – what is it and why does it matter? BERA Blog, accessed at

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