Effective Peer Coaching Relationships

Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Dr. Rick N. Bolling
Elementary/middle school principal; Ed.D. in Leadership
Older man sitting next to a younger woman reviewing notes and talking.

What are Peer Coaching Relationships?

Peer coaches are resource teachers whose central goal is to provide support, encouragement, and modeling for core teachers within a building. Some examples are mathematics coaches, reading coaches, school improvement coaches, technology coaches, and family engagement coordinators. Peer coaches offer ideas and an opportunity for reflection but are non-evaluative. The coach can help teachers monitor progress towards goals, model lessons and strategies, and co-teach lessons as needed.

These coaches hold no position of authority over mentee teachers but offer teachers support as they refine instructional practice to heighten student growth and achievement. Once an effective relationship is built among the faculty and the coach, the coach can begin working with faculty members to implement strategies to meet goals for increased student success. Once the mentee teacher knows the coach cares about him or her and wants what is best, the coach will be able to leverage the relationship to push for more rigorous strategies. These coaches are most effective when the mentee wants to change but needs support and guidance to meet the goals related to the change.

As school leaders build peer-coaching structures, they must maintain a priority to support strong collaborative relationships within the building. The capacity for peer coaches to bring about sustained change comes through transformational leadership. There is no positional power associated with peer coaching because these are resource teacher positions that are equal in power structure when compared to core teachers. Therefore, the ability to bring about change comes from the coach’s reputation and servant nature.

A peer coach is in no way an administrator’s assistant. Coaches do not tell a teacher “what to do.” Feedback from a coach is formative. If the faculty sees the coach as a person who runs to the principal with every concern, the coaching relationship will be negative. Moreover, this scenario can destroy a building’s morale and a principal’s credibility. A principal is simply ineffective if he or she does not know the strengths and weaknesses among the building faculty.

As such, the peer coach should appear on the side of the teacher as a support system as opposed to appearing like the principal’s “bad cop.” Disciplinary action and corrective measures must be handled by building administration without the involvement of peer coaches. Frequent closed-door meetings with the principal will certainly make a coach less effective within a building. At a loss for more professional verbiage, the instructional coach needs to be a part of “us” (teachers) as opposed to “them” (administrators).

What are the Benefits of Peer Coaching?

There is a tremendous amount of power in meaningful collaborative effort. Too often teachers feel isolated and alone. When peers work together toward a common set of goals, various viewpoints and ideas can be explored. Reflecting on instructional strategies and problem solving with a partner can bring both affirmation and alternative ideas. These alternative ideas can lead to improved practices and increased student growth. Teachers want to do what is best and exceed goals, but sometimes need support and encouragement along the journey.      

Peer coaches open the door to systemic change in a building that leads to greater student focus and consistent, research-based instructional methodologies. These peer instructional support systems help accelerate initiatives, enhance focus on quality instruction, and lead to greater consistency within a school.

A coach who has earned the respect and trust of a faculty can impact more teachers than a principal as their purpose is more focused. Whereas, the principal has a plethora of responsibilities, an instructional coach, for example, can focus solely on supporting teachers to increase student achievement by refining instructional practices. As the coach and mentee work together, school goals can be met in ways that are viewed more positively by teachers. The coach empowers teachers.

How to Facilitate Effective Peer Coaching Relationships

When a teacher works with an academic coach, the teacher must be open to change. While this seems obvious, as improvement and associated change should be the goal of even the most skilled teachers, change can be scary. Additionally, working with a peer coach makes a teacher vulnerable. For this reason, the most important element of an effective peer coaching relationship is trust.

The coach must invest time to earn trust with teachers within the building. Trust is earned through actions, not words or accolades. Active listening is just as important as talking in the peer coaching relationship. As school leaders hire peer coaches, they should look for people who are servant leaders and have a central desire to help. These potential coaches need to be professional and approachable.

Further, a desire for power will certainly destroy any peer coaching relationship. Often the best potential coaches do not even see themselves as leaders as they are focused on helping rather than feeding an ego. As such, school leaders often need to convince the best coaches of their potential.

Coaches need to establish a “safe place” through trust. Trust is earned over time and is maintained daily through actions. Sadly, trust can be destroyed with a single action. When this occurs, it can take a lot of time to regain trust to reestablish an effective coaching relationship. Sometimes, the trust is never regained.

Effective peer coaching relationships hinge completely on this earned trust. The mentee needs to know the coach is there to help. A peer coach should not be seen as evaluative or supervisory. This addition would contradict the coaching relationship. As such, a peer coach should never enter a classroom with a notepad ready to take detailed notes. Instead these coaches encourage and assist teachers as they work toward goals.

As the coach and mentee proceed through the change process, modeling becomes a critical piece of effective coaching. The pair can co-teach lessons. Also, the coach can model some lessons as the mentee observes and reflects. After the lessons are complete, the pair can reflect further and analyze feedback.

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