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Open Doors, Open Minds: 6 Tips for Effective Peer Coaching

by Sarah Hodge |

Dating back to the 1980s with research by Beverly Showers and Bruce Joyce, peer coaching, sometimes called collegial coaching, sees educators enter into a reciprocal observation-reflection cycle to learn, share, and grow. Peer coaching is different from top-down mentoring or supervisory coaching, where a more experienced mentor guides a less experienced teacher. In peer coaching, teachers open their doors and invite a trusted peer to observe their teaching, which helps them polish existing skills, learn new skills, or solve classroom-related problems.

How Peer Coaching Works

Teachers choose a trusted peer to conduct an observation. First, the observer and teacher meet in advance to identify specific goals or target areas for the class being observed. During the observation, which can range from 15-20 minutes to a class period, the observer collects data and observations about the previously identified areas.

During the postobservation conference, the observer focuses on what was observed during the class and uses reflective questions to help the observee to develop their own solutions and goals, rather than offering suggestions. The two then reverse roles, so each teacher is observed (and conducts an observation) several times throughout the peer coaching cycle.

Numerous studies have confirmed that peer coaching is an effective way to improve teaching skills. It offers several advantages over other forms of professional development: It is free, in-house, leverages existing organizational and educational expertise, and teachers and observers can choose times that are convenient for them.

6 Tips for Starting a Peer Coaching Program

Here are six tips for starting an effective peer coaching program at your school or institution:

  1. Establish and maintain trust. Peer coaching should be completely voluntary and confidential. Inviting an observer into your classroom can elicit feelings of anxiety or vulnerability, so it’s important that the observer is a trusted colleague chosen by the teacher being observed (not one assigned by management or the peer coaching coordinator). This sense of trust enables teachers to self-evaluate in a nonthreatening environment.
  2. Select a coaching configuration that meets your school’s needs. Peer coaching can consist of pairs or triads (a coach, coachee, and observer). Triads give each participant the opportunity to coach, to be coached, and to observe the coaching process.
  3. Develop a preobservation plan. Before the observation occurs, the teacher being observed identifies one or two areas of interest they would like the observer to focus on during the observation. This could include pacing, explanations of target grammar or vocabulary, balance of teacher talk to student talk, classroom management, transitions, or integration of educational technology. It’s important to only focus on one or two areas in a single observation; additional points can be addressed in a subsequent observation.
  4. Standardize and set clear expectations. Provide onboarding training, especially for those new to peer coaching. Have templates for the preobservation plan, observation notes, and postobservation conference prepared in advance. A participant guidebook that contains printable templates that can be easily modified is a useful resource.
  5. Give time for reflection: Allow a day or more after the observation before the postobservation conference. This allows both the teacher and observer time to reflect before meeting. There should be a self-reflection questionnaire for the teacher to fill out prior to the postobservation conference, and the observer should be trained to ask reflective, nonjudgmental questions, such as:
      • How did what happened compare to what you had planned?
      • What did your assessment of students tell you about how the lesson was going?
      • How could you imagine the class going differently? What options do you have to make that happen?
      • As you consider teaching this lesson again, what might you change to improve student learning?
  1. Practice active listening: During the pre- and postobservation conference, the observer should show interest through good eye contact, using nonverbal cues (e.g., nodding), asking reflective questions to encourage further responses, paraphrasing to ensure understanding, and withholding judgement.

When teachers take ownership of their professional development and focus on areas of improvement and innovation they’ve personally identified as important, it can be a powerful tool for growth.

About the author

Sarah Hodge

Sarah Hodge is a supervisory ESL instructor at the Defense Language Institute (DLI) English Language Center in San Antonio, Texas, USA. Since earning her MA TESOL in 2006, she has taught English as a foreign language, English for specific purposes, and English for academic purposes to thousands of international military officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians at DLI's resident campus as well as internationally. She has also developed curriculum, has conducted onboarding and teacher training, and was part of the Peer Coaching Initiative Working Group. A SMART Gold Ambassador and Lumio Certified Trainer, Sarah is passionate about integrating educational technology into the language classroom. Her research interests include bilingualism and language processing disorders.

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