Building the Capacity for Peer Coaching within a High School Mathematics Department

Building the Capacity for Peer Coaching within a High School Mathematics Department

By Scott Galson

Building the Capacity for Peer Coaching within a High School Mathematics Department

What does a department of eight high school math teachers do when they want to improve their instruction and students’ learning when instructional coaches are not at their disposal?  They work collaboratively with one another through peer observation and coaching. And, together, they look for common areas of growth on which they can all focus as they move forward as individual teachers and as a department.

Background on Peer Coaching

Peer coaching is “a process where teams of teachers regularly observe one another and provide support companionship, feedback, and assistance” and peer coaches have expertise in collaboration and inquiry (Killion et al., 2012, p. 42).  While these roles and qualities should be true to any instructional coach, I believe that peer coaches’ knowledge of course curricula, department norms and relationships, and student learning capacity add even more to the potential impact of instructional coaching. 

In our department, where common lessons, assessments, and shared reflection are the norm, there are benefits from coaching one another.  We are already a team of teachers who are well-practiced at collaboration and continual feedback.  During our “prep” periods and via email communication, we banter back and forth about the effectiveness of lesson activities (“That activity needed more scaffolding in the opening problems.”), what we learn about student understanding from individual assessments (“Students didn’t understand what work needed to be shown to support their answer.”), and ways we might teach concepts differently next time (“I wonder if we do trig for any angle before we introduce the unit circle next year.”).  Breaking the walls of the instructional time with our students via peer observation and coaching seemed to be the best next step to further improving how we teach and our students learning.

How does peer coaching work?

Peer coaching works through mutual respect and trust of one another’s capacity to teach effectively and the shared understanding that improving teaching is an ongoing and never ending process. It also gives participants equal responsibility to act as coach and client at different times without either party playing the role of the expert.  By this definition, peer coaching is not evaluative in that it does not set out to evaluate teachers’ effectiveness. (Killion, et al, 2012) 

Furthermore, peer coaching involves what Jim Knight describes as the seven partnership principles: equality, choice, voice, reflection, dialogue, praxis, and reciprocity (Knight, 2007).  While many coaching sessions will focus on praxis, or the hope to identify actionable steps toward improving instruction and student learning, the collaborative nature of fellow teachers observing and coaching will undoubtedly require the other six partnership principles in order to be productive.

Convincing teachers that peer coaching is a way they can improve their instruction and students’ learning is paramount its effectiveness. Not every department or department member may want to involve themselves in peer coaching as a part of professional development. The process involves vulnerability as teachers open their classrooms and teaching up to the scrutiny of others. However, as Wise and Sundstrom (2011) note, it is important for teachers to recognize the intentions of coaches by clearly stating the purpose of the coaching and “soliciting the ideas and feedback on what the teacher’s own goals and expectations are.”  Elisa MacDonald (2011) suggests that having a teacher leader “go first” in a coaching situation may help their peers better understand how the coaching process works and to model productive collaborative conversations regarding teaching and student learning.

How I began

In my school, departments must develop, implement, and evaluate continuous improvement work plans for their schools and departments. These plans focus on student learning goals and what supports are needed for teachers to meet those goals.  Following the cycle of inquiry, my department was ready to gather data on issues that each of us felt we would like to address within our classes in hopes to identify a common focus for our department moving forward.  We debated several ideas for collecting data from our classes, and, in the end, we all agreed that peer observation and coaching was the best way to collect that data.  The collaborative nature of peer coaching is one that would help us best define and analyze data as well provide different points of view on the lesson and the behavior of the students and the teacher within each of our classrooms. Furthermore, peer coaching is a good fit for the collaborative culture of our teaching team.

Teacher Pairing

Teachers were paired in a way that enabled each to be able to observe the other during one of their free periods.  We also decided that we would observe the other teach a class level that we did not teach. For example, since I taught Precalculus and AP Statistics, I would observe a peer teach a class that was neither of those classes. This was done because many of us already  spend time observing our each other teach a class that we also teach.

Pre-observation process

Teacher pairs met for about 45 minutes to determine the focus questions for one another’s observation and when the observations were to take place.  For example, my partner was wondering about the amount and distribution of student voice that was invoked by a lesson’s activities.  Teacher pairs also decided what data was to be collected and how it was to be collected.  My partner wanted to know how often students asked questions and contributed ideas in whole class and small group discussions, and we believed it was best for me to tally students’ questions and ideas on a copy of her seating chart.

Post-Observation process

After both observations were completed, teacher pairs met for 45 minutes to debrief their observations. I advised them to start each conversation with a positive substantive comment about the class they observed and then to review the focus of the observation and the data that was asked to be collected so the conversation was centered on the goal of analyzing the data collected on teaching and student behavior.

I also gave my colleagues set of post-observation questions to help the peer coach center the conversation around the teacher identified focus and the data collected. These questions were adapted from Jim Knight’s post-observation questions in his article “3 Steps to Great Coaching” (Knight, 2015):

  1. How do you feel your lesson went in regards to your focus question?
  2. How does the data help you answer your focus question?
  3. How does the data influence your future instruction?
  4. What new questions arise from this data?

When the teacher pairs completed both post-observation conversations, I asked them to reflect on the peer coaching process.  Questions included the following:

  1. Was this process productive? 
  2. Did you feel comfortable with giving and receiving feedback and drawing conclusions from the data?
  3. What did you learn about yourself during this peer coaching process?

Common Reflection

We met again as a department to debrief our observation and peer coaching cycle two weeks after it began.  My colleagues’ unanimous response to the peer coaching process was positive, even excited.  In fact, my colleagues were ready to start another cycle of peer coaching to delve further into their focus questions.  

Our meeting started with each person giving a quick 3 minute summary of their focus question on instruction and student learning, the data that was collected, what they learned from the data, and one thing they were still wondering about regarding their focus question.  My notes on this wrap-around discussion (via a shared Google Doc) provided a basis for a new discussion centering around common trends in our focus questions and data.  We referred to the TRU Dimensions of Powerful Mathematics to help us identify how our focus questions aligned with each other in content, cognitive demand, equity, agency, and assessment (TRU, 2016).

While we found some common threads (e.g. cognitive demand, agency, etc.) in our subsequent discussion, we all agreed that it was better to participate in another round on peer coaching than to settle on one or two aspects of our teaching for our department’s focus for the next school year.  While our reasons were not all the same for continuing the peer coaching cycles (some of us wanted to dive deeper into their focus questions and others wanted to take a new angle at data collection on their focus), everyone was excited about learning more about their instruction and their students’ learning with the help of a colleague.  I see that as a department-wide investment in inexpensive, yet invaluable professional development. 

Works Cited

Killion, J., Harrison, C., Bryan, C., Clifton H.. (2012).  Coaching Matters.  Oxford, OH: Learning Forward.

Knight, J.. (2007). Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Knight, J., Elford, M., Hock, M., Dunekack, D., Bradley, B., Deshler, D., Knight, D.. (2015).  3 Steps to Great Coaching. JSD, 36(1), 11-18.

MacDonald, E.. (2011).  When Nice Won’t Suffice. JSD, 32(3), 45-51.

Teaching for Robust Understanding of Mathematics. (2016, March 2). Retrieved from

Wise, J. & Sundstrom, D.. (2011). Power of Teaching: Teachers and Teaching. Portland, OR: Northwest Evaluation Association.

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