Leading from the Middle

Summer 2012

By Joe Marchese

In the fall of 2007 — aware that the continuing professional development of teachers is paramount to quality education — John Baird, head of Westtown School (Pennsylvania), asked the faculty Professional Development Committee (PDC), consisting of faculty representatives from all three divisions of the school, to design a professional growth cycle as a framework for all continuing faculty growth and development efforts. Included in the charges to our committee were the following key points. The growth cycle must:

• meet the professional needs of all faculty members at the various stages of their career development and experience levels;

• promote collaboration and class visits among teachers, providing opportunities for continuing professional dialogue;

• provide teachers with a variety of choices for professional growth activities;

• promote adult growth that positively impacts student learning; and

• foster accountability and sharing of accomplishments among colleagues.

Our faculty PDC had already been working for several years to create a growth-oriented faculty culture through a variety of initiatives: summer reading programs, curriculum development grants, sabbatical opportunities, and, during in-service days, interdivisional conversations on a variety of curricular issues and themes (multiple intelligences, assessment, curriculum mapping, social-media literacy, and sustainability, to name a few). These programs served as a positive backdrop for taking the next step in furthering our growth as a professional community of learners.

The committee responded to the charge by creating a four-year professional growth cycle built around three specific themes: Collaboration & Outreach, Observation & Reflection, and Individual Choice. The fourth year of the cycle is a faculty member’s Evaluation Year. Under each of these thematic headings, the PDC included a menu of choices to get colleagues thinking about all the possibilities for growth. For example, one suggestion in the Collaboration & Outreach column is to plan and co-teach a unit with a colleague. Another is to create cross-divisional study groups on such topics as alternative forms of assessment or using multiple intelligences in the classroom. Yet a third is to investigate sharing student or teacher work using e-portfolios. During an Individual Choice Year, a teacher might develop a professional reading list, keep a journal, and write reviews for our school professional development newsletter. As faculty test out new ideas and projects during any given year, the committee plans to add these to the menu of options for colleagues to consider. The list will continue to grow and develop with each passing year.

Peer Coaching

What does the professional growth cycle have to do with peer coaching? The centerpiece of our work at Westtown each year is to create a strong set of individual goals that reflect the choices we are making from the growth cycle. Using the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) goal-setting model, each faculty member writes two goals yearly that are reviewed by the division principal in collaboration with the assistant head for faculty and staff development. If we want to promote collaboration and the development of a professional learning community, then the next logical question we asked ourselves in the evolution of our program was: How can we best support faculty in achieving their yearly professional goals?

Focusing on this question became the work of a second small committee that met for about four months between November 2008 and February 2009. This committee started by researching existing goals-coaching programs in a survey of about two dozen peer schools. Next, we invited Kathy Lintner, dean of faculty at Culver Academies (Indiana) and a presenter at the 2007 NAIS Annual Conference, to come to Westtown to discuss in-depth her school’s recent professional growth efforts in goal setting and faculty evaluation. Following a series of regular committee meetings, two daylong retreats, four interviews with other schools, and some personal model building by each member of the group, our committee came up with a goals-coaching design that is now in its third year of successful implementation.

During the spring of 2009, when members of our committee went to divisional faculty meetings to describe the specifics of the new program, we solicited the interest of teachers who wanted to coach and be coached. Colleagues who wanted to be coached needed only submit their names to a member of the committee. Those who wanted to coach, however, needed to complete a short application, be interviewed by a pair of committee members, and, if selected, agree to attend a training session in late August as well as monthly group check-in sessions throughout the year. In all, 28 participants (7 coaches and 21 coachees) volunteered for the pilot year of the program. The second- and third-year numbers were slightly smaller; however, working with a goals coach is now part of the four-year professional growth cycle. This means that approximately one-third of the faculty at Westtown will be coached during any given year.

Structured Collaboration

What have we learned? First and foremost, we have learned that it is important for teachers to have a structured way to talk with each other about their goals and to enter into professional collaboration. With coaching, teachers are more focused and feel more accountable in reaching their goals. The idea that teachers want to improve in their work has been reinforced in the experience of coaches and coachees. Our committee had recommended that coaching pairs meet once in an eight-week cycle. Our pairs meet, on average, once or twice a month. The committee also recommended that coaches and coachees be given release time from other duties in order to meet. Our pairs have worked out their own logistics and, to date, there have been no requests for release time. Not surprisingly, the committee’s notion of an ideal ratio of six colleagues per coach was far too high given the amount of time and the commitment coaching pairs give to the program. To do the job with the degree of personal excellence they expect of themselves and one another, our coaches want to work with one or two colleagues at most.

Training Coaches

We also learned that training is essential. Thanks to the work of Donna Elder and Wayne Padover, professors at National University in Los Angeles and experts in the art of peer coaching, Westtown goals coaches have a set of skills and the structure with which to engage in their work. Elder and Padover have conducted training sessions in August for all three years of the program. They introduce the components of various coaching models, practice listening and questioning strategies, and help our coaches with techniques of building rapport and gaining trust. 

It is also important to note that our head of school, associate head of school, and three division principals have participated in the training sessions as well. Elder and Padover also conducted a qualitative survey of coaches and coachees to assess the impact of the program in its first year of operation. The result? One hundred percent of the participants would recommend coaching to others and said they would work with a coach again; two-thirds of the coachees felt that coaching helped them to see new possibilities in working to achieve their goals; and 64 percent thought that coaches helped them solve problems. 

When asked to comment on the benefits of coaching as part of the survey, one teacher said, “It was most beneficial to me to have someone keep me focused and moving forward toward my one big goal. It would have been easy to put the goal aside as I get caught up in the everyday things I must do in my teaching.” Others noted the value of having the coach “focus full attention on listening and responding to me and my concerns” and on “relationship-building with a colleague, thinking aloud, having someone follow up with me after goal-setting.”

In short, the data supports our belief that these coaching conversations are positive and helpful in the professional growth of Westtown faculty.

Coaching Support

We also learned that regular coaches meetings facilitate continued skill building and problem solving, and reinforce the overall goals of the program. Each month, the coaches meet after school for about an hour with the coordinators of the program. During this time, coaches share any aspects of their conversations they want to review with the group (we maintain strict confidentiality), ask for help with an approach, or provide some new learning or insight from their experience. 

We also use part of the time to discuss some portion of a reading that Elder and Padover have suggested. This year, our text is Results Coaching by Kathryn M. Kee, et al.; last year, it was Coaching Conversations, by Linda M. Gross Cheliotes and Marceta A. Reilly. 

What we have found especially interesting are some of the unanticipated and yet powerful conversations that have developed during these coaching meetings. In the first year, for example, one coach’s summary of her meeting with a colleague caused us to take a look at adult development theory and life stages as they reflect on professional goals and themes. In the second year, based on the experience of one of the coaches, we applied the skills we learned about coaching to a case study of how to help an entire department of teachers, as a unit, set and follow through on their goals.

Coaching vs. Counseling

There is a difference between coaching and counseling. In a school where the relationships among faculty are close-knit and appreciated, it is easy for a coaching conversation about progress in meeting professional goals to morph into more casual conversation about personal issues or problems. The primary responsibility of the goals coach is to offer the opportunity for structured dialogue around an agreed upon set of parameters. Our reading and training have taught us that, in these sessions, we should stay focused on establishing a supportive environment, identifying actions and activities that will help colleagues achieve their goals, implementing the plan that the coach and coachee devise, and then reflecting on the coaching experience. Using a Peer Coaching Agreement and Peer Coaching Log can help both colleagues in the relationship to stay focused and on track.

Engaged Faculty

The goals-coaching process that we have shaped at Westtown is practical, effective, and energizing without being burdensome and unrealistic. The director of teaching and learning keeps track of the professional growth cycle of each faculty member and tries to keep the bookkeeping simple. Two veteran teachers direct our peer-coaching program: create the pairings, maintain contact with our trainers, set the schedule for our monthly check-ins, chair these meetings, and act as a support to individual coaches as needed. What has been most meaningful, however, in the professional dialogue that we have created in this coaching process, is the learning that takes place on both sides of the equation. 

Not only do the coachees benefit from the structured conversations that help them to meet their yearly goals, but the coaches also report learning more about themselves as teachers, their styles as professionals, and their capacity to be better listeners. As one coach said during one of our recent monthly check-in meetings, “I feel that I am learning as much in this process from my coachee as I am helping him meet his goals.” 

Building an authentic community of learners means encouraging colleagues of all age and experience levels to engage in an ongoing dialogue about teaching and learning and to support one another’s professional growth. Doing so offers each of us the opportunity, as our head of school is fond of saying, “to work toward our growing edge” in an atmosphere of collaborative learning.


Bloom, G., Castagna, C., Moir, E., and Warren, B. (2005). Blended Coaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Cheliotes, L. and Reilly, M. (2010). Coaching Conversations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Elder, D. and Padover, W. (March 2011). Coaching as a Methodology to Build Professional Practice. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching (4)1, 137–143.

Haughey, Duncan. “SMART Goals.” Project Smart.co.uk. Project Smart, 2011. Web. 15 Apr. 2011. www.projectsmart.co.uk/‌smart-goals.html.
Joe Marchese

Joe Marchese is assistant head of school, faculty and staff development, at Westtown School (Pennsylvania).