Reflections on Peer Coaching

I embarked on a project where I undertook the role of peer coach. Using the communication skills and logistical training from class, I enhanced my coaching skills over a ten week period. I’m not a stranger to coaching, in a former career I counseled patients on therapeutic diets, diet change, and overcoming barriers to change, using very similar principles.  In fact, I became quite nostalgic all throughout this process. The strange and unfamiliar term of “peer coaching”became comfortable and familiar once concepts like “probing questions”, and “building rapport” came to light. With no billing hours and diagnosis to defend (mainly to insurance) peer coaching felt quite light and freeing in comparison to coaching in a medical application.

The project itself consisted of enlisting the help of a peer who would be willing to undergo a collaborative revision of an existing lesson plan. The idea was to spend time building rapport and establishing set roles for each peer prior to the collaborative process.  The collaboration would then focus on one major area of concern to be improved in the lesson plan.  Following this revision, both parties would reflect on the process to provide feedback.

The Coaching Process

To start the project, I partnered with a former supervisor, SK, who is very open-minded to incorporating technology in the classroom. She had been wanting to explore new ways to use technology in online and blended courses beyond simple course management.  She felt that online classes tended to be boring or isolating because most are designed to be “work at your own pace” and independent. Faced with planning a new blended course set to go live during the next academic year, SK sought me out for suggestions.  Throughout the peer coaching process, we had four face-to-face meetings (where the majority of the collaboration was performed) while also communicating follow-up items via email.  A summary of these encounters are provided below:

First Meeting. In our first meeting, SK shared more information about her new course intended to be a blended classroom with community engagement components.  Beyond the course description, the only other information established were the course objectives she had developed after reviewing textbooks with similar themes. 

After understanding more about the scope of the work, we established our roles, expectations for our time together, and ended our session by creating a SMART goal that would guide our future work. The expectations for me in the coaching role were clear, I was to facilitate the assessment- and course calendar- development process, keeptrack of our progress towards achieving our goal, and provide key resources needed to complete the work.  My peer would then complete all other work necessary to continue to the next phase.

infographic of SMART Goal for the peer coaching project.
Figure 1.1 SMART Goal for Peer Coaching Project

As part of this first phase of coaching, I also met with my direct supervisor to share the above information and ensure that our work aligns with departmental goals.  Interestingly, this discussion coincided with a revamp of the departmental goals unrelated to this project. Later in the quarter, technology incorporation and digital citizenship were included as new goals. With this new vision, our coaching work aligned with our departmental values.Our supervisor was very encouraging, supportive, and wanted feedback regarding the results of our collaboration at the end of the process.

Second Meeting. Prior to our second meeting, I began reflecting on SK’s goals and our previous conversations. Given that the course objectives were already established, I wondered if the “Backward Design” model would be a good starting point for our work.  I verbalized this intention to my peer via email which also included resources on “Backward Design”.  During our second meeting, we took a closer look at the established course objectives and began identifying thinking skills that would satisfy each objective.  We soon discovered that one objective in particular required both low order- and higher order- thinking skills to successfully complete.  SK expressed a desire use this objective as our starting point since it was the largest and most complicated.  We agreed that we would develop a unit around this objective that would then serve as a model for the subsequent objectives/units.

Third Meeting. At the end of our second meeting, SK expressed a concern about her choice of text, wondering if it was the best option available. I had suggested using multiple sources that would be updated more frequently including websites,journal articles, and open source textbooks. I promised to provide a few databases on open source materials so SKcould review prior to our third meeting.

SK made good use of the databases and had established a rough draft of the course calendar.  In the calendar she separated big topics into one-week units along with associated learning outcomes for each unit.  For the big unit we had decided to focus on,SK developed a three-week timeline with associated reading assignments and engagement activities.  For the reminder of our meeting, we discussed the engagement activities at length focusing on any potential technology integration that would allow for collaboration.

Fourth Meeting.  By this time, we had already met our SMART goal.  Prior to meeting, I used our loosely-defined definition of engagement (including active learning,collaboration, and participation) and made notes on the unit’s learning activities for future consideration. These suggestions were mainly to address prior concerns of isolation in traditional blended classrooms. We went through these suggestions.  My peer expressed a desire to stop our work for the time being as she was happy with our progress and wanted time to reflect upon the ideas explored in this last meeting.

Infographic on summary of engagement tasks of the big unit.
Figure 1.2 Summary of Engagement Tasks in Big Unit

Feedback and Reflections

At the end of our peer coaching relationship, SK provided positive feedback on our progress.  She was happy that we were able to remain on task to meet our SMART within our allotted time despite very busy schedules.She appreciated the ability to ask for suggestions and bounce ideas off of eachother.  Talking through ideas was helpful for understanding how each component could be more engaging in an onlinesetting.  Despite our momentum in organizing the blended classroom, SK noted that she will be taking sabbatical making our last meeting an excellent stopping point. 

Taking from an outside perspective, one of my colleagues, LB, reviewed the progress outlined above and agreed to provide feedback.  LB’s comments and reactions to the project were positive and focused on three aspects:

1) Coaching relationship; she noted that the relationship my peer and I had worked well to help us achieve our goals. Having established clear expectations early on ensured the accountability my peer wanted to gain a head start in course development. 

 2) Unit organization; though my peer and I didn’t plan and evaluate a lesson plan,which was the original scope of this project, LB commented on the process of developing the unit.  She noted that the assessment components of our chosen unit appeared fun, engaging, and meaningful for students.

3) Coaching skills; LB and I shared experiences during this project.LB commented on the fact that I performed my coaching skills well.  While I think my past experiences partially reflect this, I do also think that my success is rooted in the fact that my peer is also an experienced collaborator and understood what a collaborative partnership should look like.

Personal Reflections.

Things that went well. Taking LB’s comments into consideration and reflecting back on my performance, I had an overall positive experience. Mypeer and I were very appreciative of one another’s efforts towards the progression of our project. We stood by our established expectations and fulfilled our roles accordingly.  One aspect that was a little surprising for me was the fact that my peer saw me as a subject matter expert and expected this type of coaching style.  Interestingly, I did not see myself as the“expert”, opting instead for a more collaborative coaching style. In the end,my role/style morphed into a little of both. One delightful discovery my peer and I made through our brainstorming and collaborative efforts, we used our strengths to explore a creative way to use Pinterest as a visual timeline for a major project.  By using what knowledge I had about existing technologies, and collaborating by offering lots of options and suggestions for their use, my peer could choose the option that was right for the course or the one she felt most comfortable exploring.

In addition to responding to my peer’s expectations well, another strength of this project was our communication style. Because SK and I worked together previously, we had already established rapport and understood our working styles. SK knew that her preferences would be honored throughout this process and her decisions would be supported because she was encouraged to express herself open and honestly. Most of our communication was through face-to-face interaction with only supported our good communication. Email communication was limited to follow up emails.  These follow-ups were helpful to ensure accountability by both parties. Each email would review past conversations, action items to be completed prior to the next meeting, and any resolutions to concerns, such as the opensource databases. 

On a curious note, SK felt very motivated to complete her part in a timely manner because she was very respectful of the fact that this was an assignment for me and she didn’t want to “mess up” my project.

Things that could have been improved. LB mentioned several times that she enjoyed the layout and the organization of the assignments prepared for the big unit as a strong feature to the project.  However, I cannot take credit for the organization as my peer completed this work.  SK knew what she wanted and I served as resource to help her reach that goal. Because of this, I feel that I didn’t really do anything aside from give options and opinions of the information my peer brought forth.  I must recognize however that this is what my peer wanted and in this particular coaching scenario, it worked well. In the future, I would also like to improve my communication skills to be more in line with the prescribed communication methods learnt in this course.  Should I collaborate with a peer that isn’t as clear with what they want, the probing and clarifying questioning skills are going to prove crucial to success.

While the topics of our meetings were loosely set previously, I never created agendas or had any particular topics to review aside from the backwards design model. Keeping the meetings loose did allow for more open-ended exploration of our goals but I wonder what the outcome could have been if I had better defined our meetings? Again,this style worked well for this particular coaching scenario, but I’d like to keep this idea in mind for a future coaching partner who perhaps needs more structure or guidance.

Thoughts on coaching for the future. I would love to incorporate a coaching culture in my department. Working with SK was not only an opportunity to help her gain ideas and resources for her new class, but it was also an opportunity to get to know one another in a different environment. Our collaboration was meaningful and fruitful.  

Though we currently do not have a one-on-one coaching program in my department, we have classroom observations as one of our required professional development strategies.Therefore the basic idea and structure is already in place.  I’d like to expand upon that work to create a more constructive professional development environment where professors move away from work in isolation to work in collaboration. I’ve already begun exploring coaching culture in a previous blog post available here. Moving forward, I would need department input and an assessment of current thoughts and attitudes towards peer coaching. Should the department approve, more meaningful and fruitful interactions would allow 21st Century skills to thrive in our courses.