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September 22, 2022
ASCD Blog

“Fishbowl” Coaching: Helping Leaders Find Their Voice

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How group observational feedback helps leaders learn from one another.
Professional Learning
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Credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
Having only taught in the classroom a few years, I felt like a fish out of water in my first days as an instructional coach. I mimicked district coaches’ behaviors, which often involved vague feedback and arbitrary pats on the back. Desperate to find my voice as a coach, I knew I needed training to help me build technical skills, from capturing observation notes to planning coaching conversations. A year later, I participated with coaches across the country in a training session organized by the Center for Transformative Teacher Training (CT3) and Teach for America. During the training, I was introduced to “fishbowl” coaching—and I finally felt like I learned how to swim.

“Fishbowl” Coaching

Imagine a fish tank at a popular aquarium. The fish swim along with no attention paid to the humans outside the glass. In “fishbowl” coaching, it’s much the same way. Similar to the format of fishbowl discussions in a classroom, a coach and a teacher engage in a coaching session while other coaches sit in a circle around them and observe the live interaction. The coach and teacher discuss the observation, set a narrow priority, and practice a transferable teaching skill that impacts student learning. During the conversation, the other coaches take notes and prepare feedback for the coach. This process allows everyone in the room to learn from each other how to structure and conduct meaningful conversations that they can then apply in their own coaching practice.
After a couple of days of initial training, it was time for my first fishbowl coaching. I felt like I was sweating through my clothes with seven sets of eyes watching my every move. I sat down with Ms. Jones, the teacher I had observed a few hours earlier. I gripped my coaching plan in my hand and launched into my conversation. After Ms. Jones left the room, it was my turn in the hot seat. Each of the seven other coaches had an opportunity to give me feedback.
Liz, a coach from Nashville, said, “Jo, did you enable student misbehavior with your students when you first started teaching?”
“Oh, yes,” I said.
“You do it with adults, too. You asked Ms. Jones a tough question and then you dialed it back. You were uncomfortable with making her uncomfortable about feedback she needed to hear,” Liz explained.
Not only was this an important learning moment for me, the other six coaches heard it, too.
It was Coach Jamie’s turn to be observed next. She sat down with Mr. Hartford, a first-year math teacher with no background in teaching. Mr. Hartford was struggling in the classroom and needed to hear some hard feedback. Learning from my experience, Jamie didn’t back off. She pushed Mr. Hartford to consider his own beliefs about his students, asking tough questions he needed to consider. After Mr. Hartford practiced a new teaching skill and Jamie gave him feedback, he left the room. The coaches looked at each other and quietly cheered for Jamie. She had taken the feedback that I had received and immediately applied it.
This example illustrates the power of “fishbowl” coaching—a day full of constructive feedback for everyone in the group. We all benefited from each other’s successes and failures. Even the feedback that we gave each other strengthened our coaching skills.

District Efforts to Improve Coaching

It’s been a decade since I was introduced to “fishbowl” coaching, and teacher shortages have become an exponentially urgent problem, leaving school leaders to do on-the-job training at alarming rates. As a result, school districts have recognized the need to build a critical mass of instructional leaders. As a nonprofit leader, I was contracted with a district that had invested in the “fishbowl” approach for the last two years because nearly two-thirds of the new teachers were emergency certified. The district recognized that three days of new teacher orientation is not equivalent to a four-year degree. They needed strong instructional coaching.
Twenty-seven leaders learned the basics of coaching over a few days of initial training. They watched videos and role-played. Then, over a period of a few months, each leader got time to “take it live,” putting the “fishbowl” approach into practice. Here's what it looked like:
  • Observation. All coaches observed a teacher at the same time and (mostly) independently and took low-inference notes (objective and quantitative evidence collected in the classroom, rather than the observer’s judgments).
  • Action Steps and Preparation. The group got together and reviewed the observational evidence, selected their action steps, and prepared their conversations.
  • Fishbowl. Then, they practiced the much-anticipated “fishbowl” sessions. Each coach executed their conversation with their own teacher in front of their peers while the others took notes.
  • Feedback and Practice Again. The coach then received feedback from each person in the group using the sentence frame, “It was effective when…. Next time try….” If time allowed, the coach practiced the conversation with another coach in a role-play format, responding to the feedback that they just received. 
Like me, the coaches responded to the feedback that their colleagues received, making each conversation stronger and stronger. As a result of these efforts, we have seen a 36 percent increase in the effectiveness of the conversation across the 27 district coaches in just two years, according to a rubric that included the effectiveness of praise, clarity of the action, practice, feedback, and questioning. Thanks to this practice, teachers are having more meaningful, empirically based coaching conversations that accelerate their growth to impact student achievement.

The Dangers of “Fishbowl” Coaching

“Fishbowl” coaching comes with risks. School leaders who want to initiate “fishbowl” coaching to improve coaching skills should consider a number of factors when rolling out this type of training and support for coaches.
  • Danger 1: Making the Teacher Uncomfortable. It can be uncomfortable to receive feedback, but this feeling can be exponentially magnified when others are watching. Carefully frame the experience. Consider livestreaming the conversation using Zoom so the other coaches can watch together in another room; this will help the "spotlighted" coach and teacher feel like they are engaged a private conversation.
  • Danger 2: Selecting the Wrong Teacher. Generally, not all teachers are open to public feedback. Any coaching conversation can go south—the teacher can disagree with the feedback, resist the suggestions, or even be combative. To reduce the likelihood of this happening, the coach should be intentional about their teacher selection. The teacher should fit the following criteria: 1) High trust between the teacher and coach (consider some pre-fishbowl conversations to help build this), 2) the teacher has responded positively to feedback in the past, and 3) the teacher possesses some basic foundational skills such as giving directions or managing classroom transitions.
  • Danger 3: “Exposing” the Coach. All coaches enter “fishbowl” coaching at various levels. Some possess observational, instructional, and interpersonal skills while others may have a lot of room to grow. If there is a serious performance difference among the coaches, it may become painfully obvious to the group. While “fishbowl” coaching is meant to reveal gaps in performance, it is not meant to leave coaches feeling defeated or embarrassed. Beginning coaches should ask for some additional practice with a trusted peer or supervisor prior to the “fishbowl” day.
  • Danger 4: Breaking School or District Agreements and Policies. Every school has different policies about observations outside of traditional evaluation periods as described by negotiated agreements. School leaders must examine policies closely before undergoing the fishbowl process.

Stronger Leaders, Stronger Schools

Just like teaching, coaching requires a specific set of skills, which must be developed and refined. Districts can leverage fishbowl coaching to accelerate the growth of instructional leaders. Ultimately, if coaches are more effective, their teachers will be more effective—and their students will achieve at higher levels. 
Now, as I start my coaching days with school districts, I often see the nervousness on coaches’ faces. While it can be a challenge to practice in front of peers, it is a positive pressure. As the old saying goes, “You cannot create a diamond without pressure.” And diamonds they are becoming.

Jo Lein is an author, consultant, and professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of the Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization that brings instructional coaching to under-resourced districts and trains existing leaders in areas of instructional leadership. She is also currently the co-chair on the Commission for Oklahoma’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

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