How to coach a teacher

11Oct11

Atul Gawande is an American physician and surgeon who has, over the past 8 years, performed over 250 surgeries a year. This is not an unusual amount of surgeries, but what is a bit unusual is that Gawande also finds the time for his side-career as a journalist writing about medical issues for The New Yorker (and other publications). In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, he wrote a fascinating article about coaching in the medical profession.

You probably didn’t know that doctors were coached. Well, doctors aren’t commonly coached, since many believe it reflects poorly on their skills, abilities and professionalism. This is the genesis for Gawande’s article. As he notes in the article, Dr. Gawande thinks he has started to plateau as a surgeon.  After a a positive experience with a tennis coach, he enlists the help of a “surgery coach”, and looks at the role of coaching in other professions.

One example he points to is that of teachers. Teaching, like medicine (and other professions), is a job which seemingly relies on experience, and would be difficult to coach, due to it’s apparently freewheeling nature. It’s not as if you can practice being a teacher, then go out in the classroom and perform like you could with a piano. However, there is a program run by the University of Kansas called the Kansas Coaching Project that does just that. It pairs experienced teachers (the “coaches”) with classroom teachers to go over their teaching and see how it can be improved.

There is evidence that this type of mentoring helps teachers improve, as noted in the article:

California researchers in the early nineteen-eighties conducted a five-year study of teacher-skill development in eighty schools, and noticed something interesting. Workshops led teachers to use new skills in the classroom only ten per cent of the time. Even when a practice session with demonstrations and personal feedback was added, fewer than twenty per cent made the change. But when coaching was introduced—when a colleague watched them try the new skills in their own classroom and provided suggestions—adoption rates passed ninety per cent. A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect. Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.

The article gives an example of a coaching interaction between a teacher and her “coaches” (who are themselves experienced teachers). After the teacher goes through a lesson ( filled with ” “learning structures”—lecturing, problem-solving, cooperative learning, discussion.”), the coaches and teacher discuss the lesson – what went well, what didn’t, how to improve.

Teaching and coaching are very similar skills (I would argue two words which describe the same thing) so knowing the successful traits of a teacher can help one become a better coach (and vice versa). So what are the qualities of a good coach?   Being able to break down complicated tasks into their individual components, using a variety of approaches, including conversation:

They looked like three colleagues on a lunch break—which, Knight later explained, was part of what made the two coaches effective…Good coaches, [Knight] said, speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. Hobson and Harding “listened more than they talked,” Knight said. “They were one hundred per cent present in the conversation.” They also parcelled out their observations carefully. “It’s not a normal way of communicating—watching what your words are doing,” he said.

It’s clear from these descriptions (and Dr. Gawande’s own experience with a coach, which comes later in the article) that being a top performer requires lots of self-reflection, but this is not enough. A healthy dose of collaboration and mentorship from those around you can go a long way, something which I hope becomes more common in the teaching profession.

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