by Dr. Emily Dexter, Researcher at the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

Fill in the blanks: 

“I’ve been a  teacher   for eight years.  For the past couple of them, my performance in the ______ room has reached a plateau.  I’d like to think it’s a good thing—I’ve arrived at my professional peak.  But mainly it seems as if I’ve just stopped getting better….

During the first two or three years in _________, your skills seem to improve almost daily…. Mastery is about familiarity and judgment.  You learn the problems that can occur during a particular _________ or with a particular _____, and you learn how to either prevent or respond to those problems….

Say you’ve got a  student  who needs ________.  These days, teachers  will typically ________________________. …

Even before you start, you need to make some judgments.  Unusual ___________, severe ______________, or ___________ could make it difficult to  teach this student.  You have to decide which ___________ method to use—there’s a range of options—or whether to abandon the high-tech approach and _________ the  lesson   the traditional way….

Over time, you learn how to head off problems, and when you can’t, you arrive at solutions with less fumbling and more assurance.  After eight years, I’ve taught more than two thousand ________________.  I’ve gained confidence in my ability to handle a wide range of situations, and to improvise when necessary.

As I went along, I compared my results against state  data, and I began beating the averages.  My rates of students failing the state test   moved steadily lower and lower.  And then, a couple of years ago, they didn’t.  It started to seem that the only direction things could go from here was the wrong one.

Maybe this is what happens when you turn forty-five.  Teaching  is, at least, a relatively late-peaking career.  It’s not like mathematics or baseball or pop music, where your best work is often behind you by the time you’re thirty.  Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master: the average age at which S.&P. 500 chief executive officers are hired is fifty-two, and the age of maximum productivity for geologists, one study estimated, is around fifty-four.  Teaching   apparently falls somewhere in between the extremes, requiring both physical stamina and the judgment that comes with experience….”

As you might have guessed, the paragraphs above are not from an article about teaching, but rather from an article in The New Yorker by Atwul Gawande about his experiences as a surgeon.  The article is called, “Personal Best: Top Athletes and Singers Have Coaches. Should You?  In this article, Gawande describes how he found himself a surgery coach when he felt his surgery skills had stopped improving.

While some of the article is about coaches for athletes, singers, and surgeons, a good third of the article is about coaches for… guess who: classroom teachers.  Gawande finds a trainer of classroom coaches and the two of them visit schools to observe and interview coaches and teachers.   Gawande, polymath that he is, gets it right: “Novice teachers often struggle with basic behavioral issues… good coaches know how to break performance down into its critical individual components… elite performers, researchers say, must engage in ‘deliberative practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”  Here’s my favorite quote from his article:

“Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.  The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short.  This is tricky.  Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended.  So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance.  The most common, however, is just conversation.”

So, if you want to learn more about classroom coaching or share a great essay about coaching with one of your colleagues, read Atwul Gawande’s  article in the October 3, 2011 volume of The New Yorker.

One thought on “Coaching

  1. What struck me about this article is that many leaders in the educator professional development field say we want to model our professional development on that of doctors and attorneys. According to this article, schools who have been using coaches in the way that Literacy Collaborative schools have done for 16+ years puts them ahead of the hospitals!

    I.e., Gawande had to come up with the idea to get a coach for himself, identify someone who could be a good coach, and arrange to have him observe him in the operating room and observe videos of his team. He also came up with the idea of watching other surgeons do operations, as teachers may do in peer coaching.

    Here’s some quotes I loved:
    “The sort of coaching that fosters effective innovation and judgment, not merely the replication of technique, may not be so easy to cultivate. Yet modern society increasingly depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for doing extraordinary things…. With a diploma, a few will achieve sustained mastery; with a good coach, many could.”

    He mentions having no qualms about asking for @$100K worth of surgical equipment to avoid major complications; but, “the three or four hours I’ve spent with [my coach] each month have almost certainly added more to my capabilities than any of this.”

    And finally, “Coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.”


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