Coaching Teachers

There was ninety-five pounds on the ground in front of me and I was supposed to lift it over my head in one movement.  My previous max was seventy-five pounds.  I was not thrilled, and a little nervous, at the prospect of moving straight from a naked bar (45#) to ninety-five.

Then he said “you’ve got this.  Just pick it up.”

And I did.  And I PRed my snatch by twenty pounds.  Just like that.  Then I did eight more snatches at ninety-five pounds.  Then I did twelve snatches at one hundred and fifteen pounds.  At the end of about fifteen minutes I’d hit a PR on the snatch by forty pounds.  Not because I was any stronger than when I’d walked into the gym.  Because of coaching.  My trainer was right in front of me giving me useful feedback on my form, consistent encouragement, and the unwavering belief that I was fully capable of the task he’d set in front of me.

This is why coaching is so powerful.  Before that day I’d been scared to even power clean more than ninety-five pounds, let alone snatch it.  After that workout I feel much more comfortable with the movement and increasing my weight.

Ten minutes of feedback and coaching and I’m feeling empowered.

This success through coaching is possible in education as well as physical exercise.

There is an article in The New Yorker (Oct. 2011) where a surgeon made the connection that athletes like Raphael Nadal and LeBron James continue to employ coaches despite their incredible ability (often many coaches).  He then posited that it would be logical then to have a coach for his surgery to act as an additional set of eyes and provide feedback so he could improve his practice, thus drawing to attention how our best athletes are continually coached throughout their careers, yet other professions receive no coaching after their introductory education.

Teaching fits directly into this no-coaching category.  As a teacher with four years of experience, I receive direct feedback from my evaluator only twice a year.  In my first year I was observed three times, though the third was more of a formality of the hiring process and I was given zero feedback from that last observation.

I’ve had the benefit of helpful administrators and as such have found the observation process valuable.  I’m provided with strong feedback that allows me to improve my practice.  Additionally my administrators have been anything but punitive and we’re able to have an open discussion about what went on in the classroom.  Every time I’m observed I learn something I can improve and I’ve incorporated much of that feedback into regular practice.

I appear to be something of an anomaly though.  Many of my co-workers (and I’ve worked at four schools) have anxiety related to the observation process.  There is a general fear that their practice will be criticized, punitive measures will be taken, and the idea that they might fail in some respect.  The solution is clear to me: more coaching.

We need to move the current high stakes observation model into a coaching model.  Every time a professional sports team practices they have a coach running the practice.  When the athletes train individually the invariably have personal trainers to help them improve.  This is what we need for teachers as well.

I understand that it is unreasonable for a teacher to have a one to one ratio with a coach at all times.  As valuable as that might be, there are more efficient options.  I particularly reasonable option would be to open up funding for strong teachers to become coaches.  This could be a progressive system where teachers who show individual leadership can move from teaching five classes, to teaching four, but having a coaching responsibility within their department.  As they improve as coaches they could move to increasing their coaching responsibility.  This would allow successful teachers to pass on institutional knowledge about pedagogy and curriculum to new teachers, and it would allow for career path options for older teachers.  This would serve to help new teachers and prevent burnout among veterans.

Additionally moving to a coaching model would allow teachers to be observed more frequently.  By increasing the frequency of observations two main things will be achieved.  First with more observations the relative stakes of a single observations are significantly lower.  You know there will be more chances to show your ability and “one bad day” will not be as detrimental.  Secondly this will give administrators a substantially better sample of what a given teacher’s classroom looks like.  The coaching teacher need only write up a brief report of their observations to work in conjunction with the current administrator-centered evaluation system.

In the current model many teachers gear up for an observation, pull out their “great lesson”, and plan the day down to the detail.  I know teachers who report using the same lesson (or style of lesson) when they are observed for multiple years in a row.  For unscheduled observations teachers will go into hyperdrive for a week or two once they hear a colleague has been observed and then relax back into their normal routine once their observation is passed.  I am personally guilty of both of these practices and while they have helped me get excellent evaluations, they do not necessarily push me to improve my practice in the way that regular coaching has in my athletic endeavors.

If we want to improve instruction on a broad level coaching and mentorship are necessary.  Administrators are already overextend and coaching is something that peer teachers and department heads could do if it were properly built into a school’s schedule and budget.  Continuing to ask more of our education system without providing the appropriate support structures will not create change.

One of the main positive aspects of standards based grading is the students’ ability to show mastery of a learning target multiple times.  This process can work with training teachers as well.  The country continually points out failing schools, inadequate teachers, and a general decline in the quality of public education.  We are accused of having a broken public education system.  In my experience, most teachers want to provide high quality education to their students.  These teachers have the heart.  They have the desire to be great.  What they need is guidance and education on how to achieve greatness.  We tell students that they have support and that even the best of the best only succeed with strong support structures.  It is time to add that support structure to our teachers.

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