Imagine This: Everyone Gets a Coach
Everything I had thought about coaching in education changed when I read the article “Personal Best” by Atul Gawande several years ago. In the article, we learn that eight years into his surgical career, the author felt his surgical skills had plateaued as compared to the steady upward growth he experienced during the initial launch into his professional work. And so he asked a former instructor to observe him during surgical procedures and serve as a coach. He shared that the first procedure he did while being observed went incredibly smoothly. Or so he thought. His coach provided two pages of “small things” that, from his coach’s vantage point, affected his work in ways that offered opportunities for improvement. The coach pointed out that shifting his arm or foot position could offer greater stability while working. He noticed how the surgical light moved during the procedure, thus changing the amount of direct light shining on the wound. These “outside eyes,” as Gawande described it, along with several months of continued observations and follow-up conversations, offered Gawande the chance to get better at his job.
As Gawande discusses, all professionals in some fields have coaches. Often the most accomplished in those fields have more than one coach. Consider elite athletes: A world-class runner might have coaches for technique, for breathing, and for motivation. Singers and actors also may have many coaches, perhaps one for voice, one for diction and accents, and another for body movement. Gawande interviewed several top athletes and singers, and they told him they would never work without a coach. This idea struck me very strongly because teaching doesn’t automatically include coaching. In fact, many teachers’ gut reactions to working with a coach is somehow associated with the notion that their professional skills aren’t good enough.
Another thing about coaches who work with athletes and performers is that they are often chosen by, and work for, the performers themselves. While the coach may teach skills to improve performance, their work is collaborative, intensely personal, and based on what the professional wants to achieve. Even when a coach is hired by someone else—for example, a batting coach on a baseball team—it is understood that the coaching relationship must be based on common goals and a good relationship. With teaching, this relationship can often feel quite different. Coaches often are hired by administrators and assigned to teachers. The work may be based on what someone outside the classroom—or even outside the school—has decided is important, instead of being based on teachers’ needs and what is relevant for them.
One thing athletes, singers, actors, and teachers do have in common is that they all do their work in real time; each event is different and cannot be edited once it is done, unlike painting or a piece of writing that can be adjusted and corrected endlessly over time. Yet, there is always room for improvement. In teaching, there are always students who don’t understand as well as we may want, or whose skills must be improved. There are also those students who do well, but who we’d like to see delve more deeply into content areas so as to find beauty and joy in subject matter. And of course there’s always new content, new technology, new skills, or new rules or time constraints on the horizon that contribute to the always-moving professional targets.
We, like athletes and performers, cannot observe ourselves as we work, and there are several elements of my teaching that I might want “outside eyes” to notice and document. For example, I wonder about the questions I ask, and how I ask them. I ask myself such things as:
- Do my questions facilitate or inhibit student thinking?
- What effects do my language and pacing have on student responses?
- Do my questions invite creative thinking?
- Do my questions pique curiosity, or are they perhaps threatening?
- Are my questions meeting the needs and interests of particular students?
- How quickly do I speak and how long do I wait before engaging with student responses?
Individual student learning can be profoundly influenced by our questions. For example, using open-ended questions with student-friendly vocabulary might help a child think about complex ideas, even though they have trouble remembering new words. Speaking slowly, with a pleasant affect, and giving students time to think and rehearse, might help these students while also supporting those who have anxiety related to mathematics. Perhaps changing my questioning practices could support students who may be apprehensive about sharing their ideas. A coach could help me see the things I cannot see.
I also could use help from outside eyes on the physical and social setup of my classroom. I am interested in an outside perspective on
- the ways I could help students take greater ownership and responsibility for our space;
- changes I could make to the physical environment to encourage students to take charge of their learning by independently choosing and using the learning tools available to them;
- where resources should ideally be located, given the rhythm and pace of our classroom;
- routines and procedures that could facilitate more productive academic conversations among students.
I’m quite certain that outside eyes could really help any of us improve our practice. However, it can’t be just anyone in that role. My coach would have to be someone I trust and am comfortable talking about the areas in which I would like to grow. This would have to be someone whose opinion I value, and someone who wants to collaborate with me in improving my practice. Being watched and critiqued and exposing one’s professional foibles are scary. How do I find the courage to be that vulnerable, and how do I find the right person to coach me? I can think of a couple of people, and I’m guessing that many of us actually do know someone who could be a good coach for ourselves. A peer coach can play this role. I’m guessing, too, that each of us could find the strength to be exposed so we could get better at what we do.
One example of how a productive relationship can improve teaching and student learning involves my colleague, Amy Withers. She was coaching a teacher who was very interested in having students take more ownership of their learning and do more thinking about mathematical ideas. On a particular day, the teacher and the coach decided to co-teach so that the lesson they were facilitating could be tweaked in real time. At one point in the lesson, the classroom teacher asked a question to the whole class. It was met with silence. It appeared no one had any ideas. Just as he was about to give the class more information, Amy offered the students a chance to turn to a neighbor and discuss the question that was posed. They immediately started talking to one another—it turned out they did have things to say! The turn-and-talk strategy allowed both the teacher and Amy to listen in to students’ chats, and then ask specific individuals to share out to the whole class when they gathered together again a minute later. When Amy and her colleague debriefed, they talked about how silence is often a trigger for teachers to jump in and talk, but that it’s possible to train ourselves to use silence as a cue to us to invite students to talk to each other first. Increasing the number of active voices in the room allows teachers to hear various ways students are thinking, and opens up the opportunity to connect different problem-solving approaches. The teacher in this scenario knew all about turn-and-talk, but it was the experience of working with a coach that enabled him to learn a particular way to use it.
In his article, Gawande noted that the person he asked to coach him possessed different expertise than his own but was a knowledgeable practitioner, a good observer, and could ask good questions. A coach with related, but not exact, experience can force us to be particularly reflective for the very reason that they don’t “have the answers” to improve practice. Whatever the lesson, a good observer from a different discipline or grade level could use the neurodevelopmental framework as a tool as they observe how classroom practices affect students with a range of strengths and challenges. As we move through a day, making use of our regular, often automatic teaching practices, a coach could notice the demands we put on students’ language, memory, motor, attention, higher order thinking, sequencing, spatial, and psychosocial skills. They could notice how different students respond to our own behaviors and dispositions. There is some evidence that when teachers rather than administrators lead evaluations of their teacher colleagues, those being observed report positive feelings of motivation, satisfaction, and changes to practice. While coaching is categorically not evaluative, I speculate that peer coaching could have the same positive effect.
Think for a minute: What do you want to improve in your practice? What would make it safe for you to have someone watch you closely and ask thoughtful questions about your practice? What kind of training would you like in order to become a peer coach? What could you do to move towards this type of positive, accountable professional growth?
Imagine for a moment: a school system in which every teacher has a critical friend—someone in the role of a dedicated school coach or a peer coach—who can help them on a regular basis to push their skills and understanding to the next level (because there always is a next level); a working environment in which every teacher feels accountable to improve, and safe to learn and grow; school calendars and schedules with built-in time and resources for this important work.
Ask yourself this: What if we saw ourselves as professionals in a field whose work is so essential that we need and deserve to have coaches in order to support and deepen every child’s learning? Can you imagine?
Gawande, A. (2011, September 26). Personal best. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/10/03/personal-best
Superville, D. R., (2023, February 27). Principals or peers: Who should evaluate teachers? Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/principals-or-peers-who-should-evaluate-teachers/2023/02?utm
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.