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John Thompson: Coaching is Good for Doctors and Teachers Both

Guest post by John Thompson.

Atul Gawande says that surgery is not like teaching where your best work is behind you by the age of thirty. Just kidding! In fact, Gawande's New Yorker article, "Personal Best" explains the value of programs for coaching teachers in order to show its potential in transforming doctors' practice.

In medicine, as in education, the temptation is to look for transformative changes rather than teaching professionals to be more effective. The most famous example was the discovery that simple checklists and reminding doctors to wash their hands were able to improve health as much as sophisticated technological systems. But Gawande also explains that "coaching" is just a fancy term for "teaching" and its most effective technique is "just conversation." Wouldn't it be ironic if the best way to improve teaching was through teaching, talking, and listening?

Gawande writes, "The concept of a coach is slippery. Coaches are not teachers, but they teach. They're not your boss --in professional tennis, golf, and skating, the athlete hires and fires the coach-- but they can be bossy. They don't even have to be good at the sport. ... Mainly, they observe, they judge, and they guide."

Gawande describes how a tennis coach provided another set of eyes that improved his footwork, thus improving the best part of his game. Also, Gawande's surgery coach saw that his elbow was out of place, indicating that other aspects of the team process of performing operations was out of kilter. He listened to musical coaches who proclaimed the benefits of "outside ears." Gawande also compared professional coaching to editing. The best coaches and editors build confidence.

In a man bites dog twist, Gawande describes the coaching of teachers as a model for improving medicine. He reviews evidence that teachers only use ten per cent of the information they gain in professional development workshops. "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."

Even better, coaches learn from the professionals who they teach. Gawande describes an excellent teaching performance. The math teacher was urged to help her students verbalize concepts better. None of the observers knew how to do that,however, so they brainstormed for solutions.

And better still, coaching can be an antidote to teacher "burnout." This excellent teacher had being feeling isolated, and that had increased her stress. The shared experience of learning from each other reenergized that teacher.

Gawande concludes that "coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance." And with new tools like videotaping and value-added technologies, the coaching of teaching could become a transformational change.

Coaching cultivates, "'deliberate practice'--sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires." It enables professionals to work at what they're not good at. But this means that highly-effective professionals must expose themselves to scrutiny and fault-finding. In fact, Gawande describes his feelings about a coaching session where he made a surgical error.

Consequently, there are some non-negotiables for effectively coaching professionals. Firstly, coaches must understand why it will always be difficult for experienced professionals to be open about their mistakes and weaknesses. Consequently, coaches must let the teachers choose the direction of the coaching, and listen more than talk.

Above all, coaches owe their allegiance to the professional they are helping. As usually is the case in sports, there must be a firewall (my word, not Gawande's) between the teaching coach and the accountability regime. Personally, I always taught with my door open, and I would have loved a collaborative relationship with a teacher coach. On the other hand, I would have never opened up to an evaluation system such as Michelle Rhee's IMPACT.

I would welcome the opportunity to share videotapes of my lessons with peers, as in the case of National Board Certification, but a video camera solely in the hands of management is just "Big Brother." I have always loved data, and would welcome value-added tools for assessing my effectiveness, if those statistics were interpreted by a peer review committee, but teachers owe it to the profession to "monkey wrench" those models if they are just in the hands of the central office.

But Gawande's article was hopeful, and we also must be. Combine new tools with a coach who works with teachers to help students, and there is no telling what could be accomplished.

What do you think? Would you welcome a teaching coach? Would your colleagues? Does there need to be a clear distinction between coaching and high-stakes evaluations?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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