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Ending The Isolation

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While I delighted in O'Brien's instant success with my students, I could also feel myself getting angry. How could it have taken me so long to learn such a basic thing about teaching drama? For 20 years, I had plodded on, having them read the plays at home, listen to recorded performances in class, and analyze the speeches in detail.

Of course, I have to accept the responsibility for not even knowing that I needed help. I thought that the bored kids were at fault, not me. But I also blame our education system for cutting me off from other teachers who might have given me the assistance and advice I needed long ago.

I've taught more than 20,000 classes in my career, yet until recently the only adults who came into my classroom were administrators sent to "evaluate'' me. Once or twice a year, they would sit in the back of the room and--depending on the evaluation system currently in vogue--would either mark off what I did on a check list or write a long narrative describing everything that went on. Sometime later--it could be months--they would discuss the evaluation with me, and I would sign off on it.

I can't remember one new thing that I have learned from those evaluations. In fact, I have begun to feel sorry for the administrators who have to do them. They are merely following orders from the bureaucrats above them who are desperate to give the public an impression that teachers are being held accountable. As even administrators will admit, the evaluations seldom get rid of incompetents. But even worse, they don't help good teachers improve.

Twenty years ago, I saw firsthand how different things are in other professions. Unable to find a teaching job, I worked for a year as a salesman for the Xerox Corporation. At Xerox, you learned by going out in the field with the company's top salesmen. You watched them sell, and then they watched you. There was constant feedback. Even your smallest successes were celebrated by everyone in the office. When corporate profits are at stake, top companies go to great lengths to improve the performance and morale of employees. When the education of the next generation is at stake, most school systems barely muddle through.

Fortunately, some school systems are finally beginning to do more. Last year, our new central office administration took a giant leap toward raising the morale and performance level of our teachers. It hired a consultant, Steve Barkley, to train teachers in peer coaching. So far, some 70 teachers of every description and grade level, myself included, have taken the training. Every participant I have talked with, even the most cynical, raves about it.

The major premise of peer coaching is the need to end isolation so that teachers can help each other improve. Participants often work in pairs, so that this week's coach is next week's teacher, and vice versa. The goal is for the coach to learn and grow from the process just as much as the teacher being coached. This cuts out the paternalism or condescension that is so hard to avoid during administrative evaluations or those conducted by mentors, where the administrator or mentor is perceived as the expert.

One of the main goals of peer coaching is to get us "to teach consciously.'' By having a coach in the classroom identify and give feedback on practices that are working, we become conscious of those practices and can re-use and enhance them.

Through coaching each other, teachers also "gain options.'' According to Barkley, "Too many state departments of education are writing scripts that say, 'If you do the following, kids will learn.' But if you follow the script and the kids don't learn, the kids are at risk. If, instead of a script, you have 10 other options to teach the lesson, you lower the risk to the students.'' When Peggy O'Brien came to my class, I gained an invaluable option just by being in the room while she was teaching.

Recently, there has been talk among educators that administrators shouldn't waste their time evaluating good teachers, but should concentrate on those who need help. Yet we never outgrow the need for coaching. This can be a hard lesson for teachers to learn. While it is commonplace to see top athletes such as Greg Louganis constantly consulting with coaches during and after performances, most teachers, myself included, feel that asking for help is a sign of weakness, something that will be "written up'' and tucked away in our mysterious personnel folders. In fact, many of us are so used to working behind closed doors with our students that having other adults in our classrooms for any purpose make us nervous. But we need to change.

A 1983 study by the Public Agenda Foundation identified respect and recognition for a job well done as key sources of motivation and job satisfaction. By being in each other's presence as part of the coaching process, we can celebrate our successes together and start giving each other that crucial respect and recognition. If Xerox salesmen can do it, why can't teachers?.

Patrick Welsh has been teaching English at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., for the past 20 years. He is the author of Tales Out of School.

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