Professional Development

Doctor’s Orders: Fund Teacher-Coaching Programs

By Liana Loewus — September 28, 2011 1 min read
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Atul Gawande, the surgeon-writer referenced in Robert Ruth’s recent first-person piece about using checklists for reading instruction, has written another gripping New Yorker article with provocative insights applicable to both health care and education. This one is about coaching.

Gawande describes the experience of being athletically humbled during an unexpected lesson with a young tennis coach. “With a few minutes of tinkering, he’d added at least ten miles an hour to my serve,” he writes. That got him thinking: Why is it that elite athletes and concert singers use coaches throughout their careers to improve their performance, but doctors and many other professionals do not? Why is admitting imperfection OK for some experts but not others?

Significantly, Gawande looks to teacher-coaching programs, which have increased in popularity in recent years, to see how “regular professionals” can use coaching.

Plenty of educators are still apprehensive about the idea of coaching, he notes:

Researchers from the University of Virginia found that many teachers see no need for coaching. Others hate the idea of being observed in the classroom, or fear that using a coach makes them look incompetent, or are convinced, despite assurances, that the coaches are reporting their evaluations to the principal. And some are skeptical that the school's particular coaches would be of any use.

However, another study found that teachers brought new skills into the classroom 10 percent of the time after attending workshops, but 90 percent of the time after being coached. “A spate of small randomized trials confirmed the effect,” Gawande writes. “Coached teachers were more effective, and their students did better on tests.”

The surgeon recounts observing a coaching session in a Virginia school district with an already impressive teacher looking to hone her skills. The teacher claims coaching has decreased her stress levels and saved her from burnout. Before getting a coach, she said, “I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.” (Incidentally, teacher Larry Ferlazzo has posted an interview on coaching with the superintendent of the district mentioned.)

Gawande describes adopting a surgical coach of his own and seeing his complication rates go down. He teases out that the success of coaching depends on selecting coaches with good interpersonal skills, the “allegiance of coaches ... to the people they work with,” and the acknowledgement that even experts have room to improve. When those elements come together, coaching “may well be the most effective intervention designed for human performance,” according to Gawande.

For that reason, coaching in schools, he argues, should be seen as integral rather than an amenity to get slashed with the school budget. He writes:

There was a moment in sports when employing a coach was unimaginable—and then came a time when not doing so was unimaginable. We care about results in sports, and if we care half as much about results in schools and in hospitals we may reach the same conclusion.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.