Improving Our Practice: A Case For Coaching (Part 1)

A few months ago I was reading Steven Reinhart’s article, Never Say Anything a Kid Can Say (which I quoted multiple times in the series on classroom discussions), when I was particularly struck by these two sentences:

Making a commitment to change 10 percent of my teaching each year, I began to collect and use materials and ideas gathered from supplements, workshops, professional journals, and university classes. Each year, my goal was simply to teach a single topic in a better way than I had the year before.

Reinhart goes on to detail the ways in which he shifted his classroom to a more inquiry based, discussion-driven style of learning and the impact it had on student engagement and achievement. But aside from all the stats and tips, what struck me about Reinhart’s article was his attitude: his commitment to be a life-long learner, to continually improve his practice, to embrace new pedagogy and stay current on research.

With all the current mandated changes in standards, assessments, teachers’ evaluations, etc., it’s so easy as a teacher to swing the opposite direction and respond to change with arms crossed. To think about actually seeking out more change on top of all that can seem like lunacy. Why would anyone do that? But that’s the very reason I found Reinhart’s words so refreshing—they epitomize the growth mindset.

A fixed mindset says “Acknowledging that I need to make changes or improve my practice infers that my practice is currently weak and in need of improvement,Why would I want to give that impression?” A growth mindset says “Even if I feel like I’m at the top of my game, I don’t want to plateau or stop getting better. There are always ways to improve. Why wouldn’t I seek them?”

Well, part of the reason we don’t all echo Reinhart’s commitment is that it’s challenging. By his own admission, “Making changes in instruction proved difficult because I had to learn to teach in ways that I had never observed or experienced, challenging many of the old teaching paradigms.” Models and feedback are essential to success. One of our mantras here at Inquiry By Design is that people don’t get smarter in isolation. Few people can enhance or even sustain performance at a high level on their own. That’s why even Olympic athletes have a coach—they never grow beyond the need for guidance and feedback.

In his recent New Yorker article Personal Best, surgeon and author Atul Guwande describes his decision to pursue coaching in his medical practice. His rates of complications after surgery had stopped dropping. They weren’t rising; they just stopped dropping. He has a moment of realization after a tennis match with a young pro who couldn’t resist giving him a few tips.

‘You know, he said, you could get more power from your serve.’ I was dubious. My serve had always been the best part of my game. But I listened. . . . With a few minutes of tinkering, he’d added at least ten miles an hour to my serve. I was serving harder than I ever had in my life.

Not long afterward, I watched Rafael Nadal play a tournament match on the Tennis Channel. The camera flashed to his coach, and the obvious struck me as interesting: even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be. But doctors don’t. I’d paid to have a kid just out of college look at my serve. So why did I find it inconceivable to pay someone to come into my operating room and coach me on my surgical technique?

As more and more districts across the country are hiring instructional coaches, we teachers have the good fortune to benefit from their services and skills free of charge. So, it surprises me to hear from coaches in various districts across the country that they have to work extremely hard to gain welcome into classrooms. Many teachers report that they don’t feel the need for a coach, don’t like being observed, fear that seeking coaching makes them appear incompetent, or worry that coaches are taking evaluations back to administrators. And yet research supports coaching as the most effective method of successfully adopting change and improving practice. The foundational question is really, do we want to join Steven Reinhart in a commitment to improve our practice?

In our upcoming posts read about why coached teachers are more effective and their students more successful, the qualities of a good coach, how to get the most out of your coaching experience and a few testimonials from teachers & coaches.


Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 1)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 2)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 3)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 4)
Improving Our Practice: A Case for Coaching (Part 5)