Improving Our Practice: A Case For Coaching (Part 5)

For the final post in our Case for Coaching series, I will summarize one short section of The New Yorker article that inspired the series: Personal Best, by surgeon and author Atul Gawande. Gawande speaks with Jim Knight, of the Kansas Coaching Project. Knight started the Kansas Coaching Project in the belief that the quality of teaching is the number one factor for student success and that the best way to improve teaching is through coaching.

Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice”—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches—showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.

However, because coaching is a relatively new approach to educational reform there isn’t a great deal of data or large-scale research to support Knight’s supposition. One thing we do know is that while coaching seems to have a more significant and lasting impact on pedagogy than other professional development, not all coaching is effective. Gawande asked Jim Knight what makes for effective coaching, and Knight invited Gawande to witness the process firsthand.

In 2009, the Albemarle County public schools created a coaching program based on Knight’s methods. Like many coaching programs, this one focused on new teachers. All first and second year teachers were required to accept a coach, but coaching was available to any teacher who wanted it. Coaches were selected from teachers in the system that had studied Knights methods and had good people skills, but they were not required to have advanced expertise in a certain content area.

Knight, Gawande, and two coaches observed eighth-grade teacher, Jennie Critzer’s, first-period algebra class. After observing the lesson Gawande admitted to the coaches that he couldn’t imagine how Critzer could have improved the lesson in any way. It had seemed flawless to him.

They said that every teacher has something to work on. It could involve student behavior, or class preparation, or time management, or any number of other things. The coaches let the teachers choose the direction for coaching. They usually know better than anyone what their difficulties are.

Critzer had asked her coaches to help her focus on improving student engagement and to make sure students mastered material for the state tests. During the observation the coaches were observing for specifics around these areas and that focus allowed them to see things that a casual observer like Gawande missed. The coaches were tracking items that had to do primarily with the students, rather than focusing only on what the teacher was doing:

• How many students were engaged in the material.
• Whether students interacted respectfully.
• Whether students engaged in high-level conversations.
• Whether students understood how they were progressing, or failing to progress.

Of the twenty students in the classroom, the coaches noticed that four of them seemed lost during the lesson. The coaches suggested Critzer pay close attention to how she used cooperative learning. Certain student pairs struggled with having a “math conversation.” One boy-girl pair in particular had been unable to talk at all. This kind of data is virtually impossible for a teacher to collect on her own as she is in the process of instructing an entire class of students.

When Critzer and the coaches were able to sit down together over lunch to debrief the observation, the coaches started with, “What worked?” Critzer pinpointed several successes and then voiced the next question herself: “So what didn’t go well?”

She noticed one girl who “clearly wasn’t getting it.” But at the time she hadn’t been sure what to do.

“How could you help her?” Hobson asked.

She thought for a moment. “I would need to break the concept down for her more,” she said. “I’ll bring her in during the fifth block.”

“What else did you notice?”

“My second class has thirty kids but was more forthcoming. It was actually easier to teach than the first class. This group is less verbal.” Her answer gave the coaches the opening they wanted. They mentioned the trouble students had with their math conversations, and the girl-boy pair who didn’t talk at all. “How could you help them be more verbal?”

Critzer was stumped. Everyone was. The table fell silent. Then Harding had an idea. “How about putting key math words on the board for them to use—like ‘factoring,’ ‘perfect square,’ ‘radical’?” she said. “They could even record the math words they used in their discussion.” Critzer liked the suggestion. It was something to try.

Good coaches know how to break down performance into its critical individual components.

As Critzer and the coaches worked for the next half hour, brainstorming and creating next steps for instruction, Gawande observed that they looked like three colleagues on a lunch break—laughing, conversing easily, occasionally inserting personal small talk into the conversation. Knight explained that this was part of what made these two coaches so effective.

Good coaches, he said, speak with credibility, make a personal connection, and focus little on themselves. Hobson and Harding “listened more than they talked,” Knight said. “They were one hundred per cent present in the conversation.” They also parcelled out their observations carefully. “It’s not a normal way of communicating—watching what your words are doing,” he said. They had discomfiting information to convey, and they did it directly but respectfully.

Gawande later asked Critzer if she liked coaching.

“I do,” she said. “It works with my personality. I’m very self-critical. So I grabbed a coach from the beginning…So many things have to come together. I’d exhausted everything I knew to improve.”

She even mentioned that before coaching she had begun to burn out.

“I felt really isolated, too,” she said. Coaching had changed that. “My stress level is a lot less now.” That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. “The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is,” she said.


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)